By Jane Smith
City commissioners selected Homestead City Manager George Gretsas to the same job in Delray Beach on Oct. 1 with the hope that he will bring much-needed stability to City Hall.
Gretsas, who will be Delray’s fourth new city manager in six years, will start Jan. 1 at a salary of $265,000, a 23% increase over his Homestead salary of $215,384.
He agreed to no salary increases for the first two years.
The vote was 3-2 with Commissioner Adam Frankel and Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson voting no.
Frankel called the contract “exorbitant,” and Johnson said Gretsas was demanding too much.
Gretsas, 51, has to give Homestead three months’ notice, Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. Homestead officials could not be reached for comment at press time.
Gretsas was passed over in September in favor of Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech, but Cernech and Delray Beach could not agree on salary and benefits. He withdrew his application.
In Homestead, which was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Gretsas in a 9-year tenure has overseen a $125 million downtown improvement plan that included a new City Hall, police headquarters and restoration of a 1921 performing arts theater.
When he was city manager of Fort Lauderdale for six years, Gretsas worked on rising seas issues, a priority in Delray Beach, and oversaw more than $110 million in projects, including five new fire stations.
He lost favor there, however, when his commission ordered him to play tough with the police union over pension issues. The chief quit his job to run for commission and won. Gretsas’ contract was not renewed for 2011.
While attending the Florida League of Cities annual meeting in Orlando in mid-August, Vice Mayor Johnson ran into Julio Guzman, a Homestead councilman, who asked which city she represented. When she said Delray Beach, Guzman said, “Oh, we’d hate to lose Gretsas. We love him.”
On Sept. 17, Commissioner Ryan Boylston made the motion to tap Gretsas and begin contract negotiations.
“It’s time for us to put the city first,” Boylston said.
That vote was 3-2, with Boylston, Petrolia and Johnson in favor and Frankel and Bill Bathurst voting no.
A week earlier, after Cernech walked away from the negotiating table with Petrolia and city attorney Lynn Gelin, Boylston said he wanted to interview two other, out-of-state candidates in the top five selected by the city’s recruiter.
But recruiter Robert Burg said they were no longer interested, and Boylston decided Gretsas was the one to bring “stability” to Delray Beach. “Gretsas has worked on big, complicated projects,” Boylston said. Delray Beach and Homestead have populations of about 70,000 residents, but Homestead’s population is younger with more than 40% below 18, while Delray Beach’s skews older with more than 24% at age 65 and above.
Like Delray Beach, Homestead has historic districts and properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Homestead’s crown jewel, the Seminole Theatre, was reopened in 2015 after remaining dark for four decades.
A citizen-approved bond issue, directed by Gretsas, paid for the restoration of the 1921 theater, which has become Homestead’s cultural hub.
After the vote to hire Gretsas, Boylston asked that only Gelin and recruiter Burg negotiate with him. Boylston did not want Petrolia in the negotiations this time around, after Cernech walked away when Petrolia said she could not support his demand for a $400,000 compensation package.
“I couldn’t support it. I have a fiscal responsibility to this town,” Petrolia said at a Sept. 10 special commission meeting.
Bathurst, Boylston and Frankel originally voted to hire Cernech. Petrolia’s first choice was Gretsas, but she changed her vote to Cernech when it became clear he had the support of a majority of commissioners.
Also at the Sept. 10 meeting, the contract for interim City Manager Neal de Jesus was formalized.
To avoid confusion, the mayor asked Gelin to read the new terms: De Jesus will receive a $244,000 annual salary that is retroactive to March 1, when he accepted the interim city manager position. When de Jesus returns to his fire chief role, he will receive 180 days’ written notice if the city manager wants to dismiss him and 20 weeks of severance. The severance terms will remain the same, but the length of notice was doubled. His salary as fire chief will be $174,345.
To quell social media critics, Gelin also determined that de Jesus will not have to complete his bachelor’s degree.
When he became the fire chief in March 2016 a college degree was required. Gelin said that de Jesus has the experience and background that can be substituted for the degree.
The vote was 3-2, with Bathurst, Boylston and Frankel voting yes and Johnson and Petrolia voting no.
Petrolia agreed with the salary boost, but did not want the commission to decide terms of the fire chief position — length of notice and education.
“Those terms should be decided by the new city manager,” she said.