Published On: Mon, Oct 5th, 2020

Suspended City Manager: Delray Beach Mayor “Does go After Black People”

By: C. Ron Allen

In order for Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas to get his job, he had to carry out the directive of now embattled Mayor Shelly Petrolia’s to remove two department heads as part of a “Hit List”.

Gretsas has since been suspended for allegedly bullying and harassing Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. 

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia

The “Hit list” included Police Chief Javaro Sims, who has had a stellar 28-year career and is known as a community leader, and City Clerk Katerri Johnson, who has been with the city since 2017.

In a phone conference with black leaders where Gretsas sought to clear his name, he told them that during his stint in Delray Beach, he got a troubling peek at Petrolia’s corruption and bigotry toward blacks, especially those in leadership positions.

“She basically said she thinks the police chief is weak, she doesn’t think he has any business running the police department, he shouldn’t have been picked in the first place, the selection process was a disaster and he’s no good,” Gretsas recalled her saying. “She thinks the city clerk is terrible [and] doesn’t belong in the position.”

Both Sims and Johnson are black.

On that same call, Gretsas said Petrolia devised a scheme to oust Sims by creating a Department of Public Safety and planned to tap then interim City Manager Neal de Jesus to head the department. Both Sims and the fire chief would then report to de Jesus.

Those plans however fell through when de Jesus was forced to resign March 10 while he was under investigation for sexual harassment.

Shortly after he took over as city manager in January, Gretsas asked Petrolia about her earlier expressed desire to create the executive leadership position. She insisted that he carry out her wish.

City Attorney Lynn Gelin also “came to me independently and was trying to convince me that this was a good idea,” he told the group.

Calls and a text to Petrolia and Gelin seeking their responses were not returned.

Both Johnson and Sims said they had no comment on the matter.

Petrolia, who has been mayor since March 2018 and served on the City Commission for five years before, made it her mission to dissolve the independently run Community Redevelopment Agency Board a month after she became mayor, Gretsas said.

“I think she was singularly responsible for dismantling the CRA board,” he told the group.

The CRA was created in 1985 to invest taxpayer money into the blighted areas of the city, which is on the west side and in the black community.

“She does go after black people,” Gretsas said. “Clearly they went after [former Director of the Neighborhood & Community Services Department] Michael Coleman and his assistant [Jamael Stewart].”

Given an option to resign or be fired, the duo resigned. They have since filed Whistleblower Act lawsuits against the city, alleging they were forced to resign after Fisher, Petrolia’s protégé, conducted a “sham investigation” into distribution of grant money to various organizations.

The county’s Ethics Commission subsequently cleared Stewart of any wrongdoings. Coleman, however, was not named in the Ethics Commission’s report and the status of the complaint against him is not known.

Petrolia’s alleged comments and actions have drawn criticism, with a handful of residents and city employees, calling for her resignation.

“She needs to go,” said Ann Wright, president of the SW Neighborhood Association.

Wright said the mayor’s conduct conjures up memories of the torrid past, when former police Chief Charles Kilgore, who ran the department from 1979 to 1990, instilled fear in black residents. The former Alabama truck driver who never graduated high school, reportedly said that he kept an axe in his closet to remind him of the days when “they used to beat black people.”

Under Petrolia’s leadership, morale among city employees has tanked and she has created wedges between several residents, Wright said. 

“She has intimidated and bullied the staff to a point where people are scared. People have to do what Shelly wants them to do and if they don’t there are consequences,” Wright said.

 “Her venom, her evilness is to a point here she has people fighting each other, … strangling each other, … about to kill each other, and they don’t even know what the hell they are fighting for,” she added. “This woman is a Hitler.” 

Wright praised Gretsas for standing up to Petrolia, who, like Kilgore, is feared by many.

“What it tells me is, this man, when he was in that office was smart enough to document everything because he knew, sooner or later, that Shelly was going to pull that same stunt on him,” she said.

City commissioners are expected to vote on Oct. 23 on whether to fire him or give him his job back.

It is hard to fathom how this once sleepy oceanfront enclave named All-American City three times for how it built a healthy community through collaborating with residents, businesses and other stakeholders, has fallen to become scandal ridden.

One after another, there is a new revelation each week. This has all the workings for the script for “How not to run a Government.”

Where are the college of former mayors when the residents need leadership?  

Will someone intervene and encourage her to preserve the dignity of Delray Beach by stepping down? I have seen this pattern a few times during my tenure as a reporter and I agree with Wright that “some will be walked out and some will be handcuffed out, but she has to go.”

This is more than a Mayberry mindset. It goes deeper than walking down Atlantic Avenue and seeing high-end restaurants and a nice beach. It is about the people’s safety. If the mayor thinks so lowly of black people, how can black residents and employees get a fair shake?

Who is representing them in this All-American City?

If Gretsas’ allegations are true, one has to ask, how can the city under Petrolia’s leadership be a governing body of service, inclusion, and promote a cohesive community?

This gives credence to the idiom, “a fish rots from the head down.”

C. Ron Allen can be reached at [email protected] or 561-665-0151.

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