By Jane Smith
As the March 9 election nears, a PAC involved in the Delray Beach mayoral race is spreading false allegations via phone and mailers. A 30-second robocall, underwritten by the political action committee Progress for Delray Beach, blames the Feb. 23 barrier island water main break by an FPL contractor on Mayor Shelly Petrolia. The call, featuring a woman’s voice, was sent Feb. 24 to a sampling of voters citywide.
The call starts off talking about a boil-water order for the city. But the water main break affected only barrier island residents who were advised to boil water for three days as a result of the main break.
“This is just another example of Delray’s drinking water crisis under Shelly Petrolia’s watch,” the recorded voice said. “The Florida Department of Health has found unsafe drinking water for the eight years Shelly Petrolia has been in charge.”
But Petrolia has been mayor for only three of the past eight years. Cary Glickstein served as mayor for the previous five years; Petrolia was a city commissioner then.
Tracy Caruso, Petrolia’s opponent, is linked to the robocall because the same PAC previously sent out negative fliers aimed at Petrolia.
At the end of the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce candidate debate, held Feb. 10 at the Arts Garage, candidates were able to ask each other one question.
Petrolia held up a stack of negative fliers that Caruso’s campaign had made about the mayor. Many recent fliers had a St. Petersburg return address for this same PAC — Progress for Delray Beach.
Petrolia, a residential real estate broker, asked Caruso for one positive comment.
“I would say my positive thing about you is that you will be out of office soon and able to enjoy your retirement,” Caruso said.
Caruso’s question to Petrolia was about the possible $3 million in fines from the Florida Department of Health Palm Beach County that may be levied soon for problems with the city’s reclaimed water system.
Delray Beach adopted the reclaimed water plan in July 2008 and failed to abide by it, according to the department.
Caruso asked, “Did the revolving door of eight city managers and the disruption it caused create this willful lack of oversight?”
Petrolia answered, “First off, I was not on the commission back then. … When we heard about the problems in early 2020, we shut off the system.”
Caruso, a downtown business owner who chairs the city’s Historic Preservation Board, is married to state Rep. Michael Caruso, a Republican. Tracy Caruso changed her voter registration from Republican to no party affiliation one day after registering her candidacy in the non-partisan Delray Beach mayoral race in November.
She continues to get most of her major donations from outside Delray Beach. Of the 37 donors who gave her campaign $1,000 in February, 21 were from outside the city limits, according to the campaign contribution reports. She had raised $181,305 as of Feb. 25.
By comparison, Petrolia, a Democrat, had raised $132,292.90 as of Feb. 25. In February, her reports showed five of her eight major donors were from outside Delray Beach.
While Caruso has relied on PACs to finance her negative mailings, Petrolia’s materials go out under her own name, including those that say Caruso was a Trumpette. Trumpettes are Palm Beach-based women who support former President Donald Trump.
The two mayoral candidates have squared off at four debates and during one recorded interview. The interview was hosted by the Beach Property Owners Association. The interviewer was Rita Ellis, the group’s treasurer and a former Delray Beach mayor who has endorsed Caruso.
The other debates were:
In January, the Set Neighborhood Alliance broadcast its virtual debate of the mayoral candidates on Facebook.
A nonpartisan group, When We All Vote Palm Beach County Voting Squad, held a virtual forum of the commission candidates in February. The forum was broadcast via Zoom and is available on the group’s Facebook page.
The St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and the League of Women Voters in Palm Beach County held their Delray Beach commission candidate debate in February at the church. It was also broadcast on the church’s YouTube video page.
Seat 1 interview stays civil
The commission Seat 1 race features incumbent Adam Frankel and political newcomer Price Patton.
Patton, a veteran journalist and a founder of The Coastal Star, is on leave from the monthly newspaper. He lives on the barrier island and has endured the reclaimed water shutoffs during the past two years. He has served on the city’s Historic Preservation Board and is currently serving on its Site Plan Review and Appearance Board.
He said during the BPOA interview that he would empower city employees to think outside of the box in response to Ellis’ question about “the toxic culture in City Hall.”
When asked what qualities he would look for in a city manager, Patton said someone who has experience in local government.
In his closing statement at the BPOA interview, Patton said, “I’m running a grassroots campaign, with a fresh but seasoned voice.” He pledged to resolve the city’s problems, restore creativity in City Hall, keep the charm of Atlantic Avenue and the beach, and keep working to restore the city’s historic character.
Frankel, a criminal defense attorney, is serving his second stint on the City Commission.
When Ellis asked about the lack of maintenance of the beach promenade, Frankel said, “We are a tourist destination. We should prioritize its annual maintenance.”
On a new city manager, Frankel proposed interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez. “She is doing well, has the demeanor to do a great job,” he said.
Frankel also said he did not agree that the city needs a crisis public relations firm to address the reclaimed water issue. “We have a great utilities director,” he said.
His closing remarks focused on the BPOA’s issues: limiting what can go on a roof in the single-family neighborhoods of the barrier island, trimming sea grapes along the beach and stopping aggressive panhandling downtown.
By the Feb. 25 reporting date, Frankel had raised $60,840, and Patton had raised $41,035.
Rematch in Seat 3 race
The battle for Seat 3 features a rematch of the 2018 City Commission race between Ryan Boylston and Mitch Katz.
Boylston, the incumbent who likes to say he is “your vice mayor,” calls himself an “organic politician.” He started his political career serving on city boards.
Addressing the question about “the toxic culture at City Hall” during the BPOA interview, Boylston said, “Elected officials need to stay off Facebook. We need to resonate what our values are at the top.”
When Ellis asked about fixing the reclaimed water problems, he said, “Our job is to build confidence. I’m proud we hired a firm to help our public information officer. We are in a pandemic with businesses closing and programs to help them. Then, to throw a water issue on top” would be too much.
Boylston, owner of a creative marketing company in downtown Delray Beach, said his priorities for the next three years would be to get new Congress Avenue businesses on the tax roll and open the first Haitian-American center in Palm Beach County.
At the end of the Chamber of Commerce debate on Feb. 10, Boylston asked Katz why he did not have support of prominent organizations and the unions of firefighters and police.
“That would compromise me too much,” said Katz, who works for a private higher education firm.
In return, Katz asked about the state ethics violations that Boylston settled last year.
They were from the time Boylston served as chairman of the Downtown Development Agency. He voted on its budget, which included money for ads in a publication he partly owned. Before running for City Commission, he sold that stake.
“I settled those two items,” he said.
By the Feb. 25 reporting date, Katz had raised $24,587, and Boylston had raised $66,584. All candidates agreed that addressing the rising sea levels would require working regionally with city neighbors to the north and south. The estimated $300 million-plus cost to raise the Delray seawalls could be met only with state and federal assistance, they said.