City Business: Delray Commission adds new charges in effort to fire city manager

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By: Dale King
Contributing writer

It appears likely that suspended Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas will be fired Oct. 23, but not for the alleged misconduct accusations leveled against him by the City Commission at a special meeting June 24.

In fact, at the end of a 90-minute session Aug. 24 – a meeting required in the work contract presented to Gretsas when he was hired in January 2020 – commissioners unanimously approved a heap of new allegations that included violation of city policies and state laws.

But in the process, the five city leaders voted not to include charges of “bullying and retaliation” that were brought against Gretsas at the June meeting.

Three members of the five-person commission backed an effort to dump the top city executive when they voted to present him with a notice of “intent to remove” at the June 24 session. Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson voting “aye” while Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel cast negative votes.

That action prompted Gretsas to fire off a 12-page response letter dated July 31 tying certain city officials and employees to alleged improprieties involving the city water department and the municipal golf course.

Gretsas had claimed the effort to fire him was “retaliation” for reporting health problems involving the water system, troubles he described as “the most scandalous….since Flint, Mich.”

A separate, 20-page investigative document prepared by Allen, Norton & Blue, the external law firm hired to probe intra-office difficulties, also said the city manager “bullied” several employees, including Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher, on May 15.

City spokeswoman Gina Carter said Fisher went on medical leave the following day and has since submitted a letter of resignation effective Sept. 7.

These accusations have been excluded from the list that now moves forward to Oct. 23, when commissioners will hold a public hearing to give Gretsas and his attorney a chance to defend him. City Attorney Lynn Gelin said she expects the session to take “half a day.”

During the Aug. 24 meeting, carried virtually on the city’s internet broadcast system, Gelin outlined a rack of new complaints. They included:

  • An accusation that Gretsas installed a private server in his office that was not connected to the city’s IT system and used a software program that neither stores documents nor can be accessed by anyone other than Gretsas, which fails to follow the state open meeting law.
  • A claim that Gretsas hired two people to work in a specially built TV studio to report the coronavirus situation locally. Gelin said the city manager “failed to follow procedure” in hiring the employees, who apparently had worked with him before.
  • Gave some testimony during a city investigation that was “not true.”
  • Refused to meet with the city’s internal auditor, Julia Davidyan.

The meeting took on the appearance of a trial when Gretsas’ attorney, Carmen Rodriguez, was allowed to speak via telephone. The lawyer claimed her client was not told “the nature of the investigation” and was “denied due process.” Rodriguez said she sent “multiple emails” to Gelin about the situation, but received a response saying only, “Your objection is noted.”

Gretsas’ lawyer also blasted the new charges, saying they were “pre-written” and “spoon-fed to you (commissioners). You all have your own private networks – your cell phones. You are turning the job of city manager on its head.”

She argued that a city manager has the right to change policy, but several commissioners, including the mayor, noted it cannot be done without their input, and can’t result in a regulation that violates state law.

The bullying accusation apparently remained on the table until meeting’s end when commissioners decided to exclude it from the upcoming hearing. At first, Commissioner Frankel said he was “disappointed” that the city had “put out a press release” saying Gretsas was accused of bullying employees, but “now we are going to ignore it?”

Vice-Mayor Boylston also pondered the fate of the bullying charge. It was he who made the motion to go forward with the Oct. 23 hearing on Gretsas’ firing, but first, he amended the motion to specifically exclude the bullying and retaliation.

While the removal effort is about two months old, it will take at least 60 days more to complete. The text of Gretsas’ contract requires a meeting and a hearing – one to write a list of accusations and another to address the allegations against him. That means the process of firing Gretsas will likely rage on through late autumn.

Delray Beach has had about a half-dozen different city managers since 2013. Gretsas, who came to Delray from his previous job as city manager in Homestead, replaced Mark Lauzier, who was fired at a special commission meeting March 19, 2019.