By Tao Woolfe
Chief James Stables has stepped away from the Fire Department and into the fire as Boynton Beach’s interim city manager.
His appointment comes at a tumultuous time for the city, which is struggling with discontent within its Black community and stalled efforts to bring its downtown to life.
Stables, Boynton’s fire chief for a little more than a year, was awarded the city’s top job on April 25 at a special meeting of the City Commission.
The commission’s unanimous vote on Stables came days after it voted 4-1 to fire longtime City Manager Lori LaVerriere during an emotional public meeting.
It remains unclear exactly why LaVerriere was fired after 10 years on the job, but she had been criticized lately for a lack of diplomacy and the city’s failure to protect itself on the stalled Town Square downtown development project.
For her part, LaVerriere said city managers serve with the knowledge that their jobs can end when political winds shift.
“This isn’t a shock. The world will go on. I’ll be fine,” she said.
She added, however, that the employees who served along with her should remain.
“You have an amazing, professional staff. Let them flourish and do their good work. Let them help you.” In a related development, Police Chief Michael Gregory, who had been chief since July 2018, resigned on April 22.
He said in a published statement that he was leaving to “focus on other areas,” but both he and LaVerriere had been lightning rods for anger from the Black community in the months after a 13-year-old boy was killed during a Dec. 26 high-speed police chase. The boy, Stanley Davis III, crashed his dirt bike at 85 mph on North Federal Highway with Boynton Beach Police Officer Mark Sohn in close pursuit.
Members of the youngster’s family, friends and supporters have crowded into subsequent City Commission meetings asking repeatedly for the city to fire those responsible.
Sohn was cleared of all charges in late March by a Florida Highway Patrol investigation. FHP concluded Davis was unlawfully fleeing an attempted traffic stop and going 85 mph in a 35-mph zone.
The Boynton Beach Police Department is still conducting its own investigation.
In early April, commissioners asked LaVerriere to look into whether a merger with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office would benefit the city.
LaVerriere reported back to the commission that the sheriff’s proposal was not yet completed. Stables will be expected to follow up on that report.
Many residents at the special April 25 commission meeting spoke out against a PBSO merger. They asked that the city work instead to improve the existing Police Department and root out bad officers.
Stables was chosen from among three candidates for the job. The others were David Scott, the city’s director of economic development and strategy; and Joseph DeGiulio, Boynton’s assistant police chief.
The city commissioners asked all three men how they would build back trust between the city and the Black community.
Communication is the key, all the candidates said.
Stables said his credo of listening to everyone equally is especially important now.
“We’re dealing with numbers of people impacted negatively,” Stables said. “We must be more nimble and responsive. I will be looking to see how to get out in front of things.”
The chief said his years of managerial and emergency preparedness experience made him suited for the city manager job, but added that he was honored to be considered among such a strong candidate pool.
Before taking the helm at the Boynton Beach Fire Department, Stables served as chief of fire departments in Johnson City in Tennessee, and Palm Bay and Ormond Beach in Florida. He was district chief in Brevard County from 1992 to 2000, and began his firefighting career in Wilton Manors, where he was a fire inspector and volunteer firefighter in 1985-86.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Barry University in Melbourne, and is working on his master’s in public administration — also from Barry, according to his résumé.
Stables supplied to the commission letters of support that praised his leadership, team-building, managerial and communication skills.
Stables is “an accomplished chief officer” who “continues to embody the desire to serve through strong leadership values and behaviors indicative of a selfless public servant,” wrote Gregg Lynk, former Palm Bay city manager.
Members of the Boynton Beach City Commission agreed.
The commission itself has been in flux since March, when two term-limited incumbents left their seats. Two new commissioners — Angela Cruz and Thomas Turkin — were elected in March. Another seat opened when Ty Penserga left his District 4 seat to run for mayor, a job he won.
The commission on April 19 chose Aimee Kelley, a paralegal and wife of a Boynton police captain, from among several contenders to fill the year left on the District 4 term.
In explaining why he chose Stables, Penserga cited the breadth of experience.
He added that all three men have been exemplary at their jobs and he hopes that Scott and DeGiulio will continue in their respective roles.
Woodrow Hay, who initially indicated that he would vote for Scott, ultimately joined his colleagues and voted for Stables.
“All three men could have done the job, but at the end of the day, the right decision was made,” Hay said after the meeting. “It’s important that we show a united front going forward.”
Nonetheless, Hay was the lone dissenter in the vote to fire LaVerriere. Was it loyalty?
“I am loyal as long as the person is doing the work,” he replied. “She had been doing the work, and had done a lot of good for the city.”