What has been happening at City Hall is not normal.
In fact, it’s extraordinary and if you are a homeowner, business owner or even just a casual fan of Delray Beach you should be alarmed.
We’ve been beating this drum for a while now because the dysfunction we have witnessed is not new.
City Hall is unstable.
We are hoping that the selection of George Gretsas as City Manager will stop the bleeding and begin the important task of rebuilding the team at City Hall.
We have experienced a parade of city managers and department heads come and go—some quietly, some as a result of cryptic investigations and some in dramatic fashion after suffering public humiliation.
Several key departments are without leadership including critical areas such as finance, public works, utilities and development services—all core functions.
So Mr. Gretsas has his work cut out for him. We’ve called around and heard some great things. He’s known as doer—a hands on manager. He will need to be because he’s facing a challenging environment.
Some folks around town are beginning to compare our current era with 1980s Delray.
That’s not something to be proud of.
The 1980s was not the best decade in Delray Beach. It was marked by instability at City Hall and political infighting.
Today, we have instability that makes the 80s look tame and while the commission is often polite to each other publicly— behind the scenes the political division is vicious and counterproductive.
Like the 80s, the infighting is not over policy. There are no great Lincoln vs. Douglas debates being waged over the future of Delray Beach.
Instead, the division is driven mostly by personality conflicts and who holds power; to do what we don’t know because we have seen no real visioning involving the community for close to 20 years.
We have long argued that instability is wasteful, inefficient and exhausting.
That was true in the 80s and it is true now.
Last month, our newspaper’s front page reported on the hiring of a new city manager after a long search that yielded a pedestrian field of applicants because we have become known as the place where managers come to get chewed up and spit out. Michael Cernech, the commission’s choice, didn’t even start the job before walking away from the opportunity after failing to come to terms with the city.
While the city’s press release attempted to spray perfume on the reasons why Cernech walked, others— including several members of the commission—blamed the mayor for the breakdown.
The failure to land Cernech laid bare the divisions on the commission and the lack of trust a few commissioners have in Mayor Shelly Petrolia. In short, they believe she torpedoed the deal.
The public fight over why the negotiations fell apart was ugly and spilled over onto social media. The Mayor’s supporters said she saved the city from a greedy applicant looking for a rich compensation package.
We don’t buy that argument in large part because the city’s political and organizational dysfunction is driving up the price.
Still, we’re hopeful that Mr. Gretsas will be able to right the ship.
But wishing him well is not sufficient. We need to learn why and how we got to this place. A place where executive recruiters were turning down the city’s business because they felt the city’s political dysfunction would be a turn off to candidates.
We’re here because years of poor leadership, nasty politics, a lack of vision and infighting.
Some of this is reminiscent of the 80s, but what’s different is that in the 80s, big and important things managed to get done including the establishment of the first historic districts, the creation of the CRA, Visions 2000, the Sharing for Excellence blueprint for schools, Old School Square and the Decade of Excellence bond issue.
When we look back on those days, a lot of those accomplishments were driven by civic visionaries—the developers of Andover led Sharing for Excellence, Frances Bourque spearheaded Old School Square and a cavalcade of citizens drove Visions 2000 and the passage of the Decade of Excellence Bond.
Sadly, we are not seeing that level of involvement today and it’s hurting us. Here’s a few reasons why.
Volunteers have been dismissed, denigrated and disrespected. As a result, many valuable citizens have voted with their feet and pulled back from civic involvement.
In recent years:
- The city started a Congress Avenue Task Force only to shelve the recommendations of volunteers who worked for more than a year on a plan.
- Former Mayor Cary Glickstein tried to sideline the Beach Property Association when it came time to move forward with the Beach Area Master Plan, a plan the BPOA raised funds for only to be told that their involvement was self-serving and that the consultant working on the plan should not listen to an organization that has been a force for good in Delray for decades.
- The new commission took over the volunteer board of the CRA although nobody ran on that issue.
- The past mayor and others on the commission at the time criticized the volunteer library board, Old School Square board and regularly questioned the importance and relevance of the Chamber of Commerce, a 90-year-old organization.
- Community events were driven to other cities hurting the bottom lines of the chamber and other non-profits who relied on some of the events for grassroots fundraising.
When citizens complained, they were dismissed, insulted, denigrated from the dais and by surrogates on social media.
- The city got rid of its traditional town hall meeting, replacing it with a mayor’s lecture series which brought in top minds for lectures on planning, design and parking. Sadly, the advice was not taken. It’s as if these experts were brought in to show us what we can’t have in Delray. That’s a sad departure for a city that once was heralded for its innovation and planning.
This kind of behavior has had a chilling effect on public participation, civic pride and the willingness of community leaders to step up and run for public office. Sadly, the hangover lingers.
Voting rates in municipal elections are way down despite a ramp up in spending by candidates and PACs, some of which never disclose their donors dinging public confidence among those few who do pay attention and vote.
We have also argued that despite efforts such as “Always Delray” that the city seems visionless and rudderless too. While we laud the efforts of those involved in “Always Delray” we would wager that few know about the Comprehensive Planning effort and fewer still participated. This is in stark contrast to prior city visioning efforts which often had standing room only crowds.
We have to go back to the formula that rescued Delray from some of the worst aspects of the 80s, a decade in which the city suffered from turnover, crime, the crack epidemic, and 40 percent vacancies downtown, zero nightlife, virtually no culture and a lack of investment in our most blighted neighborhoods.
Like most challenges, the solutions can be found in leadership. This commission has four new members and a former commissioner who is still new to being a mayor.
They inherited a mess created by tragically poor leadership that missed the lessons of the city’s success formula: civic engagement, respect for staff and a willingness to let them do their jobs free of micromanagement, the importance of having a citizen driven vision, respect for the codes and city charter, transparency and a willingness to see both sides of an issue and where possible seek compromise and consensus.
Instead, Delray’s proud past—which includes All America City Awards, real redevelopment success stories, investment by the CRA in neighborhoods, successful partnerships to improve local schools, a vibrant downtown and a willingness to face the tough issues head on—has been dismissed, denigrated and disrespected by people who should have known better and their surrogates on social media who use the Internet to divide not build community.
But there is hope in the current crop of elected officials.
We know all five well and believe that they want to see Delray Beach succeed. But they need to find a way to work better together and more effectively. Being polite publicly, but attacking each other behind the scenes or through surrogates isn’t producing results, it’s producing more dysfunction.
Commissioner Bill Bathurst is a native of Delray whose family has deep roots in this community. He loves Delray Beach. We know him to be a kind and sensitive person. He understands the value of building a strong team.
Commissioner Adam Frankel ran on a platform of being kinder to staff and restoring stability.
Ryan Boylston is a new commissioner who also wants to restore stability and vision to a city he deeply cares about.
Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson is a lifelong resident who wants to see Delray Beach work for everyone. She abhors bullies and wants to create opportunities.
Which leaves us with Mayor Petrolia.
Mayor Shelly Petrolia has a unique opportunity to work with four committed commissioners and lead the city back to a place of vision and stability.
A mayor’s job is to build a team, work with and not undermine her fellow commissioners and insist on civility and professionalism. In other words, be a leader. And create an environment in which a city manager and staff can succeed.
Sometimes that does mean being on the wrong side of a 4-1 vote or making an unpopular decision. It also means being able to let those votes go and move on. Sometimes it means standing on principle and sometimes it means forging a compromise.
The mayor’s success will be judged on how or whether she is able to rebuild City Hall and the civic mood in town. That starts with getting the right CEO. Hopefully, Gretsas is that CEO.
Still, we will not attract or retain talent if we don’t change what has become a toxic culture marked by factions, mistrust and divisions. It’s a two-fold job: we need a good culture at City Hall and we need to rebuild our civic fabric in the community at large because it’s frayed and it has been for a long time now.
We believe that the commission owns culture. And we believe that culture is essential to success.
Culture is not something you put on a memo and dictate to the organization or community that this will be our culture. Culture is ultimately what’s borne out of the values of the community. If we value civility, trust, accountability, vision, kindness and compassion we will get those values. But that means calling out those who threaten those values or who stand in the way. There’s simply no room for bullies.
We know you’ve heard this before. It’s easy to become skeptical, because you’ve also known leaders who talk a good game but who don’t follow through. Yet, some things are clichés because they’re the truth.
You need to build the culture.
When you separate the great leaders from everyone else, a key difference is whether they truly believe in building a great culture. We are suffering from instability because we lack it.
We are too quick to accuse volunteers of self-interest, too quick to label those who wish to invest here as corrupt or greedy and too tolerant of bullies who chase good folks away from the civic square.
It’s time to put an end to the nonsense before we squander what has been achieved, endanger the present and kill all hopes of a bright future.
We need to give the new City Manager a fair chance. We think the elements are there for that to happen. And if it does we will see a happier, more efficient and more successful Delray Beach.