A Year Of Darkness

There’s a darkness in the center of town.

Anniversaries are funny things.

We mark the dates we like to celebrate—weddings, first dates, the opening of businesses. But we also mark the dates we’re troubled by—the loss of a loved one, the break up of a relationship, hurricanes etc.

For many in our community, 8/10 has become a date they will remember.

On August 10, 2021, the Delray Beach City Commission voted 3-2 to sever their relationship with Old School Square and terminate a 32 year history with the organization that created and largely funded that magical place on the corner of Atlantic and Swinton that catalyzed the rebirth of our downtown and became the creative hub of our  community.

A year later, the theater and museum remain dark despite sssurances from the commission majority and the City Manager that there would be a “seemless” transition with more and better cultural opportunities.

Instead, we’ve been left with expensive litigation, embarrassing headlines for the city and big bills ahead for taxpayers to get the place up and running again.

Over the past year, we have witnessed oodles of accusations against the volunteers and donors who lovingly supported Old School Square and worked on behalf of our community for decades.

Some of those volunteers and donors have been so poorly treated that they have vowed to never serve again. Others are steadfast in their resolve to not be bullied and have vowed to continue their efforts to bring a modicum of common sense back to a town that once was a beacon for other cities to admire and follow.

But divisive politics and a nonstop turnstile of staff at City Hall have left us with a lot of damage  and dysfunction.

Everywhere you go these days, people ask “what happened to Delray? “

We used to hear: “I wish our town got along as well as your town does.”

That’s a big swing in sentiment.

So why does it matter?

After all, the downtown is teeming with visitors, property values continue to soar and tourists are still flocking to “America’s Most Fun Small City.”

Indeed, all of those things are true. And I would argue that’s a testament to the good work that began in the late 80s with the Atlantic Avenue Task Force, Visions 2000, the Decade of Excellence, the Downtown Master Plan and other efforts large and small ranging from the Community Land Trust, the Cultural Plan, Southwest Plan and an important and groundbreaking initiative to improve race relations. There was a lot of good work done in this town. The success we’ve experienced was not an accident. It was planned and made possible by a generation of volunteers who cared passionately about working together to buld a better community.

At the center of it all was Old School Square.

Not only was the project a catalyst for downtown revitalization and civic renewal, but it was a place to gather, dream, talk things over and soak up the arts with a slew of memorable performances and exhibitions lovingly curated and made possible by local leaders who dreamt of making this a special place —and succeeded.

So this anniversary is a sad one.

Because we have lost so much. And I contend that the success mentioned before is endangered by a political culture that prizes personal retribution over doing what’s best for the community.

A month or so ago,  the city went back to the old playbook and held a charrette, or gathering, to determine what should happen at Old School Square.

Charrettes are great and there is a rich history of successful ones that made a profound difference in our town.

But the spirit of a charrette is to allow stakeholders to dream unencumbered and this one violated that basic and fundamental tenet. Attendees were told to focus on  “what” should happen at Old School Square not “who” should run the place.

That struck many as unfair.

But the city didn’t want to be embarrassed because the optics would have been bad if the stakeholders said they liked what they had. Besides, a majority of the commission had already decided that they wanted the Boca Museum and two local artists to be in charge only to see that idea fizzle out.

Lo and behold, the outcome of the charrette proved quite interesting and predictable really. The stakeholders who attended—many stayed away because they didn’t trust the process—said they wanted largely what they had before with the organization that was booted from the premises.

Many of us were not surprised because while Old School Square was by no means perfect or all that it could be, they were doing a whole lot right and there was no public clamor for a change.

So why was the group booted from the place they created? Why was there a sense of urgency to get rid of a group that provided 75-80 percent of the funding to support things like free concerts, art exhibits, theater productions and classes?

The answer to those questions can be found in one word: Politics (with a capital p).

Pure and simple.

The board, the donors and the volunteers pissed off a few people who had the power to break the place.

Why?

What did these people do that was so heinous?

Well, they didn’t support the right candidates as deemed by the powers that be.

And that’s why we hear the refrain that whoever inherits those buildings should be apolitical or perhaps from another community entirely. Really?

We should ask involved citizens to not have an opinion? We should ask another community to come in and run cultural programs in our town?

So I wonder.

I wonder if the board, donors, volunteers and supporters of Old School Square had supported the so-called “right candidates” if there would be a clamor to make non profit board members apolitical or if there would be this need to bring in Boca to run our community’s beating heart.

I doubt it.

Granted, non-profits should not be political.

But individuals who choose to volunteer shouldn’t have to disenfranchise themselves to serve. Old School Square was not political. But the people involved do have opinions and they are entitled to be citizens. Instead of doing what you can to “make those people go away” perhaps the powers that be ought to look in the mirror and ask why a large segment of community leaders and volunteers are unhappy with their politics. Maybe, they should even talk to those who disagree with them. I know that’s a radical concept, but some dialogue might have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars because that’s what it is going to take to fix this mess.

For the past year, the board, donors, volunteers and supporters of Old School Square have been excused of being “political”, “double dipping” (whatever that is) and even worse. But all they’ve been doing is fighting for something they believe in. Bullies don’t like that. They like to dish it out, they don’t like it when you push back.

There have been no conversations to solve this expensive problem, no efforts to settle the litigation, establish dialogue or work things out.

Instead, we’ve seen a once effective CRA weaponized by politics and used as a cudgel to strike back at those who have dared to stand up for what they believe in. The latest is the CRA effort to get the Small Business Administration to investigate PPP funds used to get Old School Square through a horrible  and unforeseen pandemic.

All of this matters because all of this comes with a cost.

It will take millions of taxpayer dollars to bring Old  School Square back on line. Millions of dollars to make the darkened Crest Theatre function again and get the museum up and running. PS those millions were already raised and being deployed when the plug was pulled.

The generous donor who paid to improve the Cornell Museum, renovate the Crest Theater and add a long coveted commercial kitchen so the organization could host more and better community events pulled her funds and recently spoke before the commission to ask what happened and why those beloved buildings are still dark a year later.

I wonder if other donors were watching and thinking maybe they ought to invest elsewhere. Yes, there is a hidden cost to this brand of politics.

A year ago, I wrote two emails to our latest City Manager Terrance Moore.

The first was to welcome him to our city and wish him well. I wished Mr. Moore success because we’ve had 9, 10 or a hundred (I forget)  City Managers come and go (many humiliated and two with lawsuits) since David Harden retired in 2012 after 22 years in the job.

We need a good manager. We need one to succeed and build a staff that can effectively serve our community.

I got a nice reply back from Mr. Moore at the time.

My second email was a cautionary one after the August 10 decision. I felt that the Manager’s messaging was political and that it was dangerous because managers need to serve both sides of the divide. I also felt,and still do, that he does not grasp the enormity of the mistake that was made and the monumental task it will be to bring back Old School Square.

Those who know would have cautioned Mr. Moore that the transition would not be seemless and that there are many moving parts to consider and understand that he simply doesn’t get. How can he? He’s brand new to our community.

I don’t fault Mr. Moore for the decision.  He didn’t make it. But I do fault him for not speaking truth to power and for failing to talk to a wide swath of the community on this issue to gain a better understanding of the importance of Old School Square.

The lesson here, as we mark a sad anniversary, is that before you break something you really need to be confident you can put it back together again.

I’ve seen a lot of things broken in recent years by people who weren’t around when things got fixed.

Cities are delicate organisms—resilient only to a point. Pull a thread here and there and you may get lucky. But pull the wrong thread and a place can unravel.

The sad lesson is something that can take 30 plus years to build can be broken in one night by one vote. And it wasn’t even on the agenda…so you , the ones who pay the bills, didn’t get a chance to say stop.

 

Further Adventures….

Shameless plug…available on Amazon. If you are interested in Delray you may like it.

A few years back, I wrote a book.

“Adventures in Local Politics” was an attempt to chronicle my experiences as an elected official from 2000-2007.

It was also an attempt to write the book I was looking for and could never find—a primer on local government. I wanted to share some insights about the things that I saw that worked and I wanted to share what didn’t, because I’m a firm believer that mistakes are a great teacher.

During Covid, my old publisher went belly up and I learned that my book would no longer be available on Amazon or other outlets.

Since I still get a few stray requests for books, I decided to find another publisher and refresh my work. I spent about six months adding a new introduction and working with a new editor to tighten up the manuscript.  I decided not to update the story because I felt I should preserve my original experience. In other words, I didn’t include current events. I figure that’s what this blog is for.

Still, the experience of revisiting the Delray I once knew was powerful and potentially instructive to a growing movement of people seeking to make our hometown better. There’s lessons in the book that I firmly believe resonate today.

Still, revisiting the Delray of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s was impactful.

So much has changed.

It’s as if the town that I knew— and fell in love with—has vanished.

Now I am not talking about the physical changes, which are many and certainly important. I’m talking about the atmosphere, the feeling in town, the sense of community and the general mood.

Truth be told, Delray is not alone. The world has changed and so has America.

Some of those changes have been good and some have been…well …not so good. I’m trying to be diplomatic.

I think the fundamental change is that there is a coarseness to our society.

There’s less kindness.

Less teamwork.

Less collaboration.

Less trust.

Sadly, there’s a lot more nastiness, individualism, and suspicion of each other.

As happy as I am— and I am blessed– and as happy and fortunate as many of my friends are, I can honestly say that an overwhelming majority feel that there is something fundamentally wrong these days. Things just don’t feel right.

Diving back into the galleys of my old book I was transported back to a different time and a very different place. I miss that place. I loved that place. I long for that place and so do many of my friends.

We were a community and a country brimming with possibilities and aspirations. Each year things seemed to get better. You could feel the optimism in the air. It was electric and our confidence in the future grew alongside our vision which was exciting and seemingly within reach.

The trust in each other grew as well. When we saw our collective dreams become reality, we believed that anything was possible.

Yes, I know it’s easy to glorify the past, easy to brush past the sins and the mistakes. And mind you, there were plenty of both.

There were lots of heartbreaks and disappointments, but we seemed to absorb them better as a society back then. Some of the setbacks actually made us closer.

I’ll give you an example.

I served in the wake of 9/11. Do you remember what a shock to the system that was? The horror? The sadness? The fear?

We discovered that many of the terrorists were living among us. They were at our library; the mastermind of the plot filled a prescription at Huber’s Drugs. Those monsters lived in The Hamlet, at Laver’s Racquet Club and worked out at a gym on Atlantic and Military Trail.

It was all so surreal, but we came together.

We gathered at Old School Square for a vigil, gathered again at the Community Center for a prayer service and beamed with pride when our police department created a volunteer Homefront Security force staffed by senior citizens wearing berets and sharp uniforms.

Those beautiful souls– many were World War II veterans and members of our Greatest Generation– patrolled our public buildings. They watched over us and were proud to give back once more to a country and a city that they loved.

And we loved them back.

I remember talking to Charlie Goldberg and Bob Banquer, two of the most dedicated volunteers you can imagine. They were concerned, but they weren’t worried. We beat the Nazis, they told us. We surely won’t allow the terrorists to destroy our way of life.

And we didn’t. We didn’t allow the terrorists to win.

But I do wonder, if our divisions will do what the Nazis, the Soviets and the terrorists couldn’t do. And I’m not alone in my worry.

Right here at home, there is so much paranoia and mistrust. So much division.

Who’s behind this group? Who’s behind that candidate?

MAGA people will save our nation. MAGA people will destroy America.

We speculate on social media. We make things up. We try and hurt each other. And often, we succeed. To what end?

There wasn’t so much of that back in the day. There was some of it, but for the most part we got most of what we aimed to do over the finish line. The theme of the commission I served on was “community unity.” It was a phrase coined by Commissioner Alberta McCarthy that we happily embraced and truly believed in.

Did we achieve that lofty ideal?
Do you ever?
Maybe the best aspirations are always just out of reach. Maybe they are designed to be big enough to never quite be achievable but exciting enough so that you never stop trying.

Of course, there was no social media back in those days but that’s not really the problem. It’s a tool. You can use a hammer to build something or you can hit someone over the head. It’s how we use the tool that matters.

I like Facebook. I get to wish my friends a happy birthday, share pictures of Gracie our new golden retriever and I have an opportunity to see what old and new friends are doing. Heck, the platform even helped my little bird Bailey get rescued last week. (It’s a long story and a good one, it will be in the next book or an upcoming blog).

Nope, there’s something else in the water.

As I read through my book, I remembered anonymous emails, mailings and rumors designed to divide us, frighten us, and misrepresent some of the work being done in town.

It was there. It could be vicious, but it was an aberration not a way of life.

And when our local government pushed back with the facts, those facts were embraced and believed. Local government was trusted by residents who knew the men and women who worked at City Hall.  There was a base level of faith in institutions.

They knew their local government wasn’t perfect. They knew that mistakes would be made but they also assumed –correctly— that the people working at City Hall were trying their best. You may have been angry that Mayor Schmidt (one heck of a mayor by the way) favored moving Atlantic High School, but most people didn’t think he meant to do the city harm.

In fact, I think one of the reasons the more vehement opponents of that move failed to defeat those who favored the new school was because they assumed a corrupt rationale for the policy. There was none.

Like the idea or not, most citizens understood that the policymakers serving the city loved Delray Beach. We just had a different vision for the future.

I’m not sure if that’s true today. I’m not sure elected officials or government employees get the benefit of the doubt anymore. Check that, I’m sure that they don’t.

That’s a fundamental shift. And that’s sad.

Yes, many of the aforementioned have earned the distrust of their constituents. But what about the good ones? And what about our system?

Do we trust it, does it still serve us. Why aren’t we attracting better leaders to do the important work of building community?

So, yes, I miss the old days of trust, aspiration, partnership and yes love.

We were a place where you could feel embraced because you were. And that meant everything.

I didn’t write about Old School Square’s demise in the new/old book. But I did write about its importance as an idea and as an object of civic pride. The restoration and revitalization of those historic buildings were important to the evolution of our town and our civic culture. It was not only important it was elemental. And we just flushed it away.

Hundreds of donors and volunteers—likely thousands— feel an attachment to that campus and the non-profit that created and breathed new life into those old and once decrepit buildings.

The Delray I knew and wrote about wouldn’t have handled the issue the way it was dealt with recently.

If audits were late, there would have been an inquiry and a sit down. If performance lagged there would have been a series of meetings and a pledge to work together to fix what was wrong.

The efforts of volunteers and donors would have been acknowledged and more importantly respected.  There would have been love (tough if need be) and room for thanks as well.

We are devoid of those fundamental building blocks of community today both here and across our great land. Nobody but the corrupt fears accountability. But respect, gratitude and yes love are the table stakes behind anything of value or it won’t last.

I took a visit back to that world I wrote about. And I didn’t want to leave it. I live in the same exact place but somehow, I feel very far from home.

If you want to take a peek back at that Delray here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Local-Politics-Jeff-Perlman/dp/1736105167/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1RNPO1P6WQWTY&keywords=adventures+in+local+politics+jeff+perlman&qid=1655317745&sprefix=%2Caps%2C53&sr=8-1

 

Congratulations

Delray Beach Police Detective Paul Pitti retired last week after 25 years of distinguished service to our community.

I met Paul at the beginning of his career, and it was clear to all those who worked with him that he was going places in the department.

I happened to talk last week with one of Paul’s former supervisors and he said Detective Pitti was one the “best men I ever had a chance to supervise.” High praise indeed because we have been fortunate to have a bunch of great men and women serve and protect us.

Blessed with a great personality, a wonderful sense of humor and a ton of skill, Paul was a valuable contributor everywhere he was assigned.

Fortunately, he won’t be going too far. Paul will become a Highland Beach Police Officer going to work for Chief Craig Hartmann, also a former Delray officer.

We wish Paul the best. Highland Beach is getting a good one.

On a sad note, we learned last week that retired Delray Police Officer Mike Kosick has passed away.

Mike was one of the early downtown police officers assigned to keep an eye on things when Atlantic Avenue began to pop. He also distinguished himself during several undercover assignments.

We mourn his loss.

Speaking of our Police Department, my company CDS International Holdings was proud to be one of many sponsors of the annual Delray Citizens for Delray Police Awards Dinner recently.

Thanks to the herculean efforts of Perry Don Francisco and Chuck Halberg, the banquet has become a favorite event bringing together current officers and retirees to celebrate the best of the PD.

This year, Sgt. Andrew Arena, Capt. John-Crane Baker, Lt. Scott McGuire and Detective Pitti were honored for their long service to the department.

Administrative Assistant Stacy Tarantino was recognized at the 2021 “Patricia Taylor Employee of the Year” and Detective Anthony Sala was named 2021 Officer of the Year.

Service Award recipients were Sgt. Paul Weber, Executive Administrative Assistant Beatrice Screciu and Administrative Assistant Patricia Swain.

We are blessed to have such a wonderful police department. Our Fire Rescue department is also top-notch. It’s so important that we recognize these special people.

 

A Valentine & A Letter Too

We can sure use some can’t we?

Note: A couple of things.

First, we want to offer our heartfelt condolences to the Randolph family on the loss of their beloved matriarch Mary.

Mrs. Randolph passed last week, a day after her 64th wedding anniversary to her sweetheart David.

David and Mary Randolph are local legends. David served two stints during two different eras on the city commission and became forever known as “the commissioner” to his legions of admirers. But Mrs. Randolph was a force in her own right.  She was universally admired and known for her strength and devotion to her family and community. She will be dearly missed.

This week, I wanted to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and wrap up my recent obsession with the fate of Old School Square with a Valentine to its founder and an open letter to our City Manager. Unless something grabs me and compels me to write, we will let this story unfold in the courts and ultimately at the ballot box. Meanwhile, thanks for your overwhelming response to this series of essays on OSS. Your comments mean a lot and are deeply appreciated. So here goes..

 

I want to send a heartfelt  Valentine to someone who is very special to all of us.

Her name is Frances Bourque and she happens to be the founder of Old School Square.

But she is so much more than that to those of us who love her. She’s a leader. She’s an inspiration and she’s a case study in grace.

She’s also a fighter even though her first million instincts would be to seek peace before conflict.

But she’s also adept at standing her ground. When faced with adversity she summons reserves that few others possess and it is that strength that I and so many others have come to deeply admire.

Frances has not had an easy six months.

Her life’s work, Old School Square, has been threatened by three members of a City Commission who just don’t appreciate what that place means to this community. OSS had the doors locked on their generosity and creativity last week. Another mean spirited insult hurled at the community non-profit six months after a 3-2 vote terminated their lease after 32 years of dedicated service to Delray.

I can’t get in the  head space of the mayor and two commissioners who made this decision; 11,000 plus petitioners who objected can’t either, but what bothers me most is that none of the three have managed to say a kind word about Frances.

It’s shameful.

But this is a Valentine, so let me say a few kind words.

First, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

That’s why 8 former mayors jumped at the chance to sign a letter because they valued Frances’ creation and ideas.

Many of us have benefitted from Frances’ wisdom, advice and inspiration.

None more than me. Maybe a few equal, but none more.

I have adored Frances for three decades, hung on her every word and found a way forward as a result.

As someone who is passionate about leadership, I’m in awe of Frances’ affect on people. Her ability to motivate, inspire and get us to think that anything was possible.

It was those skills that enabled her to gain support to restore a dilapidated old school that catalyzed the rebirth of our city.

It’s ironic that her unique  ability to spell out and sell a vision fell on deaf ears and hardened hearts. But that’s not Frances’ fault or shortcoming. This failure to get together and save a treasured community asset is on the city.

What a sad time this is. We are so divided. We are so lost.

Some are so lost they don’t even know they are lost. Nope, just the opposite, they beat their chest as a treasured asset goes dark. Wow.

But through these last miserable months. Through all the lies. Through all the indignities that really make the city look bad, I have been watching Frances and the rest of the board and staff of Old School Square.

These are some really special people.

They have been surrounded by love and support from a great cross section of the community and that has given them strength.

They leave with their heads held high.

Nobody is giving up. Least of all Frances.

If anything, these travails have made us realize once again how much she is loved and valued.

When we lack love and empathy in our community as we do now, we value love and empathy even more.

When the darkness comes, as it did last week, when the city came with locks to make sure those who really love the place can’t have access anymore, we search for light.

Frances is the brightest of those lights.

She deserves a Valentine’s from all who value what this town was and could be again. So happy Valentine’s Day Frances. We love and appreciate you more now than ever.

Now for the letter…

Dear City Manager Moore,

We haven’t met.

I did write to welcome you to town when you got the job.

I also emailed you when you sent a letter to the community about Old School Square that I thought was “political”. I wanted to caution you that being political is the easiest way for a City Manager to lose their job. Since you are the 9th manager to serve in the post since David Harden retired in 2012 (after 22 years on the job) it’s fair to say that your role comes with a fair amount of risk.

Many of your predecessors have left on bad terms, filing lawsuits after they’ve been axed. They’ve found that road difficult and expensive. There really is something to be said about the old adage: “you can’t fight City Hall.”

After all, we have to fight with our own money, while the city gets to use the taxpayer’s money.

This sure is a good town for lawyers, especially one firm, which seems to get a great deal of business.

But I digress.

This letter is an offer to help.

It has been six months since the Commission voted 3-2 to terminate Old School Square, the community non-profit that ran that complex on the corner of Atlantic and Swinton for 32 years. 3-2, and 32—kind of ironic how that works.

Anyway, it seems like you’ve had some difficulty figuring out what to do with OSS which was programmed by volunteers right up until the city showed up with police and put locks on the doors February 10.

Question: Can we the citizens also call on our police to enforce our leases?

Just asking.

Sorry, I’m veering off topic.

Again, it seems like there’s been some puzzling over what to do with the buildings now that the folks who created the place have been kicked to the curb.

You issued a Request for Proposals that for some reason didn’t include the Cornell Museum and nobody responded.

Have you ever been to the Cornell?

It was nice, especially when Margaret Blume stepped up with a generous gift to make it look spectacular. She also made a big donation to redo the Crest Theatre and to build a much needed and long coveted commercial kitchen. That project was stopped dead in its tracks, a month before completion. Did that make sense? It was paid for, now we the taxpayers will have to pay for it. All of this is lost on me and about 11,000 others who signed a petition asking the city to slow down and talk.

Oh well. That ship has sailed.

I was in the Cornell a day before you guys put the locks on the building and the museum was stripped bare. Walls that were once adorned with beautiful art are now empty. The building seemed sad, is that possible?  I think it is. It’s as if its soul was removed and I guess it has been, hasn’t it?

I know you may not agree with me (and 11,000 others who feel that this was a terrible decision) or you’re not allowed to agree. I do understand how your job works. You’re tasked with carrying out the will of the majority of your bosses—those three elected officials who voted to terminate. That can’t be easy.

But after 6 months and an RFP that produced a goose egg, it seems like you are still fishing around for a solution so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest one.

But before I do, I understand you are being pitched a rich consulting deal from somebody with big experience in the corporate side of entertainment. I’m sure he’s a great asset, but I would caution you about expenses and cutting the public out of this process. Losing the community non-profit is a big deal, turning the place over to a for-profit interest or an out of town non-profit would also be a blow to our community. I’d also watch for expenses, historically the non-profit you guys kicked to the curb raised 75-80 percent of the expenses. A city run facility would take on 100 percent of the costs. I guess you could raise ticket prices, but remember OSS offered free and heavily subsidized entertainment options.

Anyway, once again, here’s a thought to consider.

It’s a radical idea but I know you must get a lot of those. I was once a public official, and I actually kept a file of some of the more creative concepts that came across my desk. My favorite was from a guy who wanted to pave over the sand on the beach because it would allow for greater access to the ocean for those who didn’t want to get sand in their shoes. We passed on that one.

I hope you think this idea is a little better. Here goes.

How about we create a community-based non-profit consisting of local volunteers who love Delray? The non-profit can seek donations from philanthropists, sponsorships from businesses and can sell tickets to offset 80 percent or so of the city’s costs.

I think this business model might just work. It may be worth a try.

Delray Beach was built by dedicated citizens who are passionate about the community. Old School Square can serve as a gathering place for our community. We may want to host free Friday night concerts, program the theatre, host exhibits, offer classes and use the fieldhouse for special events. If we finish the commercial kitchen, we may attract more weddings etc., and we can train the next generation of culinary talent to serve our burgeoning restaurant scene.

It seems like the city has an urge to take on more and more these days, so maybe there can be a partnership between the city and this community non-profit where you provide some operational and financial acumen.

It may be worth a shot.

Now this may seem to be eerily similar to what has worked for 32 years, but I assure you that’s pure coincidence.

Thanks for your kind consideration.

Warmest Regards,

Jeff Perlman

 

 

The Final Chapter Yet To Be Written

Old School Square has inspired a generation of artists in Delray.

People make places special.That was the thought that went through my mind Friday night as I watched the magnificent Valerie Tyson Band wow the crowd at the Old School Square Pavilion. The event was billed as “Turn the Tide”— a last ditch effort by a group of incredible civic contributors—the best this town has to offer—to change the minds of three Delray Beach elected officials who have decided to pull the plug on the organization after 32 years of dedicated and distinguished service.

But the minds won’t change. And so the music will stop—for now anyway.

So will the arts classes, museum exhibits, speaker series, plays and shows hosted— and largely paid for— by Old School Square.After six months of pleading for  a chance to sit down and work it out,  the fight will now go to the courts and eventually the ballot box.If 11,000 plus petitioners, hundreds of emails and scores of citizens showing up at City Hall over the past six months won’t change  the minds of elected officials who are out of step with their own constituents, a magical night of music at the pavilion won’t either.How sad.What a waste of time, money and energy.

It’s tragic when the arts and community building are on the outs and the only “winners” are lawyers making a killing litigating and defending the city on this and other issues.But this is where we are these days.Yes, we are still waiting for a plan from a brand new City Manager who has been tasked with solving and budgeting for a problem manufactured by three elected officials who decided to end three decades of hard work by volunteers who love this town without consulting the community they purport to serve.Why?

On Friday night, we saw video testimonials from volunteers, Old School Square staff, donors and artists who are asking that same question.

Commissioner Juli Casale, who supposedly aspires to be our next mayor, has been telling residents that Old School Square has not produced documents, has failed to comply with city dictates and that the group has been mean and unkind after she voted to kick to them to the curb without consulting the public.Well, welcome to politics and to life. In the real world, when you kneecap someone you shouldn’t be surprised when they  defend themselves.

“Thank you sir may I have another” may be a great line in the movie Animal House after a pledge gets spanked. But this isn’t Faber College and you shouldn’t expect dedicated volunteers to slink off into the ether because you’ve decided you don’t like them and that they haven’t done a good job. Lots of others do like this group and think they have done a terrific job.

In the six months since OSS was booted for “no cause” the community non-profit has been bullied and lied about.The newly politicized CRA —also taken over without public input by the commission—has become complicit. It’s painful to see the pains the agency has gone through to deny Old School Square grant money the non-profit has earned for services already rendered.

To those keeping score at home, it’s personally painful for me to point out the bad behavior of a city government that I once led and long believed in.But it is precisely because I love this city that I do so.

Thankfully, I’m not alone.

And while more stakeholders are beginning to speak out, some are too scared to speak for fear of retribution.The biggest criticisms come from city employees who describe a a climate of fear and dysfunction at City Hall. I would respectfully suggest that our new City Manager, the 9th in recent years, has better things to do than to deploy Parks employees to produce Bar Mitzvahs in the OSS Fieldhouse. He has a lot of repairs to do in his own building.

But while I sympathize with his plight, we keep waiting for his grand plan for OSS now that his Request for Proposals to take it over yielded zero interest.He may want to take the suggestions of every living former mayor— those who were elected and served a term— to seek public input on the future of the site. That’s the true Delray way. Get the community involved. It worked for decades until this nonsense arrived on the scene. Why won’t they ask our citizens for ideas?

Is it because the public may endorse the current business model: a community based non-profit?But I digress.

Pardon me for getting emotional, but I get worked up when I see our best citizens struggle to make sense of this terrible decision. In between songs Friday night, Valerie Tyson, who has played OSS many times, stopped and addressed the audience. She talked about how much she has enjoyed performing for this community and she talked about legacy and responsibility.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, she said.

She was referring to the men and women who conceived and built Old School Square. They breathed new life into a struggling city.These people built community. There is nothing more valuable than that. Nothing.

We talk about being a village. We talk about creating a sense of place but being a village is about more than the height of a building downtown, it’s about how we treat each other. We expect our leaders to call on our better angels. We expect them to engage us in a discussion about the type of community we aspire to be.

This kind of leadership is absent and it is what we long for.

OSS has been referred to as a management company.

They are not.

They are a community based non-profit dedicated to this city and the arts.These are the people who had the idea to restore those buildings and breathe new life into them. They invited artists to paint on the lawn, actors to perform on the stage, residents to take classes and musicians to perform.

Old School Square became the place we turned to when we needed community the most.

We gathered at OSS to celebrate All America City wins, host Town Hall meetings and plan our downtown.  And when we were devastated by 9/11, the shooting of Jerrod Miller (17 years ago this month) and the Parkland shootings we gathered at Old School Square and found solace in one another.

If you take the community out of our gathering place, what do you have?

If you bring in the Boca Museum of Art in to run OUR cultural centerpiece what do you have? And what we will lose?

If you chase donors and volunteers away because they were late on an audit during an historic pandemic when their auditor quit on them what message are you sending?

The audits are current and clean now. Why can’t we talk about the future? It’s a question we all ought to be asking. Who’s next if we don’t stand together and turn the tide?People make places special. They also have the power to ruin them.It’s our choice. We stand for what we tolerate.

Heroes & Friends

Bill Branning and Frances Bourque have volunteered for decades.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK.

Last Tuesday night, I sat in a room in the Cornell Museum at Old School Square surrounded by beautiful art and even more beautiful people.

It was the end of a long day, and I was exhausted.

I had been up since 4:30 a.m. worried about a friend who has Covid. I went to the gym and had a busy day at work. All I wanted to do was go home and curl up on the couch with the new puppy.

But I went to Old School Square to talk about the future of the organization with some of the best people I’ve ever met.

And I realized that this is where I should be.

I was home.

I was a few yards from the fieldhouse where I was married, a few feet away from the Crest Theatre where we held Town Hall meetings and where my family and I watched so many memorable shows.

In a few weeks— unless some common sense and a spirit of compromise shows up like a miracle—the beautiful art will come down off the walls. And the special people who created and largely funded Old School Square will be gone too. Some, I fear, will be gone forever. That would be a loss that would do more damage to Delray Beach than just about anything I can think of.

Yes, the city or some museum in Boca can swoop in with lots and lots of (taxpayer?) money and re-open the doors.

The City Manager and Parks Director can make a bunch of snappy and happy YouTube videos telling you that all is well and that things will be “better than ever” at Old School Square.

But they would be wrong.

They don’t know.

They are just good soldiers following orders. They are paid staff, who seem to come and go like the breeze these days, tasked with putting perfume on a decision that smells.

Thanks to a 3-2 vote of the City Commission, 32 years of hard work and passion for this community will be evicted in February.

I thought about that hard work and that passion when I looked around the room Tuesday evening.

There was Frances Bourque, the founder of Old School Square, a hero and inspiration to so many people.

If we lived in a kind place, there would be a statue to Frances on the grounds she saved 32 years ago. Not that Frances would want that, but her friends would, because we would want future generations to know about this wonderful woman who looked at a collection of dilapidated buildings behind a rusted chain link fence and saw so much more.

A few years back, I worked with Frances’ sister Judy and others to nominate Mrs. Bourque for a statewide award given by the University of Florida to honor Floridians for “exceptional achievement, impact, and leadership”.

Frances won.

We weren’t surprised, but she was, and the first thing she did was credit others.

“No MAN (or WOMAN) is an island,” she wrote in an email. “This recognition belongs to ALL of us!”

Typical Frances. The truly great ones are humble. Real leaders share credit.

Sitting next to Frances was the amazing Deborah Dowd.

Deborah is a retired teacher. She worked with students in Title 1 Schools, helping children who lived in poverty learn how to read. I visited her classroom a time or two. Watching her with kids could bring tears to your eyes.

Deborah is an amazing volunteer. She has done so much for wonderful non-profits such as the Achievement Center and served on many important city boards. Deborah won the “Woman of Grace” Award given by Bethesda Hospital a few years back. That award honors the best of us and Deborah is the best of us.

I looked across the room and saw Elise Johnson.

Elise and her husband Charles are generous donors and kind people. They own Putt N’ Around, one of the best places to take your family in Delray Beach. When my sister-in-law passed away recently, we took my nephew to Putt N’ Around to lift everyone’s mood. It was a memorable day—I’m sure so many other families have built memories around the landmark.

In years past, before Covid and this nonsense we are dealing with now, Charles and Elise coordinated the “Santas” who volunteered at Old School Square. We went to their home for Santa training and to receive freshly ordered Santa suits. I can’t think of better or more giving people.

A few feet away from Elise, sat Patty Jones, the chair of Old School Square. Patty and her family just suffered a devastating loss, but she hasn’t missed a beat. She loves OSS so much that she just keeps going. Her devotion moves me to my core. She is a wonderful person.

Next to Patty sat a young man named Malik Ramelize. Malik is an attorney and social justice advocate. I’m so impressed with this guy that I Googled him to learn more. I found an article from the University of Miami Law School that discussed his “wayward” path to the law, how he ran the streets in Delray, saw a whole lot of violence and became determined to make a difference. His middle name is Thurgood, as in Thurgood Marshall.

The article says that when his father gave him the middle name Thurgood, “he knew exactly what he was doing. There’s no doubt that he gave me that name with the hope of me one day becoming an attorney. And I thank him for it because I love the name. Thurgood Marshall was not only one of the greatest Supreme Court justices of our time, but he’s also one of the most influential people of our time. He broke barriers that people thought couldn’t be broken.”

Malik is determined to break barriers and make a difference. Remember his name, I have a hunch he will do great things.

I can go on and on—the caliber of human being in that room fighting for Old School Square is moving and remarkable.

Young leaders like Connor Lynch, seasoned volunteers like Scott Porten and Bill Branning and one of the nicest humans on the planet— Noreen Payne. And the list goes on.

The talented artist Patti McGuire.

Joe Gillie, the guy who won us those All America City Awards we like to brag about. Not to mention the good people on the staff who love the mission and will soon be out of work.

These are the people our city won’t sit down with and talk about a path forward. It’s shameful. There’s no other word. It’s important that you know about these people, because they are invaluable to our community.

Margaret Blume, who gave more money to charity than anyone that I can think of in the modern history of Delray, was dismissed when she appeared at a recent commission meeting to ask about her multimillion- dollar effort to improve the Crest Theatre, fieldhouse and Cornell Museum.

A majority of our commission can’t find it in their hearts to say a kind word about people like Frances and Margaret.

Some, however, have found the time to double down on misinformation about OSS.

One brand new commissioner  talks about the millions of taxpayer dollars that have flowed to OSS over the years but she doesn’t say that 75-80 percent of the budget is raised privately by OSS. How can a businesswoman talk only about costs not benefits, as if there has been no return on the public’s investment?

Really?

Look down the street at Atlantic Avenue—there’s your return.

Ask a resident if they have had a good time at OSS over the years—seeing a show, watching a free concert or taking a class. How do you measure the value of sitting on the grass and watching kids 5 to 95 dance under the stars to music in the Pavilion?

Old School Square has generated millions and millions of dollars in economic activity and investment over the past three decades. Somehow this is lost on the powers that be.

For some reason, there is a concerted effort to undo all the good work it took to build this community.

Let’s get rid of the festivals, let’s take over the CRA and politicize it, let’s ignore the neighbor’s vision for The Set—their own neighborhood. Let’s throw away OSS and the people behind it.

Why?

Because they are the “good old boys”?

Tell that to the women in the room. The only thing that’s correct in that sentence is the word good.

These are good people.

And that’s what this fight is about my friends.

This is not about performance, although OSS can always do better. OSS had turnover in senior positions and they missed an audit deadline. P.S. the city has had turnover too. Massive and costly turnover.

The Commission has made a ton of mistakes from mishandling the water issue to screwing up nearly every RFP that’s been issued.

What leaders do is acknowledge shortcomings and work with partners to make things better.

This is not about OSS’ lack of compliance; the organization missed a deadline because their auditor quit during a horrible and historic pandemic.

OSS has since produced clean audits and every document that has been requested. It’s all a red herring. This is about crushing good people.

This feels personal to those people, because it is personal.

These people have been bullied. They have been labeled and they have been maligned.

They have also been accused of being arrogant, not listening and failing to comply with the city’s rules.

It’s just not true.

And if the city felt that way, there was never an attempt to sit down and figure it out; to walk through the issues, perceived slights and alleged deficiencies in the spirit of trying to make things better.

I suppose it’s quicker to take out a two by four than it is to commit to a process meant to build mutual understanding and a better relationship. Quicker–but costly too. Costly in terms of legal fees, staff time (tax dollars) and human fall out.

I see the treatment of OSS as a metaphor for the state of our city these days.

 

For better or worse, OSS is one of our signature civic achievements.

 

Nobody from OSS has ever argued that it is perfect or all that it could be or needs to be.

But it’s still pretty damn good, and it still represents one hell of an effort by a generation of volunteers and donors. People were proud of that effort and happy to serve and write checks. They knew they were serving the community and that they had a partner in the city and the CRA.

 

Back before we became a dysfunctional municipal laughingstock with an endless parade of city managers, department heads and lawsuits, cities from all over the country came to Delray to learn how we did it. What was our secret sauce?

We always met those groups at OSS because we were proud of those buildings and the effort and love it took to bring them to life.

When we went on the road, our last presentation slide was always OSS. It was the show- stopper. And it never failed to elicit ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. But it wasn’t the restoration of the buildings that got to people. It was the community effort and the passion that went into the effort of building community that hit home.

For better or worse, OSS has been a big piece of this community’s heart and soul. There are other important symbols—other important non-profits, but it would be hard to argue that OSS doesn’t matter.

And it’s not the buildings folks, as beautiful and historic as they are. It is the people who have been involved. The people who breathed life  into the campus, who gave us a place to gather, who built a special sense of community.

Destroying this organization is an attack on that heart and soul.

We should all care about this fight because it is about so much more than OSS.

It is about the future of this city. And how we treat each other.

Think that’s overly dramatic?  Oh, I hope so.

I hope I’m wrong.

But when some of the best people in this community  get hit by a two by four,  you can count on some of them to walk away and quit. Quit giving, quit serving, quit caring.

All I am saying is that would be  a shame. A preventable shame.

I think that’s the goal here.  To get these people to quit. (P.S. most won’t).

That’s just my hunch.

What would be the harm in talking to good people? What’s the downside?

We can talk about what’s gone wrong in this relationship, what needs to change, what needs to get better and what’s been good about this place. We can work together on behalf of the community as we are all tasked to do.

A few weeks back, 8 former mayors—every elected mayor who is still alive wrote a letter asking for that conversation and for the public to be involved in determining the future of Old School Square, the heart and soul of our community. To date, we have heard crickets. To date, the community has not been heard. Nearly 11,000 who signed a petition have been ignored.

Citizen driven planning led to the revitalization of Delray Beach. That was the secret sauce. Talking to each other about Delray and then going out and making it happen.

Why wouldn’t we go back to that formula now? Why wouldn’t we listen to the stakeholders instead of turning the fate of Old School Square over to a judge?

The people in the Cornell Museum last week are wondering the same things.

They are my heroes.

Many of us were off the board for years before we got back involved to stand up for the organization thousands of people have built and sustained over the years. Those need people need a voice. They deserve an audience with the powers that be that sit on the commission.

We would be losing an awful lot if these people walked away.

And if that isn’t the goal, we should all put down our swords, sit down like adults and figure this out.

OSS has always been willing to talk, despite the spin from the dais.

OSS has offered to talk, but they have been rejected. Repeatedly.

So it was litigate, or be put out to the trash after three decades. There was no choice.

OSS offered to settle, but a majority of the commission wouldn’t even discuss the offer among themselves.

OSS offered to mediate early, but the city’s attorneys said no.

Meanwhile, the misinformation keeps coming. And remember, the city ended the lease “without cause.”

Ironic and I’m being charitable.

I guess if you keep repeating lies, people start believing or at least questioning.

It’s even more ironic when the same commissioners complain when OSS pushes back.

Bullies will take your lunch money every day if you let them, but bullies typically don’t like it when you say enough is enough.

OSS is saying enough. They are also saying let’s work it out. Let’s not throw away everything that has been built.

I hope you will stick by these brave volunteers and the dedicated staff that remain,  because as important as OSS is, this is an even bigger fight.

8 Mayors: We Can Do Better

The recently renovated Cornell Museum features a new exhibit that celebrates OSS’ contributions to Delray Beach.

Last week, eight former mayors signed a letter in support of Old School Square.It was an extraordinary gesture. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this level of solidarity among every living former elected mayor.The eight mayors—Doak Campbell, Tom Lynch, Jay Alperin, David Schmidt, me, Rita Ellis, Woodie McDuffie and Cary Glickstein represent 33 years of service. Some have lived in Delray for 50,  60 and 70 plus years. I may be the newcomer with almost 35 years in town.We’ve seen a lot.We’ve all worked with Old School Square which has been serving Delray for 32 years.Our call to action is simple: we’d like to see the public have input into the future of Old School Square and we’d like to see a discussion/process on how to heal some of the divisions and hurts caused by our current political environment, a culture that we all feel threatens our present and our future.Old School Square is a casualty of this environment. It’s lease was terminated without notice, cause, public input or even an agenda item that may have notified it’s many supporters.Given no choice, the non-profit was forced to litigate the very city it has served. It was either sue or walk away from three decades of service and millions of dollars in assets.What’s next is costly litigation for the organization and taxpayers. There’s a better way.Here’s the letter.  It calls for our better angels to prevail. In this holiday season, it may be the best gift we can give our community.

An open letter to the citizens and stakeholders of Delray Beach:
We are a group of former mayors whose service to Delray dates to 1984.
Some of us have lived here for 60 plus years.
We love our city, but we are worried about the direction the current administration is taking.
We find our community is divided, unable or unwilling to talk and we fear that the progress we have made as a community is in danger as a result.
The most recent issue is the impulsive termination of the lease with Old School Square Center for the Arts, Inc., the non-profit organization who created and has successfully managed Old School Square for the past 32 years, without a conversation with the organization or input from the City’s diverse stakeholders who deserve a say in its future. All of us have worked closely with the dedicated volunteers at Old School Square during our terms. We believe that they are willing to work hard to improve their partnership with the city. As with any long-term relationship, we believe that any problems can be solved with open communication.
This decision to terminate Old School Square’s lease has proven to be highly controversial, but we are just as alarmed at the lack of transparency and due process when making such a monumental decision.
We must do better.
Delray has a rich history of citizen involvement. That involvement has been a key factor in our success.
But while the Old School Square termination is what’s on everyone’s mind, we see a similar pattern in the general culture of division and polarization in our city politics that has led to costly turnover and litigation.
We don’t believe this is the “Delray Way,” and while we may not ever see eye to eye on the issues, we risk losing what’s been built if we don’t call a time out and endeavor to do better as a community.
As former mayors, we understand the difficulty in leading a city as active and complex as Delray Beach.
We stand ready to assist and suggest the following:
• A charrette to gain public input on the future of Old School Square.
• A process to discuss the culture in Delray Beach so that we can find a better way forward for everyone.
We need to reverse the damage and hurt that has occurred in our town before it is too late.
Sincerely,
Mayor Doak S. Campbell III (1984-1990)
Mayor Thomas E. Lynch (1990-1996)
Mayor Dr. Jay Alperin (1996-2000)
Mayor David W. Schmidt (2000-2003)
Mayor Jeff Perlman (2003-2007)
Mayor Rita Ellis (2007-2009)
Mayor Nelson “Woodie” McDuffie (2009-2013)
Mayor Cary Glickstein (2013-2017)

Thanksgiving, Values & Love For A Place

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I am so thankful for every one of you. I’m grateful that you read my weekly ramblings and especially grateful when you provide feedback and ideas for future blogs.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it celebrates gratitude which I believe is the key to happiness.

If you are grateful for what you have, you’ll find happiness. If you are constantly fixated on what you don’t have, well that’s a recipe for sadness and frustration. I hope you choose gratitude. And I hope you live in the moment, because each one is precious.

Thanksgiving consists of two words, thanks and giving.  We are called to give thanks and we are called to give to others.

So, as we sit down with friends and family this week, I’m thinking of the community leaders who have teamed up to provide Thanksgiving meals to the needy. I think of our first responders responding to emergency calls while we relax and watch football and I think of our amazing health care workers who save lives every day or ease the pain of those they can’t. They saved me…I am trying to make my second chance count.

And I’m grateful for the community that rallied to my side and comforted my family as I struggled with a virus that has claimed over 5 million lives worldwide.

While we have come a long way, we must remain vigilant. Covid-19 has claimed more lives in 2021 than in 2020. Prayers and the wonders of medical science saved me. I’m forever thankful.

This space is often dedicated to my take on our local slice of the world. Many times, that take can be critical. But as Moliere said: “the proof of true love is to be unsparing in criticism.” I agree, Monsieur, but I don’t want to be unsparing which is just another word for merciless. We need more mercy and forgiveness in this world, not less.

I write from a place of love, affection, belief, and encouragement.

I care about my community. And I believe we can do better. I hope my words encourage good people to get off the sidelines and get involved.

From my earliest memories, I have always abhorred bullies. I was not a victim of bullying as a child—I guess everyone has had an experience or two—but I witnessed bullying and it bothered me to my core.  I’ve always felt compelled to call it out. When you do, your nose gets bloodied from time to time. But something else also happens—many times when bullying is called out, it wanes.

Recently, I have witnessed a major case of bullying regarding Old School Square. OSS has responded to that bullying with a lawsuit. Sadly, the organization was given no choice. It was either fight for their reputation and their future or walk away from decades of devotion to Delray Beach.

As you know, the City Commission voted 3-2 to terminate the non-profit’s lease after 32 years of service to the community. The vote wasn’t on any agenda, there was no call from the public for action, there was no opportunity for the organization or public to weigh in on the decision and pleas for a workshop and dialogue were ignored. More than 10,000 people signed a petition in opposition to the decision and they were dismissed. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

It was the worst decision I’ve seen in nearly 35 years of following local politics and trust me that’s saying a lot. I believe the decision was personal, short-sighted and lacking in basic empathy. Those are the types of subjects I feel compelled to write about.

But I still love my town.

Let me repeat, I still love my town.

Even if I hate its politics.

Even if I abhor its bullies and the behind-the-scenes puppeteers who wreak a whole lot of havoc and offer nothing productive in return.

There’s a human cost to these machinations—people lose jobs and their families suffer as a result, nearby businesses lose revenue, volunteers feel disrespected, artists lose an important venue (for the time being anyway) and taxpayers pay for it all.

I write because I want to see a better town.

I believe in the power of words, narratives, and stories to change the world or at least our slice of it.

I also write to give thanks to my civic heroes and heroines…. the people who transformed this community and improved lives along the way.

I think it’s important to say thank you to those who give their time and their hearts to our hometown.

I feel if we don’t say thank you, or if we hurt these people, we will lose our sense of community.

That does not mean that we don’t have accountability or that we ignore problems. In fact, just the opposite. When problems arise, we need to double down on dialogue and work collectively to fix issues and seize opportunities. That is the call of leadership. As a leader, you are not responsible for the answers, but you are responsible for creating an environment in which you can find a way forward—together. Always, together.

I believe that gratitude should be a community value and ingratitude should be strongly opposed.

As we speak, I’m part of a small team that is forming a private foundation. You’ll learn more in the new year about our efforts.

The foundation we are creating will celebrate generosity, kindness, warmth, and empathy. It will give back to a community we love, and it will invest in great causes.

In building this new endeavor, we have reached out to foundation leaders throughout Florida.

One foundation executive talked about creating what he called the “city generous.”

It’s a big idea, one he acknowledges will be difficult to achieve. But it’s the big ideas that change our world. It’s the big ideas that animate us as human beings and inspire us to build community.

The revitalization of Delray was a big idea too.

It gave birth to a method of doing business some affectionately called the “Delray Way.” Others, especially in our African American community, called it the “covenant.” The covenant and the Delray Way were shorthand for what we value as a community: inclusiveness, civic engagement, community building, dialogue, civility, vision, execution, a fair and open process, and a willingness to confront our issues head on and work and learn together to improve our community.

I’m not saying it was ever achieved or that things were ever perfect, but there were lots of moments where those ideals were realized and that led to every significant achievement you can think of when you think about the things we love about our town.

Those ideals gave birth to Old School Square. The abandonment of those values threatens its future and ours as well.

I would argue that the way Old School Square has been treated is a rejection of the ideals that built this town. The way that decision was made poses an existential threat to what it means to live in a caring, generous, loving, respectful and empathetic community.

Yes, that’s a big statement. But I stand by it. I feel it with every fiber of my being.

So, if you love this town, we need you to suit up and pay attention. We need you to get involved, speak up and vote.

Because once it becomes personal; once decision making becomes about payback, the slope gets very slippery.

Municipal math is an unfair master. It can take 30 years to build something of value, but only a few months to undo it all, and there’s no guarantee you will ever get it back.

This Thanksgiving, I wish you peace, love, health and happiness. And I wish for us to get back to a place of looking forward not back, of healing not hurt, of love not malice. I’m hoping that next Thanksgiving we will be able to give thanks for a restoration of our civic  values and spirit.

 

 

Alone We Can Do So Little, Together We Can Do So Much

If I woke up tomorrow and was granted magical powers to make the world a better place, I would ask everyone to sign up for a course on how to collaborate.

Collaboration is the process of two or more people, entities or organizations working together to complete a task or achieve a goal.

Simple concept, right?

It’s also necessary to achieve anything in life.

The poet John Donne said that “no man is an island.” (No woman is either).

The phrase means that no one is truly self-sufficient, everyone must rely on the company and comfort of others to thrive.

Donne’s poem against isolationism was written in the 17th century, so this is not exactly new ground that we are plowing.

But glance at the news these days and you’ll see a failure to collaborate just about everywhere.

Congress and our body politic are divided, not only between Democrats and Republicans, but between moderates and progressives, Trumpers and never Trumpers.

Oddly, the factions and sides need each other to get anything done. But the notion of collaboration, cooperation and compromise is hopelessly lost amidst acrimony and grievance.

As we speak, the world’s leaders are meeting in Scotland to discuss climate change. The poor countries of our world need money (lots of it) from the rich countries to save the planet we all occupy and rely on for survival. But collaboration is elusive and so our planet continues to cook.

The scorecard looks grim: we can’t collaborate to defeat a virus; we can’t collaborate to fix our crumbling infrastructure and we can’t collaborate to meet the challenge of other nation’s conspiring to supplant our role as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. We are too busy fighting each other.

Sigh.

None of these observations are new, prescient, or insightful. But I would argue that things are getting worse not better and that our inability to collaborate makes it nearly impossible to solve problems or seize opportunities.

This is a hyperlocal blog and so I can’t help but apply my observations to my own hometown of Delray Beach.

In short, this city was a place that used to work. We were cooking my friends. Projects got built, initiatives were launched, visions and plans came to life and a place was transformed.

A once dying and dormant downtown became vibrant and successful; new parks were built, others improved, an abandoned school surrounded by a rusted chain link fence became a cultural beacon for the region and the community dug in to create programs and improve neighborhoods. A blighted Second Avenue became Pineapple Grove, events brought fun and commerce to the city and civic pride blossomed.

Why?
In a word; collaboration.

People and organizations worked together.

In every room and at every table where decisions were made, the implicit rule was “put your ego aside, bury your personal differences: Delray comes first.”

I found the community to be largely welcoming and mostly inclusive.  Yes, there were some rooms where I wasn’t welcome (how many times did I hear the words
“damn New Yorkers”) and I know of the city’s fraught racial history (and present, I’m sorry to say). All that did was make me and others want to get involved to make things better.

There were efforts—albeit imperfect— to acknowledge and attempt to improve race relations and civic engagement. People really tried. I believe those efforts were sincere.

Despite some very real headwinds, there was collaboration. City government worked with neighborhood associations, city departments worked with each other and other agencies, the Chamber of Commerce was at the table and so were the key non-profits. Citizens had ample opportunities to weigh in—town hall meetings, charrettes, visioning exercises, goal setting sessions, resident academies, citizen police academies, neighborhood summits, teen summits and the list goes on and on.

Not everyone liked each other.  But by and large—people showed up and Delray came first. Progress was made.

But progress ends when collaboration dies.

When egos clash, when feuds are allowed to get in the way of the mission—the mission gets lost. Eventually those feuds cloud and then obscure the mission until people forget all about it. Settling the score becomes the mission.

And guess what? In politics—unlike war—you never really vanquish the opposition. You may win or lose an election, but your opponent doesn’t go away, they don’t say they are wrong or stop criticizing you. In some cases, they don’t even acknowledge that they lost. And so the cycle continues.

The job of leadership is to find a way forward; to cling to the mission and remind us about the bigger picture and there’s always a bigger picture.

So if you are a Congressman or a Senator, it’s not about hanging a loss on the opposing team, it’s about finding a way to fix our crumbling infrastructure and heal our planet. If you are a mayor or a city commissioner, it’s about finding a way to make sure your city’s assets are protected and enhanced and that new ones are developed so that long after your gone your community is positioned to succeed. It certainly isn’t about wiping an organization off the face of the Earth because it contains a nest of people who didn’t support your campaigns. (See Square, Old School).

These are simple concepts that are being lost. We are at great peril unless and until they are rediscovered.

We need to insist on collaboration, or we’re done. It’s just that simple.

 

Don’t Miss Heart of the Square…

The kickoff to “Arts Season” Begins 6 p.m. Friday, November 5th at Old School Square’s Cornell Museum with a very special event, “The Heart Of The Square”.

Old School Square has touched every corner of the Delray Beach community over the years through their tireless efforts and passion for the arts.

“Heart Of The Square” captures these experiences through a truly inspirational collective of immersive art installations and displays that highlight how Old School Square has been the heart of Delray Beach for over 30 years.

The highlights of the evening will include the “Heart Of The Square” exhibition at the Cornell Art Museum, live music, activities for the kids and a many more surprises.

The evening will be capped off with the unveiling of a new art installation created by world renowned artist and Delray Beach local Jeff Whyman.

The event is free and family friendly.

This is a good chance to relive Delray history and support Old School Square. As readers know, after 32 years, the City Commission in a 3-2 vote, decided to terminate the non-profit’s lease. But despite that kick in the teeth, the non-profit has vowed that the show must go on and the community must be served, proving that there’s a big difference between a community based non-profit and a management company.

Please show your support, OSS needs all of us. And we need OSS.

 

 

Not Your Average Joe…

Joe Gillie was invaluable to Delray’s three All America City wins.

I’d never thought I’d have to write about Joe Gillie in 2021, five plus years after he retired after a terrific 23 year run as the president of Old School Square.

I thought I might want to write about him, because he’s a great guy and one of the biggest contributors to Delray’s modern day success.
But I never thought I’d be in a position of feeling compelled to defend him and his contributions.

For the record, Joe doesn’t need my help and didn’t request that I defend him.

We are good friends.

I care about him and he’s been good to my family.

But Joe is more than capable of defending himself. He doesn’t need me.

Yet I feel compelled to share with readers how special I think Joe is and how remarkable I and many others think his contributions have been.
He’s given an awful lot to this city. An awful lot.

Let me share just a few highlights.
He ran our community’s cultural arts center for 23 years—providing stable leadership and deftly spinning lots of plates in a busy and complex town. That’s no small feat.

Over that time, he oversaw the creation of an arts school, managed a rental facility, programmed a theater, launched a pavilion and threw his heart into the creation of a museum. He was deeply involved in managing the grounds of the campus, welcoming festivals, markets, an annual holiday celebration and played a lead role in producing First Night, a New Year’s Eve celebration that welcomed thousands of families every year.

He was the driving force behind three All America City Awards and in his “retirement” remained involved in education efforts such as the award winning and hugely important Campaign for Grade Level Reading.
He was Delray’s ambassador, traveling to and fro. singing Delray’s praises and welcoming thousand and thousands of people to the OSS campus over his many years of service. He even went to Tanzania to represent Delray during an official visit to our sister city Moshi.
He did it all with humor, intelligence, civility, style and a southern gentility that charmed everyone who crossed his path.

Along the way, he interacted with the business community, local schools, artists, musicians, philanthropists, politicians, visiting dignitaries and other non-profits. He did it all with grace, humor and style. He loved this community and this community loved him back.

Joe is a good man.
A very, very good man.
Of course, nobody is above accountability but for 23 years he survived the scrutiny of the public, the press, auditors, funders and City Hall. He served many masters—very well. His performance and value to our city has been indispensable.

He’s responsible for millions of smiles and he’s deserving of our respect.

But today, years after the last of his many retirement parties (he was so popular he had many) my friend finds that he’s being questioned over his stewardship of OSS and a modest retirement stipend he earned that was provided by donors.

I find it sad and more than a little distressing. But I am not surprised.

We are doing a good job of devouring our legends and civil servants in Delray these days.

Here are a few examples. There are others.

My friend Michael Coleman was a fine police officer. He embraced community policing and rose through the ranks to captain before being reassigned to city hall as director of community improvement.
Today, he’s suing the city after losing his job under dubious circumstances. He was kicked to the curb unceremoniously after repeatedly being singled out for good performance.

Same thing happened to my friends Jennifer Costello and Donna Quinlan, who worked for the city for a combined 70 plus years.
Both were amazing city employees; dedicated, loyal, competent and proud of the city they served.
In the end, they were put out to the curb like so many others. Like too many others.
It’s shameful and depressing.

There was a time when kindness ruled this town; when working or volunteering here was a joy not a risky endeavor.
Which brings me back to my friend Joe.
I’ve known Joe for close to 30 years. I believe in his vision, his character, his essential goodness and his talent. We were blessed that he devoted a large chunk of his career to this town. He had options, talented and kind people always do.
I’m glad he found Delray and stayed here.
I know he gave a lot to this place and that he loved working here.

I hope he still feels that way. As someone once said: “G-d have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”
I hope that Joe doesn’t harbor any doubts.

I know a few people who are consumed by doubts.

In their sadder moments they have confided in me that they have “wasted” their time here. I get it. But it’s not true.
This too shall pass. We will regain our footing and we will thrive again.
We will surely thrive again.

We simply must.

All You Need Is Love

Love changes places.
Unfortunately, so does hate.
I would argue that those emotions are the only two things that leave a lasting impact.
The rest is ephemeral.

Love inspires and motivates.
Hate tears down and destroys.

Love fixes a lot of things but sometimes even love can’t fix what hate destroys. Sometimes the damage is permanent.

That thought keeps flashing through my mind as I watch the slow motion destruction of Old School Square and its 32 year history.
I believe the 3-2 vote to evict the non-profit —-without a conversation, without public input and without regard to the human toll of the decision —-was driven by personality conflicts between the powers that be and some of the citizens who created and operated Old School Square.

The conflict is telling because if you were to look at a list of board members, volunteers, donors and staff past and present, you would be looking at a who’s who of Delray civic leaders. These are the people who have done so much for Delray. Why? Because they love this city.

That they can be evicted without a conversation or a plan shared with the community is a shocking and deeply disturbing development.
We ought to be better than this.

We need to be be better than this.

And I believe we are better than this, as evidenced by over 10,000 signatures on a petition protesting the eviction and the continuing anger we are seeing in the community over this decision.
People are deeply unhappy with the turn of events and the complete lack of process and input from the community before the vote.

They are also deeply disturbed by the human toll of this decision—events cancelled, private parties cancelled, jobs lost and the utter disrespect shown to donors, volunteers and founder Frances Bourque who deserves so much better.

If allowed to stand, this decision will be remembered for two reasons: none of them good.

First, the destruction of a beloved community institution and second the lack of humanity shown to people who have earned our respect and consideration.

If we are to be a community that values people and contributions, this kind of decision and the way it was made cannot stand.

But before we dive in further, there are a few misconceptions surrounding this decision that need to be cleared up.

First is that Old School Square has refused to meet with the city. That is categorically false. OSS has been pleading for a meeting.

The second misconception is that the performance of the organization deserved the death penalty and that a new management company is urgently needed.
OSS is a non profit with operational responsibilities. It is not a management company.
There’s a difference.

The non profit is the secret sauce allowing the community to connect to the institution. Donors give to community based non- profits run by people they know, love and trust. There’s that word again—love.

Over the years, donors have supported OSS because they know the people associated with the non- profit were dedicated to the mission which was serving Delray Beach.

There have been operational deficiencies–OSS has never denied that. But instead of working with the organization, a majority of the city commission has decided to work over the organization. That’s a mistake, with consequences far beyond the loss of a beloved community institution.

And while we are discussing operational deficiencies let’s not forget that City Hall has been a mess for a while now with a steady parade of City Managers, department heads and rank and file staff leaving or being shown the door, often for dubious reasons. The city is plagued by water issues, the golf course, once a jewel has become a cow pasture, and we have gone from a community that once prized unity to a place that has made an art out of division and dysfunction.

OSS is not above accountability, no organization is, but this city is in no position to lecture anyone at this point in time. The difference is OSS stands ready to listen to constructive criticism while City Hall continues to fiddle while Rome burns.

Over the course of this mess, OSS has been hit with a raft of accusations and loaded words such as “corrupt”, “incompetent” and “non-compliant.”
The organization has acknowledged its shortcomings but it has also pushed back against the false accusations.

And if there is evidence of malfeasance bring it. Let’s charge those who broke the law. But innuendo is not good enough. Produce the evidence if you have it.

 

Old School Square’s  defense of its record has led to more recriminations as if the only proper response to the beating is the Animal House hazing scene in which the pledge is paddled and says “thank you sir, may I have another.”

Sorry, but in the real world, when you are bullied you get to push back.

I believe that the OSS eviction is a politically motivated hit. I’m not alone in that thought.
It’s part of a campaign to erase and cancel the past.

We are developing a bad habit in our country and in our city. If we repeat a lie over and over again we hope it eventually becomes the truth.

OSS is not corrupt or incompetent. It was never designed to be a profit center. It was tasked with lowering costs so it could be accessible to the community. It met that mission and more.

Its retired director Joe Gillie did not receive a “golden parachute”, he received a modest four year gift paid for by private donors because after 23 years or dedicated service to our city he had no retirement plan. The organization didn’t offer one. It should have and he was deserving because Mr. Gillie did a fine job and helped to create millions of dollars worth of value over the years. He is THE reason the city won three All America City Awards which helped Delray achieve a national profile while building civic pride. Pride: remember that quaint notion?

Commission’s get in trouble when things become personal; when it ceases to be about the community and the future; when it becomes about personalities.
Cities risk it all when decisions are driven by personal vendettas not sound analysis. They also risk a ton when empathy and humanity exit the building.

When this ugliness happens–when love gives way to anger— we risk a spiral. There are punches and counterpunches and pretty soon cuts begin to open, blood begins to flow.
We are either there now, or dangerously close. We need the adults in the community to reel us back in.

We need to stop.

But it can only stop when both sides resolve to refrain from hostilities long enough to sort through the issues. And there are many.
Leaders know how to do this. Failures don’t.