Changes to the Delray Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency board this week have sparked some racial and political tension in the city.
The conflict came to a head late Tuesday, when a split city commission appointed two members to the city board amid criticism.
The Community Redevelopment Agency, which uses taxpayer dollars to invest in revitalizing blighted areas, had been managed by an independent, seven-member board until April. The city commission dissolved the board and took it over, which drew intense scrutiny from some residents.
Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson, who pushed the city commission to dissolve the CRA, said the new board needed two additional members to better represent the district. Johnson is the only black commissioner and the only one who lives in the Northwest/Southwest neighborhood, a portion of downtown that has long sought attention and investment from the CRA.
“I, for one, don’t know if I can 100 percent represent the area that we are going to concentrate on for the next two to three years,” Johnson said. Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Vice Mayor Adam Frankel agreed, voting in favor of a seven-member board.
The makeup of the seven-member CRA board had been four black and three white members. But the five-member commission included four white and only one black members.
The commission had the option of keeping the redevelopment agency as a five-member board or adding two volunteer members to make it seven. Both new volunteers are black.
Johnson added that it was important the commission was aware of “the optics” of lacking representation on the board.
The city commission dissolved the independent CRA in part because of what commissioners described as inaction in areas along Atlantic Avenue west of Swinton Avenue, a largely African-American and Caribbean-American community west of the prosperous East Atlantic Avenue.
Commissioner Ryan Boylston resisted dissolution of the CRA and fought the new appointments Tuesday. He said the decision was rash and the commission hadn’t discussed the plan enough.
“You really feel like you know the needs of the Southwest (Northwest) community?” Johnson asked Boylston and Commissioner Bill Bathurst.
“Yeah, and I feel like the voters do too,” Boylston responded. Boylston was elected in March, defeating incumbent Mitch Katz, who championed an unsuccessful CRA takeover during his tenure.
Outside the commission chambers, tensions were also high.
A former board member, Reggie Cox, chastised Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners in a Facebook post shortly before the commission meeting Tuesday.
Cox called Petrolia “the most divisive mayor in the last 30 years” and called the dissolution of the independent board “black removal.” But Petrolia was among the majority that voted Tuesday to add two members — both black and Northwest/Southwest residents — to the board.
Just weeks ago, Cox was accused of stoking the discriminatory fires in Delray Beach. Cox’s past incendiary social media posts about Jewish people were criticized by Frankel, a Jewish attorney who called the posts offensive and anti-Semitic.
Cox called the CRA takeover and the mention of his social media posts “purely political.”
The debate Tuesday ended with a 3-2 vote to expand the agency board by two members.
A defeated Boylston then made the first nomination: Connor Lynch, an insurance agent with an office on Federal Highway and the son of former Delray Beach Mayor Thomas Lynch.
Connor Lynch is white, and does not live or work in the Northwest/Southwest neighborhood.
Only Bathurst supported the nomination.
The commission — with a Frankel, Petrolia and Johnson voting bloc — appointed Angeleta Gray and Pamela Brinson to the board. Both are black, both live in the Northwest/Southwest neighborhood.
Gray is a former city commissioner. Brinson unsuccessfully ran for office against Grey in 2014.
A frustrated Boylston said: “I just hope Delray Beach is paying attention and looking at when these applications came in.”
The commissioners said several people had applied for the board seats, but the full list of applicants was not made public before the Tuesday meeting.