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Delray Beach mayor 'surprised' by $131,198 payout for former fire chief

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Posted at 2:00 PM, May 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-01 19:35:55-04

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — A WPTV Contact 5 investigation into the resignation of former Delray Beach Fire Chief Neal de Jesus is drawing a strong response from the city's mayor.

Last week, Contact 5 reported de Jesus resigned amid accusations of inappropriate behavior. Delray Beach paid him $131,198 as part of his departure, according to city records.

"I was very surprised, as most were, with the payout figure," said Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia in an interview with Contact 5.

De Jesus was accused of "several incidents of sexual behavior" toward an unnamed person, according to the report. Contact 5 was able to confirm the accuser was a city employee.

The report said that while he was working as the interim city manager, "de Jesus frequently used sexual language towards her, called her an [expletive], pulled her hair and touched her inappropriately on more than one occasion."

Petrolia told Contact 5 she wasn't involved in the city's negotiation with de Jesus for the payment.

"In today’s day and age with the 'Me Too' generation, what the heck? How is this even happening?" asked Petrolia.

De Jesus' employment agreement provided for 180 calendar days written notice and 20 weeks of pay if dismissed for any reason other than official misconduct.

According to the report, de Jesus declined to provide a statement to investigators without his attorney present. He then resigned before the investigation was completed.

The report concluded that "based upon the information provided, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that [REDACTED] was subjected to unlawful sexual harassment."

"Nevertheless, de Jesus' action may constitute conduct unbecoming in violation of the City's policy," the report noted.

His original agreement with the city from 2016 allowed de Jesus to resign at any time with 30 days notice. The agreement also said the city manager could let de Jesus leave earlier than 30 days after tendering his resignation.

The city negotiated with de Jesus a six-figure payout, the equivalent of 36 weeks of pay.

"That has to be looked at," said Petrolia. "We need to look at it from a policy standpoint."

A city official justified the payment to Contact 5, claiming the six-figure negotiated departure saved Delray Beach money because it didn't keep de Jesus on paid leave, which would have included paying benefits, including his monthly housing stipend.

"What I plan to do is just to make sure we do address this so that, going forward, we don’t have issues like this," said Petrolia.

The city insisted the payout was not a severance payment, but the most recent paystub for de Jesus listed the $131,198 amount as "severance." A city official explained to Contact 5 that "severance" is a paycode used for departing employees.

State law said severance pay may not exceed 20 weeks of compensation for public employees.

Contact 5 made multiple attempts to reach de Jesus for comment and is awaiting a response.