The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: Mayor told me to lie about water woes, suspended city manager says

By Jane Smith

Suspended Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas fought back on July 31 against his City Commission bosses.

He sent them a 12-page letter with four explosive allegations accusing commissioners of using a bullying complaint as a smokescreen to cover up problems with the city’s drinking water.

“Rather than support me in my attempts to fix this serious problem that potentially jeopardizes the health of every resident of Delray Beach, I was put on notice by you that you intend to terminate me on a bogus charge of bullying and retaliation,” Gretsas wrote.

He also sent the letter to Jennifer Alvarez, the city’s interim city manager, and the county inspector general.

Gretsas declined to discuss the letter. “I would prefer to stand by the 12-page letter,” he replied via text on Aug. 1. “It was cleared through my attorney and I wouldn’t be able to reach her today.”

“The commission does not run the city.” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said in reaction to the letter. “We are a policy-making body. ... His short-term stay with the city was not stellar.”

She and two women commissioners voted June 24 to suspend Gretsas without seeing the full investigative report. They relied on City Attorney Lynn Gelin who said there was at least one violation of city policy.

Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston and Commissioner Adam Frankel voted no. They wanted to see the full report.

On June 29, Gretsas asked for written charges that will be presented on Aug. 24 and a public hearing on Oct. 23. Both items are part of his employment contract with the city.

“If there is truth to what Gretsas states (about the water quality problems), the Health Department needs to be notified and Mr. Gretsas should be terminated immediately,” Petrolia wrote in an Aug. 1 email to Alvarez and Gelin with a copy to her commission colleagues.

Gretsas detailed four allegations in his letter.

The first was about the city’s reclaimed water problems. Gretsas wrote that “Mayor Petrolia had directed me to lie to the public and tell them she had no role in the reclaimed water catastrophe.”

In early May, Gretsas apologized to residents about the problematic program that was mismanaged from its start.

“The City of Delray Beach was not complying with the safety regulations,” Gretsas wrote. “Some people on the barrier island reported getting sick from the water and despite these reports, city staff reported to the Health Department that there no reports of illnesses.”

He was referring to December 2018 cross-connection problem on the barrier island. It was the latest section that reclaimed water was installed. Reclaimed water is treated sewage water that is suitable for lawn irrigation but not for drinking, washing or cooking. Cross-connections happen when the reclaimed water lines are mistakenly connected to the drinking water supply.

A barrier island resident complained Jan. 2 to the county branch of the Florida Department of Health, saying she was not adequately informed of the problems in late 2018. The utilities director at the time issued a boil water order but did not report any residents were sickened.

In fact, most residents on the east side of South Ocean Boulevard said they were ill from drinking the water. One family reported that even the dog was sick.

The Health Department does not require proof of illness, such as a doctor visit or an emergency room trip, according to its spokesman.

Gretsas also points out that the drinking water storage tanks were not cleaned every five years, as required, because he could not find records of the cleanings.

"As of June, staff still hadn't figured out a way to clean the clear well without contaminating the entire drinking water system and forcing the entire City to boil their water," Gretsas wrote in his July 31 letter.

“I was shocked when I heard they weren’t being cleaned,” Petrolia said on Aug. 1.

The second allegation surrounds Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher and her hiring of a boyfriend to run the food and beverage service at the Delray Beach Golf Course. Gretsas said he was not qualified for that position and Fisher did not recuse herself from matters related to the city course.

Fisher went out on a family medical leave for emotional duress from the bullying by Gretsas. He was moving to fire her when he was suspended by the commission. He claims Gelin and the outside counsel had approved his actions for Fisher.

His third allegation concerns the city auditor. Julia Davidyan recently returned to the city part-time. She likely will lead the investigation into Gretsas’ actions because Gelin has recused herself. Gelin was one of the woman department heads interviewed by the outside counsel for the bullying investigation of Gretsas.

Davidyan started her investigation of ex-City Manager Mark Lauzier, Gretsas’ predecessor, without commission approval, Gretsas wrote. The City Charter requires the city auditor to get approval from a majority of the city commission before initiating investigations.

His last allegation involves a request by Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson. She asked Gretsas to support an initiative by Fredrick James to build a new City Hall and other major projects. James runs a non-profit and was seeking $20 million per year for 50 years from the city’s general fund.

Gretsas found that James was on felony probation and that he did not have a history of raising money for development projects or working with governments. Giving James the money without voter approval would be illegal, Gretsas wrote.

Johnson did not respond to a text sent to her city cellphone number. That voicemail box was full.

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Comment by Hobart Gapp on August 29, 2020 at 10:22am

Et tue, Brute?  Looks like Gretsas turned against them when they refused to share the pirate booty.  Fear not, we have plenty more crooks ready to take his place.  

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