By Jane Smith
Delray Beach city commissioners finally fired their city manager on Nov. 20, after waiting a tumultuous five months.
The vote was 3-2, with Mayor Shelly Petrolia, Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson and Commissioner Juli Casale voting to fire George Gretsas on misconduct charges.
Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston and Commissioner Adam Frankel voted no because, they said, they had not heard anything during the hearing that warranted firing Gretsas.
At the June 24 meeting, where the vote was a 3-2 decision along the same lines, the commission first put Gretsas on notice of being fired. The elaborate process, part of Gretsas’ contract, played out during the summer and into the fall. He hired new attorneys in mid-October and the city agreed to postpone the hearing one more month.
Boylston and Frankel did not want to see Gretsas’ return to the city, because of the turmoil he had created during his five-month suspension, but voted no because they believed he deserved the $180,000-$190,000 payout stipulated in his contract if he were terminated without cause.
“We are hearing allegations, not facts,” Frankel said during the Nov. 20 hearing, which Gretsas did not attend.
Frankel has been averse to firing city managers in the past. Six years ago, during his first stint on the commission, Frankel refused to fire Louie Chapman as city manager in the spring of 2014.
The commission had just three votes to fire Chapman for buying $60,000 worth of garbage cans without City Commission approval. At the time the city required four votes — or a super majority — to terminate a manager.
Petrolia was not hesitant to get rid of Chapman. Then a city commissioner, she voted to fire Chapman. But without the super majority vote, Chapman received a nearly $73,000 taxpayer payout on his contract as part of a settlement agreement in which he resigned.
City voters later changed the charter in August 2014 to allow removal of the city manager by a simple majority vote, or 3-2.
At the Nov. 20 hearing, Frankel and Johnson said they wanted to hear from Gretsas.
He was in Montana, “dealing with the birth of a child,” said Carmen Rodriguez, his employment attorney.
Gretsas to appeal in court
Gretsas will appeal what he called a wrongful termination to the courts, and he is considering other claims as well, according to his Nov. 23 text to The Coastal Star. He did not say when a lawsuit would be filed.
“Every charge was false and the documents I provided proved that. Yet, they were ignored by three of the five commissioners,” Gretsas wrote.
At the Nov. 20 hearing, Rodriguez disputed the report made by Julia Davidyan, the city’s internal auditor. In July, the City Commission ordered Davidyan to investigate Gretsas’ actions.
“Davidyan was not charged with doing an investigation, but with bringing back a result,” Rodriguez said. “All of the resources were used to smear Mr. Gretsas.”
Robert Norton, the city’s outside labor counsel, gave an opinionated opening statement using information from Davidyan’s report. He talked about Gretsas’ hiring his “cronies” to work in Delray Beach.
Norton said Tim Edkin, an information technologies consultant Gretsas knew from his stint as Fort Lauderdale city manager, was hired to do a $64,000 report on Delray’s Information Technology department and later ran the department on an interim basis. That hiring was noted by Davidyan in her report.
Another alleged “crony” was Joshua Padgett, who was hired at $50 an hour to be a videographer. Gretsas had hired Padgett, who worked for Homestead in a similar capacity while Gretsas was manager of that city, according to Davidyan’s report. But the report stated that Gretsas did not explain why Padgett deserved such a high hourly rate or review his time sheets, as required.
Norton recounted Davidyan’s questioning Padgett about his work on weekends or longer hours during the week. Padgett told her, “When the creative process is going on you continue working.”
The third “crony” mentioned was Jason King, who also had worked for Gretsas in Homestead. Gretsas used an open Utilities Department position to hire King as the intergovernmental affairs director in Delray Beach.
King was paid about 35% more than the minimum salary and Gretsas did not provide any documentation to explain why, according to Davidyan’s report. In Delray Beach, new employees start at the base salary unless the city manager includes a memo stating why that person deserved a higher salary.
Davidyan never spoke during the hearing.
Instead, City Attorney Lynn Gelin answered questions as a witness, but did not sit on the dais providing guidance to the commissioners.
“I anticipated being called as a witness and the bar rules precluded me from doing both,” Gelin wrote in a Nov. 22 text to The Coastal Star.
Assistant City Attorney Lawanda Warren guided commissioners through the slightly longer than four-hour hearing. Of the four people who spoke during public comment, two were from Homestead. They were former Mayor Steve Shiver and Eric McDonough, publisher of the True Homestead online newsletter. Both made disparaging remarks about Gretsas, suggesting he was not always truthful.
The two others were Delray Beach residents. Retired accountant Ken MacNamee reminded the commission about his open public records requests. He had asked for the letters or emails sent to the commission from Gretsas about drinking water quality problems that Gretsas mentioned in a July 31 letter to the commission. Gretsas claimed he was a whistleblower in that letter. He said he wrote to the commission about the water quality problems and was being fired for disclosing the problems.
Attorney responds to charges
In response to Norton’s presentation at the hearing, Rodriguez questioned how Norton’s firm could do an independent investigation into the bullying charges against Gretsas that were the subject of the June 24 hearing when his firm had a 10-year relationship with the city.
The bullying charges were dropped because the terms of Gretsas’ contract called for a new investigation. Rather than cast a negative light on the city and divide the staff again by renewing the bullying investigation, Gelin said at the Aug. 24 commission meeting that commissioners should focus on the policy violations because those issues were valid.
In addition, Rodriguez stressed that Davidyan’s report did not mention the emergency resolution the city had passed in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That is why Gretsas had hired Padgett to set up a broadcast studio in the Arts Garage, a city-owned property, she said. Padgett produced daily shows on the pandemic.
Rodriguez also countered the city’s allegation that Gretsas refused to participate in Davidyan’s investigation of him.
“Tell us what you are investigating, so we can come prepared,” Rodriguez said she told Davidyan in response to her report. “We were told on four separate occasions that our ‘objection was noted.’” Rodriguez said the report had given them only a broad statement about what misconduct was being investigated.
The emergency declarations were about purchasing items such as hand sanitizers, Gelin said in response to a question from the commission. “We did not know about the hires from Homestead until they showed up at City Hall,” she said.
Everything that Gretsas did, “he could have done by following city policies,” Gelin said.
Gelin said she was consulted by Gretsas in early June when he wrote a pre-termination letter to Suzanne Fisher, then assistant city manager. Fisher was out on leave as a result of emotional distress she said was caused by bullying from Gretsas. He had referred to Fisher as a “cancer,” Gelin said.
Fisher was able to resign from the city in September with the promise of not suing the city for its handling of her employment contract.
“‘We don’t do that here,’” Gelin said she tried to warn Gretsas about not explicitly stating what the employee had done wrong. “It’s a little much, but I didn’t document it.”
That made Rodriguez say, “You didn’t document it. That’s the very thing you are accusing Gretsas of doing.”
Rodriguez also questioned why the mayor was participating in the hearing when she was biased against Gretsas.
Mayor Petrolia had received a written opinion from the state Ethics Commission that she could participate because doing so would not financially benefit her or her family. A copy of the Nov. 6 letter was included in the city’s response to a lawsuit filed Nov. 10 by a different law firm representing Gretsas.
He described that firm, Stuart Kaplan of Palm Beach Gardens, as his litigation firm seeking public records and injunctions.
Rodriguez said she never received the letter.
Gretsas was paid his annual salary of $265,000 plus benefits during the first four months of his suspension. That amounted to nearly $116,000, not including his accrued leave days. City commissioners agreed to postpone the termination hearing in October in exchange for no longer paying Gretsas.
Gretsas was the fourth city manager for Delray Beach in eight years. Five others have served as interim city manager, including one who served twice. Mark Lauzier, fired in March 2019, has a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the city. It will go to a jury trial in February, Gelin has said.
“The issue here is whoever doesn’t follow the agenda is dragged through the mud,” Rodriguez said of the commission. “It’s a reign of terror that has caused a revolving door of top administrators. The citizens deserve better.”