Peace, Love & Understanding

I’m quite sure you don’t want to read another thing about the coronavirus.

And so, this column is not about Covid-19, but about the capabilities and vulnerabilities of our local community.

Despite the hasty and immediate resignation of Fire Chief Neal DeJesus last week, our Fire Rescue department is top-notch as evidenced by its recent accreditation and by the stellar service we see every single day of the year, 24/7.

It’s during times like this when you appreciate the high quality of our front line public safety professionals. You appreciate the training, the educational requirements, the tough hiring process and the culture of caring that has been nurtured for decades and carries into the present despite some upheaval at the upper ranks.

Same with our police department, which I’ve noted on many occasions, are the unsung heroes of Delray’s revitalization and the guarantor of our future success. You cannot have a future without a sense of security. People won’t live here, invest here, open for business or raise their families in a place where they don’t feel safe. So while we have our fair share of problems, the men and women who protect and serve us are more than capable and for that we can be grateful.

As a result, I will always support policies that ensure that we can field the best possible public safety departments. We must continue to invest in talent, equipment and training. It’s worth it–especially in times like these. But in less stressful times as well. When you dial 911, you want to be assured that the very best are showing up at your door within a few minutes.

I also think we are fortunate to be in a community with several outstanding hospitals—Delray Medical Center, Bethesda, Boca Regional and West Boca Medical Center—all have their strengths.

I can speak personally about Delray Medical having served 7 years on the hospital’s governing board.

Each meeting was a mini-education on the medical needs and capacity of our community as we did our best to support the efforts of the hundreds of professionals who handle everything from Class 1 trauma’s to appendectomies.

I think of rural areas that are under served by doctors, nurses and specialists and I think of how fortunate we are to live in a community with an abundance of medical and scientific talent.

By no means am I underplaying this pandemic. It is serious and potentially deadly—especially for the vulnerable in our community of which there are many.

But I do think it is helpful to understand and appreciate that we live in a community reasonably well-equipped to handle what’s thrown at us.

I joked to my wife that we live half the year in terror—fearful of monster hurricanes for months on end and what it might do to our lives and livelihoods.

Now, because of a Wuhan market filled with strange meats, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Delray is cancelled along with most other things we’ve come to enjoy and rely on to fuel our economy. I know it’s not as simple as that, but whether we like it or not, we are intertwined with the rest of the world and with each other.

Sometimes that can be really good (cheap goods, trade, foreign investment) and sometimes it can bite us.

As this crisis unfolds, please look after your neighbors and yourself. Also please keep in mind our local businesses. They are sure to be taking a whack from this situation. They will need our support going forward.

So will our front line city employees, first- responders and health workers who will tasked with so much in the coming days, weeks and possibly months.

Last week, my friend went to Publix and saw a cashier abused and insulted because the store was out of toilet paper and soap. He made sure to compliment the employee and thank her for her service.

We are all stressed. It’s important that we maintain our compassion.

Thinking of you all during this difficult time.

 

Unsung But Never Forgotten

Delray PD “Tactical Team” circa 1990. Sgt. Don West, future Chief Jeff Goldman, Officer Phil Dorfman, Sgt. Toby Rubin and Lt. Allan Thompson.

It’s hard to believe that’s been almost 18 years since 9/11.

Children have been born and have reached adulthood since that tragic day.

So much of our daily lives have changed that I have a feeling we don’t even realize just how much life is different as a result.

I saw a stat the other day that struck me.

Deaths from 9/11 related illnesses will soon pass those lost on the day of the attack.

They are dying of cancer and other 9/11 related disorders as we were reminded during recent Congressional testimony that finally led to more funding for victims and first responders.

That reminder was made personal recently when I dropped by a Delray Beach family reunion of a retired firefighter who lost a sister in law on 9/11 and has watched his brother fight cancer as a result of being near the site of the attack in lower Manhattan.

Families are continuing to suffer emotionally and physically. Some nightmares never quite end and that’s sobering. Those who devote their lives to public safety know that in their bones, but they sign up for that life anyway.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for public safety professionals—police officers, firefighters, paramedics and those who serve on our beach patrol. It seems that a lot of people gripe about pensions and benefits and there is no doubt that public safety is an expensive proposition. I would suspect that it will get more so as our society deals with challenges ranging from active shooters and opioid addicts to mental illness and extreme weather events.

But for those who complain about the cost, imagine how expensive it would be without it.

In Delray Beach, police and fire are half of your city budget—at least that’s what it used to be and I suspect that’s still true.

But I have always believed that the unsung heroes of Delray have been the men and women who have served on police and fire rescue departments.

There would be no downtown without them because we would not have been able to attract investment had we remained an unsafe city, which we were for a period of time back in the day before two generations of police officers and firefighters came to work every day and turned things around.

How bad was it?

Well in the 80s, they were pelted with rocks and bottles after responding to fights outside of bars on West Atlantic Avenue, the gateway to our city. Some neighborhoods were so hostile to police officers that I once saw the severed heads of pigs impaled on street signs as a warning for law enforcement to stay away. They didn’t—they just persisted. Thank goodness these officers did. Because they saved Delray Beach.

 

I was privileged at the time to do frequent “ride alongs” and saw some amazing officers do their best to disrupt street level drug sales. Entire parts of Delray Beach were open air drug markets with cars coming in off the Interstate to buy crack cocaine from dealers who used  little children as look-outs at all hours of the night.

I remember, as a young reporter, interviewing then Chief Rick Overman who promised to chase the dealers off the avenue. He predicted that the drug sales would first migrate into the neighborhoods where it would be more difficult to track but he asked for more resources and for the community to be both patient and to play a role in helping make their neighborhoods safer.

MAD DADS was formed and groups of men— most from the neighborhood but a few volunteers from other parts of the city—would confront dealers on the street corners and ask them to stop selling the drugs that hurt so many people and kept residents inside their homes quaking with fear.

Police and fire were partners in that effort and other efforts to make Delray Beach a safer community, one where it would be possible to build something of value.

Over the years I became close with many of the men and women who served. I looked up to them. I admired their dedication, commitment and bravery. They taught me so much.

It’s important to mention them because cities have these unsung heroes and heroines that often get lost. But if they didn’t exist, places such as Delray would be a whole lot different.

My list is a long one and this is by no means complete but let’s just say Delray would have been vastly different and I believe worse off if people such as Adam Rosenthal, Vinnie Mintus, Jim Tabeek, Rich Murphy, Chief Overman, Chief Kerry Koen, Johnny Pun, Fred Glass, Robert Stevens, Toby Rubin, Mike Swigert, Brian Bollan, Dwayne Fernandes, Craig Hartmann, John Battiloro, Mike Wise,  John Palermo, Wayne Yoder, Russ Accardi, Mike Wigderson, John Tomaszewski, Eddie Robinson, Tom Whatley, Paul Shersty, Tom Quinlan, Chuck Jeroloman, John Evans and many others went to work elsewhere or if we failed to remain competitive and let them go elsewhere.

I wish there was a way to formally honor these unsung heroes—people who went the extra mile, accomplished the nearly impossible and made a true and lasting difference.

If you want a special village—you need to create an environment in which people can flourish and reach their potential.

Like everything, it begins and ends with leadership that empowers, encourages and builds trust and relationships. From those essential elements you get accountability and performance. Innovation occurs and excellence flourishes in an environment where people feel safe to grow and are motivated to achieve.

It’s magical when it happens.

We were lucky to see it, but even if we came later, we are here because of the work of these unsung men and women. I hope and trust we will never forget that.

 

 

 

Safety Is Always Priority #1

Everything flows from a sense of safety.

 

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were walking the dogs in our neighborhood.

It was a nice evening and we thought an after work walk would be a good time to get some exercise and catch up.

On our way back, we heard what sounded like firecrackers from across Lake Ida Road.

My wife lamented that it was late in the year for fireworks and I told her it sounded more like gunshots to me.

A day or two later, I read in the paper that what we had heard was indeed gunfire—the latest skirmish in what police are calling a feud between two local families.

In this particular incident, nobody was shot. But a bullet did strike S.D. Spady Elementary School.

Earlier this week, Spady was put on lockdown when more gunfire erupted in the neighborhood.

I’ve been told by some friends in the know that this issue is not as simple as two families going after each other. The feud has escalated to friends and associates making it hard for the police to deal with the situation. As someone recently told me: “you can’t put on a net on this thing.”

As a believer in the Second Amendment, but someone who also believes in reasonable gun control, it’s tempting to write an anti-gun screed and I wouldn’t be totally out of line if I did so. To be clear, I believe in the right to bear arms, but I don’t think you should be able to carry a bazooka, I think bump stocks should be banned and if you are an upright citizen you shouldn’t be troubled by a background check.

Will the crooks and the crazies still find loopholes and ways to get weapons?

Yep.

Do we have to make it easy for them?

No.

Still, while I think America has a gun violence problem—we are also suffering acutely from a people problem too.

There as some people in our society who do not value our lives or theirs and heaven forbid you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So yes, you could be out walking your dog and be struck down by a stray bullet or you can be a child walking around your elementary school and catch a round.

That these outcomes are even remotely possible is a stark reminder that we have some serious issues to contend with.

The first order of business in any community is public safety.

It is without a doubt the most important responsibility of a local government.

So when I see these headlines, my heart goes out to the men and women in our Police and Fire Departments.

Our first responders have a huge responsibility and a very, very difficult job.

For many years, I had the privilege of “riding along” with our public safety personnel. I’ve always felt that we had a great Police Department and a very capable Fire Rescue operation. When you ride along with officers and firefighters, even for the briefest amount of time, you gain a deep appreciation for the challenges they face and the complexity that they deal with call after call, day after day, year after year.

I’ve long felt and have always contended that our Police Department were the unsung heroes of Delray because their hard work and effectiveness made it safe for people to invest here—to live, work and play in our community.

Our Fire Department which has always been so busy and so professional also gives us peace of mind that if something should happen they will be there within minutes to protect our lives and our property.

But headlines like we’ve seen lately are disturbing….deeply disturbing. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t have much.

When you love your city you take these things personally. These headlines leave you with a visceral reaction. This is where we live and if we are unlucky it’s where we can also die or be injured.

What’s happening is more than a wake up call: it’s an existential threat.

We can however, take comfort in the skills of the men and women of our Police Department. This may not be easy to throw a net over, but I have faith that we will find a way to end this nonsense.

 

We Take Care of Those Who Take Care of Us

Remembering Officer Braswell

We’re fragile.
Everything can be taken away in a moment.
Those were the thoughts that entered my mind when Sgt. Gary Ferreri called me Saturday evening to tell me about injuries suffered by Officers Christine Braswell and Bernenda Marc.
An hour or so later, while we sat listening to beautiful music at the Parker Playhouse, the texts and messages began to pour in. Christine had passed.
I’ve had these calls and messages before. We all have and it doesn’t get easier. And in many ways they get harder, as if the tragedies pile on top of each other digging deeper into our hearts.
This weekend’s devastating news brought back painful memories of Sgt. Adam Rosenthal and Officer Johnny Pun also lost tragically in accidents at the height  of their careers. I also thought back to a call in 2001 when we learned that 23-year veteran firefighter Peter Firehock was killed three days before Christmas by a man who plowed his van into Pete while he was out for a bike ride. Police think the van driver believed Pete might have witnessed him dumping a body in a nearby field. The driver received 35 years for vehicular homicide. We lost a 48-year-old community servant who was renowned for his diving skills and was beloved by all. He was known as a “hero among heroes.” These people are simply irreplaceable.
Christine and Bernenda were reportedly hit by an impaired driver while riding a scooter in Key West. Officer Marc suffered serious injuries and we pray for her recovery. She’s only 25. Christine was only 41. She was a star performer at the Police Department serving on the SWAT team and as a member of the Honor Guard. She was beloved by her fellow officers and the community.
It’s in these moments that you see just how close our officers are to each other and to many of the people they protect and serve.
This is a closeness we ought to appreciate, savor and be thankful for. I’m not sure how common it is–especially during these fraught times in which most of the headlines detail friction and worse between citizens and police.
But our department is different. It’s been different for a long time.

We support our police and they support us. It’s helped to give us good times and saved our town in bad.

There’s not only a warmth between citizens and our police department–fire department too. There’s a genuine affection too that runs both ways.
That was apparent when news spread about Officer Braswell and Officer Marc. We saw it on social media with an outpouring of prayer, in emails and text messages with people trying hard to find information and asking how they could help.
We saw it when Johnny Pun passed and we saw it when we lost Adam Rosenthal.
For those of us who knew these officers the news over the weekend stung extra hard.
Johnny was a force of nature with an electric smile, a great sense of humor and a ton of ambition for the kids he wanted to save from a life of crime.

Johnny and his partner and close friend the recently retired Fred Glass, founded a charter school and we became the proud home of the first Police Department in Florida to do so.
Johnny was a dad and a mentor to many who lacked strong parental guidance. He spoke Creole and reached deep into a part of Delray that’s hard to reach. He can never be replaced.
He went to school on a weekend day and was killed in a motorcycle accident. And suddenly his energy and his smile were gone. It was stunning. It’s still stunning.
We lost Adam in a car accident as he headed into work. He was a RAD instructor teaching women how to defend themselves. He worked with kids teaching them martial arts and mentoring them and he was an able and smart union leader.
Losing him so suddenly was surreal. He seemed indestructible.
But none of us are.
Christine was young, strong, focused and earned many friendships all over Delray. She worked as a training officer and with our Police Explorers. She reached deep into neighborhoods and won hearts and minds with her personality and dedication to Delray Beach.
It’s hard to imagine that she’s gone.
Officer Marc is a brand new officer. She was seriously injured.
She will need our prayers, support and love. And she will get it.
Delray officers refer to each other as family. And they are.
But many in our community also consider our officers family. We take pride in their service. We rely on their bravery and expertise.
And we pray for their safety. We also mourn when they are lost or hurt.
Thanks Christine.
You will never be forgotten.
In this town, we remember those who serve and protect us.
We take care of our own.

Debate Is Always Welcome

Rules of the game

Rules of the game

Occasionally you strike a nerve when you state an opinion.
That’s to be expected. And in some cases, desired.
But the rules around here are pretty simple. You can disagree with us and call us stupid, but you can’t do it anonymously. If you’re convinced we’re wrong, have hidden motives or simply beyond repair have the courage of your convictions and leave your name.
See we’re from the old school. We grew up in the newspaper business.

We didn’t print letters to the editor from people unwilling to sign their name. So we won’t post anonymous comments.

We also don’t allow profanity, personal attacks, racist screeds, sexist remarks or attacks on looks. (And yes, we know we have faces for radio).
Now I understand that sometimes topics are so sensitive that you might be unable to sign your name. But sorry, no exceptions. Anonymity allows for hyperbole and nastiness. That doesn’t fly around here. I sign my name, you sign yours. Simple.
A few weeks back I wrote about a potential merger of our fire department with the county.
I didn’t like the idea. That’s my prerogative. I think our city should have its own fire department. I also think we should treat our personnel fairly.
So while I oppose a merger,  I strongly favor investment in the department, it’s people and it’s facilities. We need to be competitive and you shouldn’t scrimp on a lifesaving service.

We invested quite a bit in public safety during my term in office.  We invested in equipment, increased salaries and benefits and most controversially boosted pensions. I am proud of what we did and it stopped a major recruitment and retention issue happening at the  time.
But for some people it’s never enough. That’s ok too.

Was it enough?

I thought so. Others might disagree, so be it. I’m gone. It’s history.

Still, by no means do I feel that you can just coast. The fire department requires a continued investment. If you want a good department, that’s the deal. Same with police. And just about everything else.

It seems that the city has made the decision not to merge. If that’s the case, we have to invest in the department or we risk a repeat of what we had 12-14 years ago, losing talented people to other departments. We need to be competitive.

Back to the issue of anonymity. When we published the post, we received a bunch of comments on social media and through the blog. Most wanted to keep the department and just about everyone favored offering competitive salaries and benefits. Which was our position.

But  I also  got a series of anonymous emails from one person that missed the point of what we were saying. I was accused of wanting to screw firefighters. I declined to post the anonymous comments.

Even though I vehemently disagree with the conclusions I would have posted them had the writer signed his or her name. That offer is still open.
So if you want to debate, we welcome it on this blog.
Just sign your name. You know who we are, it’s only fair we should know who you are.

And if you missed the point of the blog let me spell it out: I think Delray should have its own fire department like we have had for more than 100 years. I think we should provide competitive wages, benefits and pensions so we can attract and keep quality professionals. I think we need to invest in good equipment and facilities. And I think we need a good working relationship with the union.  Pretty simple.

 

Fire Clash: Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

fire

Recently, I watched a demonstration given by our outstanding Delray Beach Fire Department.

They were practicing a vehicle extraction and it was fun to watch how the firefighters work in tandem.

Earlier, we learned that the city has budgeted money for a new firefighter training facility, that long and sometimes bitter union negotiations may finally lead to a contract and that our city is negotiating a new long term deal to provide fire-rescue services to Highland Beach.

Oh and we also learned that on Wednesday—tomorrow– the county will present a proposal to take over our fire department.

More than a few people are scratching their heads on that one.

Boynton Beach recently decided against contracting for police and fire services with the county.

I hope our commission follows suit.

I think it would be a bad move. Check that: a very bad move.

I understand what’s driving the issue and I sympathize with the men and women of Delray Fire Rescue most of whom –I’m told–support going to the county. That they feel that way is a shame and ought to be a source of introspection in our city. It should never have gotten to this point.

For over two years, the prospect of “going to the county” has hung over our Fire Department. That’s not a healthy scenario. It’s hard to run a department when you don’t know what the future holds.

But despite the length of time, my hunch is very few people know what’s happening. Aside from a few robocalls from a mystery group decrying the move, there hasn’t been much public discussion about the issue.

This is disturbing on many levels and far from the transparency the public expects and deserves on this important issue.

If the commission decides to move forward, we can consider this a permanent decision. Once you get out of this business it will be too capital intensive to get back in.

So unlike other decisions—such as messing around with the LDR’s—this one won’t be able to be able put right by future commissions.

In my opinion, there are two important considerations, one intangible and one tangible when it comes to the future of fire rescue.

The intangible factor has to do with what kind of city we want to be. Our Fire Department has a rich history that dates back over 100 years. That means something to a lot of people. The department is a big part of our civic soul. Sure, you can paint the words “Delray Beach” on county fire trucks, but it won’t be the same as having our own department.

This issue is about what kind of town we want to be. Do we want to be a full-service city or do we begin to contract out services?

Regardless of how you feel, this deserves a full discussion with the community. That has not happened.

The second factor is a dollars and cents consideration and an autonomy issue. Do we want to be in control of an essential lifesaving service or not?

The driving factor behind a merger is it’s supposed to save taxpayers money.

We’ll see what the proposal says, but the devil is in the details and the terms of renewal. Many people I’ve talked to in the fire service and city management business don’t feel the economies of scale will hold up over time. We’ll see. And if you’re wondering if this is a new effort, it isn’t. I was approached several times during my seven years on the commission with the prospect of a merger. We weren’t interested, so the discussion was nipped in the bud. We felt it was important to have our own fire department. End of story.

To me an equal factor in this decision is autonomy; which over time also impacts cost.

If we have our own fire service we can shape it to meet the unique and changing needs of our community. If we merge and don’t like the service, or if we feel we need to move or add a station to meet changing needs and demographics, we’ll have to appeal to a large bureaucracy located in West Palm Beach instead of going to downtown Delray and pleading our case to the Chief, Manager, Mayor and Commissioners.

If we think we will have the same sway with seven county commissioners– none of whom represent any more than a sliver of Delray and some representing no part of our city –we are sadly mistaken.

Since fire represents roughly a quarter of our budget, does it make sense to give away control and leverage to politicians who most of us can’t vote for or against? Doesn’t sound like a good business move, does it?

When this idea was first considered a few years ago, I contacted a few commissioners and said the decision was more than just whether to keep the department or let it go.

If the decision is to keep the department, we have to invest in the department and its personnel. If we’re not willing to invest, well then we shouldn’t be in the business.

Can we afford to be in the business? I think so.

This city is not broke, contrary to the buzz around town, most of it emanating out of City Hall. Property values are growing at a steady rate and there are levers of revenue to tap, including charging for parking which would yield over $3 million a year.

We have ample opportunities to grow the tax base and we can always begin to share the cost of parking with our visitors. Notice I did not say we should give up free parking. There is no such thing as free parking; we pay for it, as taxpayers. We can begin to share that cost with visitors and we should.

That brings me to the men and women who serve in our department. We have to be fair to them. We have to offer a competitive compensation package.

Like most sagas, this one didn’t begin yesterday. There is a long back story. Here’s a summary of how we got to this point.

Over the years, police and fire union relations with the city administration have been fraught.

I’ve been observing these relations for close to 30 years. I’ve known many of the union leaders over the years and had the privilege of negotiating with a few over the years.

Many of the Union leaders I liked and respected. Some I clashed with.

All were tough negotiators who fought hard for wages and benefits.

When I was first elected in 2000 I ran on a platform of being accessible. I didn’t make any promises other than to be available and open minded. I was endorsed by police and fire, key endorsements at the time because both departments were highly respected and had deep ties to the community.

At the time, I was told by police and firefighters that city commissioners were not talking to them and that they were falling behind other departments when it came to wages and benefits.

I knew many of the men and women who served from my time as a reporter when I spent lots of time on ride alongs. It didn’t seem fair or wise to not talk to them once I was elected.

So I thought an open door and an open mind was a good policy. All I asked for in return was honesty. I wanted to hear their side of things but I wanted facts not emotions or falsehoods.

When I was elected in 2000 we were suffering from a horrible attrition problem in both police and fire. Worse, we couldn’t recruit either. We did not offer a package that would either stop the bleeding or allow our departments to recruit. I knew that working conditions and management weren’t the issues, Delray is a nice place to work and we had good chiefs at both departments. The community at large was supportive of public safety and our facilities and equipment were pretty good. We just weren’t competitive with places like Palm Beach County, Coral Springs, Boca and Fort Lauderdale in terms of wages and benefits.

So we made a decision to invest in public safety after our then police chief Rick Overman came to a labor meeting and told the commission and city manager that if we didn’t step up he could no longer protect the city to his satisfaction and all of us would be held accountable by the public. How’s that for a wake-up call? I’ll never forget it. But I’m glad the chief had the guts to speak the truth.

The Fire Chief at the time, Kerry Koen agreed with Overman. He was experiencing similar issues with recruitment and retention and we were paying a boat load of money to compensate for our thinning ranks. That was all I had to hear and the rest of the commission agreed as well. We needed to step up and invest. We did.

In my mind we weren’t being generous merely competitive.

The effort worked. We stopped the bleeding almost immediately and our departments began to recruit effectively. It takes a lot of money to recruit, screen and train police officers and firefighters. You don’t want to scrimp on quality and it’s a time-consuming process from identifying a recruit until the point where they’re able to be effective on the streets serving citizens.

There’s no question that police and fire are expensive services to provide in a city like Delray Beach. I’m not sure the exact numbers today but 8 to 10 years ago police and fire made up half of our city’s budget.

I thought it was a good investment. We would’ve not been able to revitalize Delray Beach if it wasn’t for our public safety departments.

I understand how the rank and file members of the fire department must feel. They will make more money if they go to the county. We have lost several talented personnel to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue as a result.

When the 2001 city commission under then Mayor David Schmidt stepped up in an effort to stop the bleeding and rebuild, we thought we had established a principle in which we would remain vigilant so as to keep our department competitive. We would never be able to match the county, but we felt we could offer a competitive package and other intangibles (good facilities, good management, a supportive city, knowledge that you will be working within the city limits not somewhere in vast Palm Beach County) that would be attractive to high quality firefighters and paramedics.

Maybe the arms race has gotten too expensive, but I would think there is still room for a city such as Delray to stay in the business, be fair to our firefighters and have control over fire and EMS.

We’ll see what the deal reveals, but before a final decision is made, the public needs much more information and an opportunity for meaningful input before we give away a 100 year investment in what I think is a great department with a rich and proud history.

I hope we consider the long-term impact on the community and have a deeper conversation on this issue. I believe in home rule and trust in our ability to solve problems and challenges now and in the future. But if we are going to stay in the business, we need to be definitive about it, and remove the specter of uncertainty over the department.