The Residents of Delray Beach Deserve Leadership, Answers to Their Water Woes
By: C. Ron Allen
The City of Delray Beach has found itself facing a disaster over its provision of the most basic of services — clean drinking water.
An investigation found that pipes carrying reclaimed or toilet water were cross-connected to drinking water pipes in late 2018, causing several residents along the barrier island to become sick.
Compounding the matter, a separate investigation by the state Department of Health found that one of the city’s water tanks had not been cleaned in 38 years, although state regulations mandate such cleaning be done at least every five years. The investigators also found that two other wells had not been cleaned within the required five-year period.
Neither investigation resulted in anyone being held accountable for any misconduct.
The Palm Beach County’s Inspector General John Carey will launch his own probe of the department. In a Sept. 21 letter to interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez, Carey said his investigators will comb through records, policies and interviews related to the city’s water utilities program, to determine whether the workers did their jobs correctly and if city leaders were truthful about the crisis.
Several residents between the Intracoastal Waterway and State Road A1A complained of foul-tasting, discolored water and an investigation determined that large accumulations of silt, sediment and other debris were in the water distribution system. The city over-chlorinated the water wells without telling the residents, former City Manager George Gretsas wrote in a 12-page memo to Carey. The city started using partly treated wastewater, meant solely for lawn watering, washing cars and in fountains and ponds in 2005. But it appears there was little to no oversight since.
“The toilet always looks like the last person didn’t flush…..NO WAY would I drink Delray’s water!” one resident wrote in a social media post.
No one in authority can explain exactly what happened except to opine that a private contractor, over a period of more than a decade, may have cut corners. City officials also said that some of the pipelines are missing backflow preventers, which prevent sewer water from backing up into the public drinking water lines.
“To add to the problem, there are no records of when and where any of these backflow preventers were installed, let alone maintained,” Gretsas wrote. “…It is a disgrace truthfully, it’s something that should never happen.”
What is crystal clear in this murky mess is that city officials utterly failed to safeguard the health and welfare of their residents.
City leaders addressed the residents’ concerns by dodging and obfuscating.
Instead of correcting the issues when they were made aware of them, city leaders lied to the public to cover up their negligence and are continuing to do so. City officials maintain their water is safe to drink, despite reports from state inspectors.
Gretsas, who was suspended in July for harassment and bullying, accused Mayor Shelly Petrolia of trying to get him to lie about her knowledge of the water contamination debacle. Gretsas maintains that while Petrolia claims she first learned of the water woes in February, former City Manager Mark Lauzier alerted city commissioners of the problem in December 2018.
A Feb. 4 text message from Petrolia to Gretsas reads: “Whatever goes out, needs to include information that doesn’t implicate this administration. It’s news to all of us. That didn’t happen on our watch. We are going to be creamed otherwise.”
Gretsas said initially, he had no reason to challenge Petrolia’s assertion that the water woes were news to her or that it did not happen on her watch. However, he said, he later “discovered she was not being truthful.”
“So there are two lies in that one text,” Gretsas told The Palm Beach Post. “Clearly, it happened on her watch (she was in office) and she knew about it 14 months earlier.”
Petrolia admitted that her choice of words may not be the best. She also noted that city commissioners are prevented from meddling in the day-to-day operations of the city. Yet, anyone who is familiar with the operations of Delray Beach, knows that Mayor Petrolia “runs her city.” There is hardly a decision made in City Hall that the mayor does not have a hand in, especially when it could impact commerce.
As she did at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when she was slow to exhibiting leadership, Mayor Petrolia again, was quick to abdicate all powers to Gretsas.
As late as last month, Aug. 2, Petrolia, who does not “interfere with day to day operations,” fired off an email to Alvarez directing her to clean up the public relations nightmare.
“We need a memo sent out to everyone on the City’s email list and social media announcement that states clearly and succinctly, our water is safe to drink,” Petrolia wrote. “The message on our website is not sufficient. The message should being (sic) by addressing the “rumor” going around and that our water is safe to drink and tested daily and continues to meet or exceed our state health standards.”
Twelve minutes later, Alvarez sent an email to City Attorney Lynn Gelin: “I need to discuss with you. She keeps giving me directives.”
While several city officials, residents and employees told me they want to ask for the mayor’s removal from office but are afraid of retribution, one state official did not mince his words.
“The same corrupt politician that called me a liar, gave herself a 300 percent pay hike them took $421,000 away from cops has now been placed under investigation by her own city commission,” State Representative Mike Caruso wrote in a social media post. “What’s worse, this is the same politician who, texts show, forced a city employee to lie to the public about water safety.”
He went on to say that “Politicians who serve themselves and fail their citizens should be removed from office. This is the latest example. As your State Representative, I will call on out State Attorney and Attorney General to bring transparency and accountability back to our local governments.”
I agree with Rep. Caruso. Something really bad happened to the people of Delray Beach. Mayor Petrolia and her minions failed the residents of Delray Beach and no one has accepted responsibility. Surely someone needs to be held accountable.
C. Ron Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-665-0151.