By John Pacenti
The undercurrent in the Delray Beach City Commission races is electric, abuzz with whether to put a muzzle — or at least a leash — on future development.
In that sense, the March 14 election is very much about whether to turn back to the “old guard” that paved the way for much of the current development and to curtail development-critic Mayor Shelly Petrolia’s power.
Businessman Rob Long, 38, is trying to unseat first-term Commissioner Juli Casale, 54, for the District 2 seat. Casale, an ally of Petrolia, has been skeptical of new developments coming before the commission.
Community activist and former schoolteacher Angela Burns, 57, is taking on former Commissioner Angie Gray, 57, for the District 4 seat being vacated by term-limited Commissioner Shirley Johnson.
Petrolia, Casale and Johnson sometimes formed a female triad on a commission long dominated by men, coming together on 3-2 votes to oust the former Old School Square operators, to give commissioners a substantial pay raise and to fire George Gretsas as city manager.
With Casale’s and Johnson’s seats in the election mix, the outcome could shift the balance of power on the commission.
Long and Burns have teamed up, echoing each other on the issues — particularly that Team Petrolia has created discord, incivility and division.
“I think there’s a toxic culture on our commission right now,” Long said at a Feb. 13 candidate forum at Mt. Olive Baptist Church sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
“Our City Hall is not stable,” Burns said at a Feb. 6 forum at the Opal Grand Resort sponsored by the Beach Property Owners Association.
Long and Burns share the same political consultant — Cornerstone Solutions — and at one event, at the Abbey Delray South senior community, the same person answered questions for them when they could not attend.
If elected, both said they would try to return the running of Old School Square back to the nonprofit that had been in charge before the commission ended the lease because of financial concerns. The commission in February reached agreement with the Downtown Development Authority for it to take over management of the historic campus.
Long and Burns also want to make the Community Redevelopment Agency independent from the commission again. The commission took over the CRA in 2018 because critics said it was pouring money into non-blighted areas and ignoring everything west of Swinton Avenue.
They are backed by developers and the city’s old guard.
Long and Burns, in their campaign disclosures, show donations from Bill Branning, owner of BSA Construction; Chuck Halberg, owner of Stuart & Shelby Development; William Walsh, owner of Ocean Properties; and Scott Porten of the real estate development firm Porten Companies.
The law firm of land-use attorney Bonnie Miskel also donated to Long and Burns, as have a number of high-profile members of the Friends of Delray who are incensed about the changes at Old School Square.
Long certainly has the old guard in his corner. Former mayors Jeff Perlman, Jay Alperin, Tom Lynch, Rita Ellis and David Schmidt have endorsed him. None of them has served in more than a decade.
Perlman is vice president of CDS International Holdings, which was involved in the Atlantic Crossing and Parks of Delray projects.
While their campaigns may have teamed up at times, Burns told The Coastal Star she is her own candidate and not in lockstep with Long.
“The notion that my opponents have made that my views are not my own is a personal attack that I am too ignorant to have my own opinions,” she said. “Anyone who knows me, knows I always speak up and have always worked to better my community.”
Opponents also connected
Casale and Gray appear to have informally teamed up as well, with supporters producing literature touting both candidates. Their signs are coupled along Congress Avenue.
A real estate agent, Gray says her priorities are addressing over-development, workforce and essential housing, traffic, parking and aging infrastructure.
Burns has brought up the fact that Gray in 2015 was acquitted on misdemeanor ethics charges regarding failure to disclose a conflict of interest.
Endorsers and developers
While Long and Gray listed their endorsements at both candidate forums, Casale told the audience at the BPOA town hall that she doesn’t seek endorsements because those special interests always want something in return.
“I want to serve the residents and I want to be beholden to the residents,” she said.
Casale squeaked to victory in 2020 by a 120-vote margin, propelled by her successful opposition to a 102-unit development in her Sabal Lakes neighborhood.
She said voters need to look at development projects that have come before her on the commission and before Long on the Planning & Zoning Board.
Long served on the P&Z Board from 2018 to 2022. His business — Door 2 Door Strategies — does grassroots outreach for politicians and developers.
Casale said project developers look to go beyond what is permitted and she said Long consistently recommended giving them the green light.
“I certainly am not against development. I am certainly against out-of-control over-development and I am definitely for protecting our quality of life,” she said.
Casale has ruffled feathers delving into the city’s finances. At the BPOA forum, she said she found as much as $2.5 million misallocated to the fire department that could go to expand the Freebie electric car service or some other need.
Criticisms and allegations
Long hasn’t been shy about attacking city leadership.
He tangled with Petrolia, Casale and Johnson when he publicly criticized the city’s drinking water quality, leading Petrolia at the time to call unsuccessfully for his removal from the P&Z Board. The current commission has approved a $130 million water treatment plant.
“In the last three years that my opponent has been serving as commissioner, has traffic gotten better, has parking downtown gotten easier, or utility prices gone down?” Long asked at the Mt. Olive forum.
“Do you have confidence in the safety of our drinking water? Is the city involved in less lawsuits?”
Both the Old School Square and the Gretsas decisions have resulted in litigation.
Speaking of litigation, Long on Feb. 9 filed a defamation lawsuit against Chris Davey, who is chairman of the P&Z Board and an ally of Petrolia and Casale.
Long claimed in the complaint that Davey falsely portrayed him as “a corrupt public official,” “burdened by debt” and “committing financial crimes.”
Some of the same allegations surfaced in an editorial by the South Florida Sun Sentinel titled, “The long, hidden reach of developers in Delray Beach.”
The newspaper said land-use attorney Miskel referred clients to Long’s business while she was appearing before the P&Z Board representing a development project. Long said he followed the advice of an assistant city attorney when the Aura Delray Beach project came before the board.
“The city attorney has said I did the right thing by following this process,” Long said when asked.
Long told The Coastal Star that if elected he would “limit my clients to ensure I have no voting conflicts. If there’s ever a question about it, I will request and follow the advice of the City Attorney’s Office.”
Casale and Davey, though, say Long voted on other Miskel projects as well: Parks of Delray, the Central Business District Railroad, Delray Central House and Delray Swan.
Cornerstone, speaking for Long, said there were no conflicts of interest on those projects.
Miskel told The Coastal Star she may have referred two clients to Long. “You know, he did what he was supposed to do as a board member — he disclosed,” she said.
Experience vs. the outsider
In District 4, Gray is the one boasting of government experience. She served on the City Commission for five years and is currently one of only two non-commissioners on the Community Redevelopment Agency’s governing board.
Gray also sits on the Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority’s Small Business Advisory Committee and had been a member of the county’s Health Care District Board when she was a city commissioner.
She stressed at the forums her “institutional knowledge” and she defended the CRA at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church forum.
Her opponent says the CRA is not looking out for the interests of residents. “The CRA is doing just what CRAs do — and that is to gentrify,” Burns said.
Gray, though, says she is proud that the CRA has started pumping money into the western Delray Beach communities since the agency has been put under the commission. She pointed out that Burns got a $66,000 CRA grant for her business, a daiquiri bar, that went belly-up.
“We helped your business,” Gray told her opponent. “If you look around in our community, a lot of things have been done in the last five years.”
Burns draws a contrast to Gray, painting herself as the only true outsider. When she wasn’t agreeing with Long, Burns hammered on the lack of maintenance in Delray Beach.
“I’m the only candidate running in this race who is not a politician. I’m an educator, and I am a communicator,” she said at the Mt. Olive forum.
Delray Beach candidates on the issues
The following candidate excerpts are from either a forum sponsored by the Beach Property Owners Association (BPOA) or by the League of Women Voters (LWV).
On workforce housing (LWV):
Juli Casale: “The biggest issue we have is the developers are providing what they’re calling workforce housing, but they’re providing it at a very high rate. And it’s not affordable to the people in our city who need housing. So we are making a trade-off with these developers and getting nothing in return.”
Rob Long: “I’ll continue to incentivize developers to build affordable housing units, putting the burden on them, not on taxpayers.”
Angela Burns: “I would look at increasing the budget from the CRA for refurbishing homes — repair the homes that we have. We have a lot of legacy homes in Delray.”
Angie Gray: “I will just continue to do what we’re doing now. I mean, the CRA has been working very successfully.”
On climate change and sea wall heights (BPOA):
Casale: “We had talked about doing incentive programs for the residents, to encourage them on private property to want to do it for themselves. Most people do because their property is getting flooded.”
Long: “This isn’t just a Delray Beach issue. This is a county issue. This is a South Florida issue. This is a coastal issue.”
Burns: “I do believe that we need to have a policy in place that will address the public and private requirements of sea walls, a policy that takes care of the barrier island all together.”
Gray: “The first thing that we do is from Day One, I will get together with our city manager to create a task force.”
On preserving and enhancing public facilities (BPOA):
Casale: “The beach is utilized in a number of different ways and lately we’re even finding people are sleeping out there. … We are working on that in the most compassionate way.”
Long: “Parks and Rec got some of their budget cut and they were handed Old School Square last year. They’re spread so thin. … So, I’ll work toward taking items off their plate.”
Burns: “Delray Beach is very good at building things but has not been very good at maintaining things.”
Gray: “I will make sure that we put in a maintenance program. That is one of my priorities.”