Help Wanted: Leaders Who Can Provide Stability

Stability provides a great foundation for progress.

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time—not too long ago– where working for the City of Delray Beach was an appealing prospect.

Delray was the city on the cutting edge.

A city of vision, promise and innovation.

We were known for being collaborative—a place where City Hall played well with non-profits, the business community, sister agencies and neighborhood associations.

Delray.

Got.

Things.

Done.

A lot of things.

To be sure, it was never nirvana.

Delray has always had its challenges and problems—all cities do. And we have had our share of big ones—from schools that need a ton of help, to crime, drugs, irresponsible sober home operators, civic bullies, poverty and racial tension. And that’s only a partial list. Many of these issues have proven to be stubborn and they have frustrated all sorts of efforts. But there were gains as well.

This was a place where you could see visible progress—on projects large and small. This was a place where many challenges were overcome and as a result opportunities were created.

It was a place where city leadership—staff, uniformed personnel, elected officials, citizens, business owners and volunteers — believed that by working together you could create a better, stronger, more resilient and caring community.

Consequently, it was a pretty good place to work.

Mayors and commissioners—for the most part—were kind and respectful to city staff. Delray became known for its stability—especially among department heads many of whom lived here and were deeply committed to the betterment of this city.

Like all large organizations, we had some clunkers.

Like all complex entities—and cities are very complex—mistakes were made.

But progress was made as well.

Giant strides. Things that make your heart swell and give you a sense of civic pride.

What happened in Delray Beach did not happen by accident.

It was envisioned. It was planned. And there was execution across the board.

Now some people don’t like what happened here and I respect that opinion.

I have a business acquaintance who moved to Hobe Sound because it just got too busy here for his tastes. Nevertheless, he finds that he drifts back here often to eat or catch a show at Old School Square. He won’t miss the Delray Open because he loves tennis under the stars. He also invests here from time to time and encourages others to do so.

Still, I’m sure others despise the hustle and bustle and long for the days when we were a sleepy village.

I’ll be honest, I don’t.

My frame of reference goes back 30 years and while I’ve always loved Delray, I wouldn’t trade the 1980s version for today’s city even with our warts and challenges.

I think most people feel the same way. That’s my hunch anyway. We have a good city, not a perfect city, but a good city.

In fact, we are such an interesting place that you would think top tier talent would flock here.

They don’t. Not anymore.

We are about to choose a city manager from what everyone seems to think was a pretty thin list of candidates. There were three finalists out of a small pool of applicants and on October 10 commissioners may move forward and choose a manager. That list is now down to two applicants, with one dropping out. You can go to the golf course this evening and mingle with the finalists—that’s what passes for public input these days—a cocktail party. I attended the last cattle call party at 32 East which produced Don Cooper. It’s hard to learn much about someone in such an environment.

When the head hunter was asked why a city like Delray was not attracting interest, the recruiter answered honestly. Delray is considered a challenging environment these days. It’s not the salary being offered—which is competitive, it’s the toxic political atmosphere and the commission’s reputation for infighting and micromanagement. To quote the Palm Beach Post: “Delray Beach has a ‘reputation’ for micromanagement and ‘other negative things’, according to the consultant for the Mercer Group which was hired to find candidates.

That’s sad, because they should be turned on because this should be one of the best jobs in America.

Hopefully, commissioners will make the right choice this time and hopefully whoever they choose will succeed. We need the next manager to be successful, because so many others have fallen short in recent years.

Since longtime manager David Harden left in 2012 we have seen five managers/acting managers come and go. We have seen a truckload of assistant managers/department heads/middle managers/city attorneys, rank and file and others leave as well.

This is not the sign of a healthy organization.

But the sun still shines. The property values still climb and Atlantic Avenue is still busy. You can flush a toilet (without a generator), call 911 and get great service and your trash gets picked up twice a week. So why should you care? Here are a few reasons why:

If you’ve run a business of any size, you know that turnover is costly. So if you pay taxes you should care.

If you run a business in town or want to build a home or add a new kitchen you should care too, because if your City Hall has issues you may find that efficiency suffers and over time that will cost you.

This is NOT A SLAP at city workers. This is a plea to make their lives better and get out of their way. Hold them accountable, but let them do their jobs.  I happen to know many and we have still quite a few talented people on staff.

But I worry that talent is being stifled. I worry that our best minds at City Hall are frightened. I am concerned that rather than rely on staff, we are hiring expensive consultants and then often ignoring their advice as well. I am worried that other cities are catching and passing us—and that impacts everything from quality of life and home values to job prospects and our sense of community and civic pride.

When government organizations get frightened, they seize up like an engine without oil. It’s safer to keep your head down than to rock the boat. The best minds—if situations permit—will leave as soon as they can. We are losing talent to Lake Worth, Boynton Beach and other cities. That hardly ever happened.

Many are taking lateral positions too—so it’s not as if they are leaving us for traditional reasons such as career advancement.

In July, I was the guest speaker at an event called “Bourbon Sprawl.” It’s a great group of urbanists, business people, planners, architects and others who care about community. They talk about issues impacting cities and they have a few drinks. It’s a fun group.

A few Delray Beach employees attended that event. I won’t name them, because I don’t want to expose anyone. I didn’t know most of them—and I hadn’t worked with any of them. But after the talk, I was told that city staff could get in trouble for talking to elected officials or if they made recommendations without being invited to do so.

And I left that event wondering how an elected official can do their job if they are not allowed to learn from the subject area experts that work for our city. Notably, one of the people I spoke to that night is gone. Too bad, because I sensed a bright mind who could have done great things for our community. I don’t know what the specific policy is, frankly I don’t care. Because if your staff feels stifled and frightened something is amiss. And we the people, lose out on their knowledge, talent and expertise.

I get the desire of a City Manager to control the flow of information, but I remember learning an immense amount from listening to and reading the work of our planning, financial, engineering, parks and public safety personnel. There is a middle ground which always includes the manager, but also enables policymakers to glean knowledge from subject area experts so they can make good decisions.

I was a young reporter here in the 1980s when we last suffered from instability at City Hall caused by strife on the dais. City Hall was a revolving door in those days. Then we had a landmark election that saw Tom Lynch, Jay Alperin and David Randolph sweep into office and we enjoyed a long run of stability, innovation, achievement, civic pride, community unity and problem solving. They set an example for future leaders.

At the time, staff remarked at how civil the Mayor and commission were—respectful of their professional acumen while still able to hold people accountable. I went to every meeting in those days. And I can tell you the mayor and commissioners questioned staff vigorously, but always respectfully. Assumptions were challenged and decisions were made. Not all were correct, but the batting average was really good and so we had progress. Lots and lots of progress.

 

We need to get back to those days. Before we give it all back. And if you think we’re bullet proof, let me assure you we are not.

A follow up story in the Post covering Commissioner Shelly Petrolia’s run for Mayor noted the “chaos” and turnover at City Hall. That’s a good story—but the Post enabled Commissioner Petrolia too artfully—but falsely—shift the blame to Mayor Glickstein. People all over town had a good laugh over that spin.

Sorry, but you own your fair share of the chaos after 5 years. Readers of this blog know I am no fan of Mr. Glickstein. But in fairness, he can’t be blamed for all of the chaos, dysfunction and lack of progress on everything ranging from Congress Avenue to the Old School Parks Plan. It takes three elected officials to tango.

Coincidentally, that’s how many seats are up this March.

 

Comments

  1. tom Lynch says:

    Jeff, you are correct in that the current situation is very much like the 80’s. I think it is actually worse if that is possible. If there are good candidates to elect, the voters can fix the problem.

  2. Lainie Lewis says:

    Very well stated!

  3. Skip Brown says:

    MAYBE YOU SHOULD INVITE SOME OF THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THE CITY HAPPEN IN THE 80’S…BACK TO DELRAY TO CREST THEATER. TO IMPART THEIR STORIES OF HOW..WHEN..WHO..AND HOW TO THE CURRENT COMMUNITY…..THEIR STORIES WOULD BE POWERFULL AND LIFE CHANGING. DELRAY NEEDS A KICK IN THE ASS AND A GOOD WAKE UP CALL BEFORE ALL IS LOST JEFF PERLMAN…JUST SAY IN.

  4. Patricia Westall says:

    Great article Jeff! Thanks for speaking truth when it needs to be said.

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