DELRAY BEACH — A fiery debate Wednesday was loaded with personal and professional jabs ahead of a sweeping election that could shift four seats on the five-member Delray Beach city commission.
With three commission seats and seven candidates on the ballot on March 13 — and one uncontested candidate — contenders sparred Wednesday on topics of education, development and infrastructure. But the back-and-forths mostly were commanded by indictments on each other’s characters.
Commissioners Shelly Petrolia and Jim Chard both are running for mayor, and Petrolia opened that debate by saying Chard had an unfair advantage. He knew the questions in advance because the hosts sent out an email to coordinators with Chard carbon-copied.
The debate, held late Wednesday at Arts Garage, was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. It’s typically the most popular debate of the municipal election cycle in Delray, and drew about 200 people Wednesday.
Chard sits on the Chamber of Commerce Advocacy Committee that curates the questions for the debate, so he was included in the email exchange, said Vin Nolan, interim CEO of the chamber.
Chard acknowledged the questions with an email reading, “Great questions my friend,” according to records shared with The Palm Beach Post by Petrolia’s campaign.
“I don’t need the extra time or energy or help,” Petrolia said before her opening.
Petrolia, a five year commissioner and real estate agent, said she wants to restore civility to an abrasive commission and chaotic City Hall, and keep Delray Beach in its “authentic state.”
Chard, a one year commissioner and retired business executive, said he also wants to restore — but he’s the one to do it.
Chard said he walked into a staff lunchroom and overheard employees say, “ ‘When she becomes mayor, I’m gonna leave.’
“We need to honor those people not chase them away,” Chard said.
In the past five years, Delray Beach has seen a considerable number of department heads and staff leave or get fired, disturbing city functions, leaders said.
The most combative debate by far was between candidates for Commission Seat 3 — incumbent Mitch Katz and challenger Ryan Boylston.
Boylston, who sits on the city’s Downtown Development Authority board, allegedly voted on a DDA budget that approved advertising payments to a community newspaper he co-owns, Delray Newspaper, the Coastal Star reports. Boylston’s marketing business, Woo Creative, also does work for some city-funded nonprofits, which might become a conflict of interest if he sits on the commission.
Katz was quick to bring up the allegations, accusing Boylston of ethics violations.
“I have not profited off anything in the newspaper in years,” Boylston later said.
When pressed about education, as most Delray Beach public schools suffer from low-grade ratings and underenrollment, Katz lauded the city’s education board. Boylston then pointed out he sits on that board.
Boylston fired at Katz for alleged online behavior, including making inappropriate statements on a Facebook group, Delray Cooked. When Boylston emailed Katz about a personal rift, Katz replied, “Call 211” — the suicide and cyber bullying hotline, Boylston said.
Boylston, Katz later told The Post, had emailed Katz about comments made on social media, to which Katz replied that a “great organization did recently present to the commission and they have professionals who might be able to talk and help you.
“Here is the link and you can dial 211 from your phone as well,” the email reads.
The candidates both agreed that the city needs to encourage development on West Atlantic Avenue and the Congress Avenue corridor; that nonprofits deserve city funding; and that a focus should be placed on improving schools.
For Commission Seat 1, three candidates — Richard Alteus, Eric Camacho and Adam Frankel — were cordial in comparison to their counterparts — mostly.
At one point, Frankel, a former commissioner for six years and an attorney, asked Camacho, a political novice who works in tech, to state the city’s millage rate, a tax levied on all properties in the city. Camacho said 19 percent.
The millage rate is about 7.21 mills, rarely calculated as percentages.
Camacho, though, won applause from the crowd over when he chastised social media, used by many in the city to “cyber bully,” he said. “I don’t condone that.”
Alteus, a former Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy running for office for the second time, said Delray Beach is divided into two -- the prosperous Delray and the less-fortunate Delray. The city should focus on affordable housing and programs for youth in lower-income areas, Alteus said.
Politicking aside, some candidates shared major changes they envision for Delray Beach:
- All of the candidates agreed that development efforts should be focused on West Atlantic Avenue, known as The Set, and a mostly-blighted counterpart to the economically thriving East Atlantic Avenue. They also agreed that Congress Avenue needs attention. Both promises have been made in past elections.
- Chard would support the narrowing Congress Avenue, a six-lane artery often used as a bypass for Interstate 95, to make it more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Petrolia attacked the idea, saying, “For everybody who lives in the real world, congress is abolsutely vital as a bypass.”
- Petrolia would push for funding for Delray Beach nonprofits only if they are transparent about how the money is used. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency gives millions to nonprofits, such as the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, Old School Square and the Arts Garage. But those funds aren’t subject to public record once they’re in the hands of nonprofit boards.
- Boylston, a member of the city’s education board, would push to convert middle schools to kindergarten-through-eighth grade, as Delray Beach public schools are struggling to earn high grade-ratings. The idea being explored in neighboring Boca Raton, where high-rated schools are teeming with students.
- Camacho said he would convert the city to 100 percent renewable energy powering its electric grid, but did not go into detail on how he’d accomplish what would likely be a costly venture. He said the public won’t find cardboard signs or paper fliers for his candidacy because they “get thrown away.”
- Frankel wants to establish a $1,000 fee for transient homes that rent to new tenants more than three times a year. The fee would target the hundreds of sober homes in Delray Beach, a pressing issue throughout the state. It also would affect those who use rental services like AirBnB. The money collected would go to code enforcement, tasked with regulating sober homes thanks to new city guidelines.
Watch the full two-hour debate here: