By Rich Pollack and Jane Smith
It’s back to square one for Delray Beach as a familiar pattern in the quest for stability in city leadership persists.
Once again, the chair behind the city manager’s desk is vacant — for the third time in six years — following one forced resignation, one earlier-than-expected retirement and one termination.
Once again, the city is spending money on a search firm hired to scour the country in hopes of finding qualified candidates.
And once again, an interim city manager is back overseeing a workforce that has not had steady leadership of more than two years at a time since the January 2013 retirement of David Harden, who served as city manager for 22 years.
“It is incomprehensible that this city has gone through three city managers since 2013,” says Joycelyn Patrick, a longtime follower of city government who served as chairwoman of the West Atlantic Redevelopment Coalition and is past president of the Northwest Neighborhood Alliance. “It is impossible to forge a relationship with the community at large when such instability exists.”
Differing opinions exist from those who follow municipal government about why Delray Beach has a revolving door at the city manager’s office, what that means to the community and what can be done to ensure the city’s next top administrator has a long tenure.
“I look at the reasons, not the numbers,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. Don Cooper resigned in 2016 because of family health problems, she added.
Everyone agrees, however, that Delray Beach needs to find the right person to fill the vacancy — someone who will be a fixture in City Hall for years to come.
“Having a city manager who has the ability to garner trust with the community and elected officials is what you want,” says Bill Branning, chairman of the board of the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce.
The latest city manager to leave Delray Beach was Mark Lauzier, whose departure came quickly — just two months after he was given a raise. Hired in November 2017, Lauzier was fired by unanimous vote during a special commission meeting March 1.
Lauzier’s departure came after an internal auditor’s report pointed out issues with the city manager’s employment practices, including Lauzier’s rewriting of procedures for hiring people who directly report to him without informing commissioners.
In what could feel like déjà vu to many in City Hall, Fire Chief Neal de Jesus has been named interim city manager for a second time.
“It’s not as concerning to me because of the way we dealt with Lauzier. It was done publicly with total transparency about why he had to go,” Petrolia said.
Lauzier’s hiring came just shy of a year after Cooper retired early. Commissioners brought in de Jesus for his first run as interim manager.
The first city manager to leave quickly after Harden’s retirement was Louie Chapman Jr., who resigned under pressure after being suspended for 90 days because he ordered $60,000 worth of garbage carts four months before commissioners approved the request.
While each case is different, some common denominators exist.
Familiarity can help
For instance, all three of the managers — and Harden as well — were hired from outside and were not deeply familiar with Delray Beach and the workings of the city before they arrived.
Contrast that with the city managers in neighboring and similar-sized Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, who both have longer tenures than the last three Delray Beach managers combined.
Boca Raton’s Leif Ahnell has been city manager for 20 years and moved into the job after nine years of rising through the ranks on the finance side. He served as an assistant city manager for just four months before getting the job permanently.
In Boynton Beach, City Manager Lori LaVerriere has been in her job since February 2013 after serving as an assistant city manager and interim city manager. She joined the city in 2008 after serving as Manalapan town manager.
Coming into the manager position after serving in other roles within the city can be a plus, LaVerriere said.
Speaking in her role as the District 4 director for the Florida City and County Management Association, LaVerriere said that spending time in a community before taking the top position gives an administrator time to get to know the community and people the manager will depend on to succeed.
“It allows you the opportunity to learn about the organization and the city,” she said.
It also allows a prospective city manager the time to build trust with the staff and with elected officials.
“A key component is trust,” LaVerriere said.
ABOVE: Mark Lauzier was fired as Delray Beach city manager after commissioners scheduled a meeting to discuss his performance. BELOW: Fire Chief Neal de Jesus became interim city manager for the second time. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Another common denominator with Chapman and Lauzier is that both came under fire from commissions that were significantly different in membership from those that hired them.
In Lauzier’s case, current commissioners Bill Bathurst, Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel were elected after Lauzier was hired.
Angie Gray, who was on the commission when Chapman was hired but not when he left, said the makeup of the commission can play a role in tenure. “It can sometimes depend on who the city manager is beholden to,” she said.
In Delray Beach that factor can be magnified, according to former Commissioner Mitch Katz, because many factions and influential individuals work behind the scenes.
“Our city managers are being pulled in 20 different directions because of additional outside influences,” said Katz, who was on the commission when Lauzier was hired.
Stability, progress affected
While commissions hope to maintain continuity and stability within city government, the constant turnover of managers can take its toll on staff and on projects in the works.
“It kind of freezes the forward movement of the city’s goals,” the chamber’s Branning said.
As an example, he said the chamber has been working with Lauzier and city staff on the possibility of partnering to promote Delray Beach as a tourist destination. Now, he said, the chamber will have to work with someone else who will first need to be brought up to speed.
The mayor and representatives of other organizations, however, say they do not see the turnover as having a significant negative impact.
“While a new city manager requires a learning period, our members are rarely affected by the change of one person,” said Bob Victorin, president of the influential Beach Property Owners Association. “Importantly, the BPOA has maintained a positive working relation with every city manager.”
Laura Simon, executive director of the Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority, also expects her organization to see little impact with the change of manager.
“With any change in upper-level leadership in major organizations, there will be a few steps backwards or shift in lanes,” she said. “However, the city team is filled with strong leaders comprised of diverse practitioners who work collectively and collaboratively with the DDA staff, board, business owners and property owners.”
LaVerriere says high turnover at the top almost always affects the staff.
“Frequent turnover is disruptive to work flow,” she said. “When you have disruption of management at the top, it becomes very unsettling to staff.”
Moving forward, city leaders will have to choose a city manager from a pool of applicants who will most likely know about the tumultuous track record of previous managers.
Former commissioner Gray thinks one way to improve the chances of a city manager’s staying longer would be to once again require a super majority of four commissioners to fire a city manager. In 2014 voters approved a measure reducing the required votes to fire a city manager to three.
“I think we need to go back to the super majority to remove a city manager,” she said.
In Lauzier’s case, however, the super-majority issue would not have been relevant because the vote to fire him was unanimous.
Patrick, the community leader, thinks outside help could be useful in training city commissioners to better manage themselves and the city manager.
She also thinks the city should continue to look inward during its search for a new manager.
“I find it difficult to believe that we cannot find a qualified individual in house as opposed to having headhunters conduct nationwide searches on behalf of the city,” she said.
De Jesus, at a March 12 City Commission meeting, gave an indication that he would like to see more movement from within — although not speaking specifically about the city manager position — saying he will look from the ranks to fill vacancies.
As the search goes on, the track record of previous city managers could be a roadblock. Gray, however, thinks the right message will attract good candidates.
“We have to get the message out that Delray Beach is not a difficult city to work in,” she said. “It’s just that we’re not going to tolerate people making bad decisions.”