By Anne Geggis

Three of five Delray Beach City Commission seats are up for grabs and the contests have gotten so contentious that, for the first time in memory, some candidates refused to appear at the main forum held in advance of Election Day.

Five of the nine candidates declined to participate in the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum amid allegations the chamber forum is fixed for the so-called establishment candidates, like Vice Mayor and mayoral candidate Ryan Boylston, who have the backing of the real estate community.

That allegation of bias is just one aspect of the 2024 election dramas that will climax March 19 when voters head to the polls to chart Delray Beach’s next chapter and choose who will receive the Republican nomination for president.

Former President Donald Trump appears to have the latter race wrapped up, but the city is facing some cliffhangers as candidates debate issues such as resident complaints that downtown is too popular (and noisy), whether a historic district to preserve downtown structures will go forward, and how to address a state audit that found Delray Beach underbilled Highland Beach for fire services.

Capital projects are also on the docket, including a new water treatment plant and enlarging the police facilities.

Disagreements about development, city management and taxation are in full view and the candidates who have been getting less in donations — those without the business establishment’s backing — are making it more apparent who is who.

Mayoral candidate Tom Carney, facing Boylston and former Commissioner Shirley Johnson, set up an alternative forum Jan. 30 at the Courtyard by Marriott at the same time as the chamber event about a half-mile away.

The chamber “has become immersed in political favoritism and pretends no one is supposed to notice,” Carney wrote in a letter to the chamber. He pointed to Boylston’s role as moderator at another, recent chamber event as evidence that he would be getting preferential treatment.

Chamber President and CEO Stephanie Immelman denied the allegations and lamented that voters won’t be able to compare all nine candidates side by side in one of the few city candidate forums available via streaming video.

The chamber doesn’t endorse any city candidate for a reason, she said.

“We’ve made a conscious decision not to do that because we want to be able to work with whoever is elected into office,” Immelman said. “We really pride ourselves on collaboration and partnership.”

Boylston made his pitch for mayor at the Arts Garage in front of more than 100 residents, as did Jim Chard and Tennille DeCoste for Seat 1 on the commission and Nick Coppola for Seat 3. Coppola’s opponents, Anneze Barthelemy and Juli Casale, were at the rival hotel forum, introducing themselves to a group of about 60 people who snacked on hors d’oeuvres and asked questions of the candidates mostly one on one. That contrasted with the chamber event, where questions on education, sustainability and affordable housing were drawn at random for the candidates to answer.

Mayoral candidates Carney and Johnson also shunned the more traditional chamber venue in favor of the hotel event, as did Tom Markert, running for Seat 1.

More pronounced contrasts between the candidates on the issues emerged when all nine appeared side by side at the Feb. 20 forum hosted by the Beach Property Owners Association at the Opal Grand Resort and Spa. Notably, Boylston and Carney exchanged barbs and Johnson pronounced herself “a rose between two thorns.”

The question of beach renourishment elicited agreement among all three Seat 3 candidates that the city can’t wait for 2029 to do it. That’s when federal funding for renourishing city beaches is scheduled.

Chard decided to answer the beach renourishment question even though it wasn’t asked of Seat 1 candidates.

“There are other answers than digging up the sand and creating problems with the coral and the reefs and that is to do man-made reefs — replant the coral,” Chard said. “There’s the technology out there where it grows very rapidly and it can prevent all those big waves from coming in which causes all the flooding and damage.”

The mayor’s seat
12390460498?profile=RESIZE_400xAll three mayoral candidates have served as commissioner at various times and one of them, Carney, 70, had a three-month stint as mayor.

Now, though, Boylston, 41, who is term-limited from being a commissioner again, is the clear front-runner in the money race to succeed term-limited Mayor Shelly Petrolia.

Showing nearly $143,000 raised as of Feb. 16, the latest filing period, Boylston has raised nearly twice that of his closest competitor, Carney. And he has twice the number of donors who identify themselves as working in the real estate industry than Carney does.

Boylston’s introduction to the stage at the chamber forum didn’t do much to dispel the notion that he’s the establishment choice.

“If we could please have to the stage, mayor … uh, sorry, candidate for mayor Ryan Boylston,” said Eric Roby, executive director of the American Red Cross’s local chapter, serving as the moderator.

That drew some laughter from the crowd gathered at the Arts Garage.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Roby added with a chuckle.

Critics say the election of more developer-friendly leaders like Boylston is the death knell for the city’s character as “the Village by the Sea” that will be impossible to restore in future elections.

Overdevelopment has reached a tipping point, they say.

Boylston, however, calls that a false narrative. He pointed out that those who make up the current majority on the commission — basically everyone except the mayor — were all portrayed as pro-development in their races.

“We’ve been up there for a year and none of those things that all those people said would happen have happened. No one’s raising the height (limit of buildings) in Delray. No one’s raising the density (limit),” said Boylston, who owns a marketing and web design business.

“We’ve approved one project in a year, so I think it’s kind of getting old,” he said of the criticism.

But the opposing faction is hitting on how regular residents feel squeezed. One of the most visible manifestations of this lies at Atlantic Crossing, now in its second construction phase. Once completed, it will add 261 apartments and 82 condos and 160,000 square feet worth of offices, restaurants and shops to 9 acres, situated between Northeast Sixth Avenue and Veterans Park, from East Atlantic Avenue to Northeast First Street.

“I sat here and watched and it was quarter to seven (in the evening) and it was taking cars three to four light changes to go through — three to four light changes,” Carney said at his rival forum about the intersection at Atlantic Avenue and Federal Highway. “And this is a Tuesday. You know, it’s really gotten out of control.”

Boylston argues that the faction opposing him is looking to undermine what’s made Delray Beach the envy of Florida cities that want a downtown of bustling streets and abundant foot traffic.

Those known to be more critical of developers and their projects did have a majority before the 2023 election — and the voting bloc made an imprint. Two former commissioners now seeking to regain seats on the dais, Johnson as mayor and Casale in Seat 3, joined with Petrolia to take over the appointed Community Redevelopment Agency board and end the lease with the Old School Square Center for the Arts, Boylston pointed out.

These were vital drivers of what’s made Delray Beach what it is today, Boylston said.

Carney, a lawyer by trade, served as Delray Beach’s mayor from January to March in 2013. He’s made the city’s rising costs — and the ballooning level of taxes paid — the centerpiece of his campaign.

“Ten years ago, we had a budget of $98 million and I’m now looking at a budget of $185 million,” he said.

Carney painted himself as the fiscal conservative who believes the city is headed in the wrong direction, and Boylston called himself the most qualified candidate at building community. 

Johnson, 77, who’s a distant third in fundraising for her mayoral bid, highlighted her six years on the commission and her desire to champion more action for environmental conservation on the local level.

“I’d like to start an army of people who say, ‘I’m not going to use single-use plastic anymore,’” said Johnson, who stepped off the commission when she ran into term limits last year. “Let’s not leave …  (future generations) in a worse place than we inherited.”

Johnson, an IBM Corp. management and systems analysis retiree, was the sole mayoral candidate to mention the need to replace the water treatment plant in her remarks at the competing candidate forum.

The 62-year-old plant is one of the oldest in Florida and its replacement has been under discussion for years, with the estimate of its replacement cost rising. Negotiations are underway with a company selected to build it.

Seat 1
12390460663?profile=RESIZE_400xChard, 78, is the only one of the three candidates running for the seat that Commissioner Adam Frankel is vacating due to term limits who has experience as a commissioner. One of his rivals, DeCoste, 46, hit him over how brief that experience was.

“You can’t have someone who ran a race, won a race and stepped down after six months to run another race and lost,” said DeCoste, who was the only candidate not backed by real estate interests who appeared at the chamber forum at the Arts Garage. She made the same assertion at the beach property owners’ forum.

Chard was elected to the commission in 2017 but then stepped down the following year to run against Petrolia.

Like DeCoste, Chard’s professional experience comes chiefly from working for city government, albeit managing a mammoth agency in New York City. He also highlighted his experience on the board of Old School Square Center for the Arts, and his firsthand experience watching the transformation of Delray Beach.

“I am the candidate of experience and knowledge and I usually try to illustrate that by saying, I’m really glad to be back in this place,” he said, referencing the Arts Garage. “I remember when this almost became a law office.”

Chard’s campaign contributions show he’s the choice of the real estate sector — although he’s raised nearly $60,000 to the $72,000 DeCoste has raised in the most recent filings.

Her campaign is being financed by a variety of professionals and some high-profile Democrats, including Ron Book, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist and father of the Senate

Minority Leader Lauren Book; Ben Sorensen, a former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner and former congressional candidate; and Debra Tendrich, who’s running for State House.
DeCoste tells voters that she came to the city, fleeing an abusive spouse, with her three children.

“Delray Beach saved my life and that’s why I have so much to give back,” she said.

She highlighted her experience saving money for the municipalities she worked for, including $1 million for Delray Beach. Most recently she was human resources director for the city of Boynton Beach.

“I feel like I’m the better candidate because I’m the only candidate that has over 22 years’ municipality experience,” she said.

DeCoste did not touch on her current status in her job, however. Boynton Beach put her on administrative leave Dec. 11. The day after the Beach Property Owners Association-sponsored debate, she was fired, with the city citing her use of city resources in her campaign and failure to keep campaign business separate from the city’s. DeCoste, in response, issued a 730-word statement denying she misused her position or engaged in unethical behavior and alleged that the city manager was retaliating against her for complaints she made regarding the city’s hiring practices.

Markert, 66, made what he sees as overdevelopment in the city the focus of his remarks at the alternative forum at the Courtyard by Marriott.

“We’re in a maturity point and we’ve got to go in some different directions,” said Markert, who’s been an executive at Office Depot, Nielsen Canada, Procter & Gamble, in addition to other big-name companies — and has handled budgets far larger than the city’s.

“Roads, as you can tell from the traffic, are thick with congestion,” he continued. “ … We have to ask ourselves the really hard questions on future development because we can’t exacerbate the traffic and parking problems we have downtown. We can’t do it.”

He also has touched on the need for historic preservation and a new water plant.

Seat 3
12390460672?profile=RESIZE_400xTwo political newcomers are up against a former one-term commissioner for the seat now held by Boylston.

One of the candidates, Barthelemy, 46, has said numerous times that she was pressured to drop out of the race, but she’s not backing down. She previously ran in 2017 and lost.

Allegations have been made that Boylston supporters told Barthelemy that a long-dormant project to build a Haitian-Caribbean community center would be revived if she dropped out of the race this year. Boylston said he had nothing to do with that offer and pointed out that the two political activists who made the offer were also early donors to Barthelemy’s campaign.

Barthelemy said she wouldn’t make a deal like that. 

“I stood on my values — let the voters decide,” said the longtime social worker, now working as an independent consultant providing faith-based social services. 

She cited affordable housing as her signature issue.

“My first job with Catholic Charities was helping families that were in the process of losing their homes,” Barthelemy said. “They would come to me with eviction notices … so that’s my passion to serve.”

One of her rivals for the seat, Casale, applauded Barthelemy for staying in the race and detailed her own reason for running after being defeated in her last commission race.
Casale, 55, a retired businesswoman, said she originally got into local politics because of her concerns about overdevelopment and preserving the city’s character. Those concerns remain — especially when it comes to giving developers special exceptions to the existing rules — but the city’s financial state has her sounding the alarm.

“Our expenses are outpacing our revenues,” she said. “We are going to feel the effects of … what I call stealth taxes … fees that you are going to be experiencing and they are going to get worse.”

She has voiced her desire to prioritize putting in an Atlantic Avenue Historic District, now making its way through city approvals, and the construction of a new water treatment plant.

Coppola, 58, a retired electrician and now a self-employed property investor, presents himself as offering a fresh perspective on city issues.

“I am a first-time candidate and we all want to move forward,” Coppola said. “I think it’s very important to point out that I am the only candidate for Seat 3 that has not run before. My other opponents have run … and they have lost.”

In his public remarks, Coppola has focused on his experience serving as vice president and treasurer of the Sherwood Park Civic Association. He also served as a board member for the Pines of Delray Homeowners Association.

“When I stepped into that there was a balance of $700 in that fund and it was depleting rapidly,” he said of his experience with the civic association.  A few neighbors and I, we got together and we coordinated … and we are now sitting on a balance of approximately $15,000.”

He is also the chair of the city Code Enforcement Board and the frontrunner in the money race for the seat. Backed by the real estate establishment, Coppola has raised nearly $90,000 for his first run for elected office.

 

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