Newsletter: Apr 20, 2022

Delray Beach Commission Race 2023 Begins

Social media sites are buzzing, conversations over happy hour libations are hot and heavy, and behind the scenes “Power-Brokers” are scrambling in a chaotic game of political chess in an attempt to gage which candidates will most likely to prevail.

This can mean only one thing: Campaign season in Delray has begun.

A full year out from the 2023 election, candidates are already lining up to vie for the two open City Commission seats in what will undoubtedly be one of the most contentious and expensive elections in Delray Beach history.

The seats up for grab include one being vacated by Commissioner Shirley Johnson, who is out due to term limits, and one currently held by Commissioner Juli Casale.  Casale's one term in office has been marked by a steady stream of controversy, including her vote last year to terminate the lease with Old School Square without public input and a lock-step voting record with Mayor Shelly Petrolia.  Petrolia had endorsed Casale's run for office in 2019 and campaigned for her election to the Commission.

Casale is the only candidate to officially file so far.  Paperwork submitted to the city shows she filed back in October of 2021 and includes her own $1,000 contribution to her campaign, but she certainly won't be the only candidate looking to fill her seat.

No other official filings have been made to date; however, is expected that will change very shortly.  Challengers to Casale likely will include some new faces and some battle tested community leaders who have been involved with Delray for many years.  The same goes for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Johnson.

Several key issues are on the minds of Delray's voters:

"I believe one primary issue this election is boils down to is the same issue we’ve had the past four elections," says Scott Porten, a long-time resident and local business.  "Our City government, more so now than ever, has been overtaken by a toxic culture.  Our current leadership has shown little regard for good public process or civic engagement. "

That environment has led to other issues that need to be addressed, a number of which come at a cost taxpayers:

A revolving door at City Hall, which has seen four City Managers and five Interim City Managers come and go in less than ten years, all during Petrolia's terms as Commissioner and Mayor. Turmoil at the top subsequently caused turmoil throughout the ranks of employees at City Hall.  Vacancies still plague many departments and turnover has caused numerous and costly problems due to a lack of management oversight, some involving public safety.

The contamination of Delray's drinking water in 2019 by reclaimed sewer water was caused by "Lack of institutional control, which is failure to have appropriate resources, funding, oversight, policies and internal expertise to properly manage the utility system," according to an October 2020 investigative Report by Public Utilities and Management Services, Inc. The investigation also uncovered that water tanks hadn't been cleaned, one for decades, and brought attention to the fact that its water treatment plant is over 30 years old.  The City is only now in the initial processes of design and financing a new plant, which could run up to $26 million, if it remains on schedule.  

A budget shortfall of almost $ 10 million was identified in the fall of 2021, which was patched over in part by using one-time Covid-19 economic relief funds and funding the Police Department at 75%, causing hiring delays.  Similar cuts were made in other departments leading to hiring delays, including the budget department.  The Mayor and Commissioners Casale and Johnson voted to terminate Old School Square's lease while the budget was being developed.  Before the vote, there was not an examination of the potential cost to the City of failing to find a new management company (what good financial stewards call performing due diligence).  In December 2021, no management company responded to the City's Request for Proposal. As a result, the 2021-2022 budget does not include the cost of running Old School Square (OSS) or funding the renovation of the Crest Theatre -- an amount that could add up to $10 million.

The CRA is on the brink of becoming a slush fund for the City Commission.  The CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) had been operating independently of the City Commission until Mayor Petrolia orchestrated a City takeover of its board in 2019, without public comment or input.  The Mayor is now planning to cover some of the additional OSS expense with Agency funds; however, taxpayers will still foot the bill, since the CRA is funded by Incremental Tax Revenue from property taxes.  The Agency's primary mission is revitalization of urban areas.  West Atlantic is one of the last remaining areas to be revitalized and has seen its share of delays.

Affordable Housing, overdevelopment and noise are also problems -- one creating the other as real estate investors funded large retail and residential complexes and sent housing prices soaring, the later making it almost impossible for service industry employees to find housing at a reasonable cost and distance to their workplace.  Traffic is snarled at crucial intersections; height restrictions have been negotiated upward; and noise and light pollution ordinances are out of date and their enforcement ineffective.  With Delray seeing ever increasing numbers of visitors and new residents, many in Delray see their quality of life eroding as quickly as the tides are rising and flooding increases.

Added to that is the question of the City losing its long-term reputation as an Art Destination.  "The city seems to be moving away from supporting the arts community" says Delray resident and artist Ashley Levinson.  "How they handled the situation with Old School Square is unconscionable.  We, the residents, own Old School Square and the commission had no right to terminate their lease without garnering any input from the community.  I’ve lost trust in this group of commissioners and it’s going to take a lot to regain that trust going forward.”

"Artists Alley fell to developers," says Susan Romaine, a nationally known artist who moved to Delray in 2014 because of its art community. "Hundreds attended our Art Walks each month, which helped revitalize Pineapple Grove.  Despite promises to the contrary, the City decided not to supplement the CRA bid when the property went up for auction.  A real estate investor bought the warehouses at a bargain.  Rents were raised and eviction notices posted.  Today, the art colony is gone and Artists Alley is a City street sign promising something it doesn't deliver."

There are also a few issues facing potential candidates this year. The cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed.  “In 2013, a candidate for commission would have needed to raise between $30,000 to $40,000 to run an impactful campaign.  Now we expect that number to surpass the $100,000 mark in this election,” said a local political consultant who requested to remain anonymous.

Voter engagement is another. “Delray Beach has always had an issue with voter turnout. Whether it’s the transient makeup of the Delray population or straight out apathy, getting voters to the polls will be one of the biggest challenges in the 2023 election,” the consultant added.

“I think the best advice I can give candidates is to be independent and strive to make a difference.  We called it moving the big rocks,” said former Mayor Jeff Perlman, who also served seven years on the commission."

“Unfortunately, at this time, our community is divided," he added. "We need candidates who can bring people together, listen to everyone not just their supporters and strive to restore the culture that distinguished Delray Beach from all other cities.  We have to get back to involving citizens in major decisions.  Currently, we are not doing that.  The commission voted to terminate Old School Square without seeking input from the community. They also voted to take over the CRA without any input or notice.  That decision politicized the agency which is our most important economic development tool. We need candidates who will restore civic engagement to local government. And bring stability back to City Hall.”

As the races begin, one thing is certain. The 2023 election is going to be one of the most critical, and memorable elections in recent memory.

To Vote:                                                         

To see who has filed to run for Delray Beach City Commission:

Editorial Note:  Friends Of Delray will be providing ongoing election coverage through election night 2023.  We have opted to not to speculate on potential candidates until they officially file.

Best Regards,

The Friends Of Delray Board

Judy Mollica - President

Steve English - Treasurer

Gregg Weiss - Secretary

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