He Said, He Said

CANDIDATES SPAR OVER ALLEGED EMAIL EXCHANGE

An email allegedly sent from a third party to businessman and mayoral candidate Philip Levine offering to switch allegiance in the upcoming mayoral showdown between Levine and well-known Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora, another mayoral candidate, set off a firestorm of accusations and counter-accusations – and precious few facts to likely influence any decision as Election 2013 approaches.

This week, SunPost acquired an email exchange ostensibly between Christian Jagodzinski, founder and president of Villazzo, a property management company, and Levine. In it, Jagodzinski apparently lobbied Levine to support seasonal/short-term rentals and according to the email, he claimed he would switch his support from Gongora to Levine if the latter shifted his position in opposition to such rentals.

Seasonal and short-term rentals have become somewhat synonymous with “party houses,” an issue of some consternation to residents of some of the barrier islands. According to the email, which has been verified as accurate only by Levine, Jagodzinski claimed to be supporting Gongora because he “vowed to kill the current (in my regard, illegal) ordinance.”

The only problem is that Jagodzinski said that the email had been altered or truncated.

“I never authorized Mr. Levine nor his aides to circulate our email exchange,” Jagodzinski told SunPost. “It was a quickly drafted email, not a carefully crafted one destined for publication. On top of it, my email was circulated after adding false and misleading information. I do not approve of these tactics by the Levine campaign. I don’t think they are worthy of a future mayor.”

Among other things, Jagodzinski said that Gongora, long considered the favorite to supplant Mayor Matti Bower, had never made any type of commitment like the one cited in the email in question.

“Michael has never committed to ‘doing away’ with the ordinance, nor ‘killing it,’” he said. He added that the ordinance is dubiously legal as is, and that it may expose the City to costly litigation.

 “Vacation rentals are happening in big numbers right now – more than before 2008,” Jagodzinski said. “People need them and will continue to do them, regardless of the legislation. Prohibiting rentals is like prohibiting alcohol or guns. Just passing a law doesn’t make basic needs of people go away. The better way is to regulate the environment so that things happen in a controlled manner.

There is a serious legal exposure of the City of Miami Beach because of a lawsuit Villazzo filed in 2008, alleging the illegal taking of basic property rights,” he continued. “The lawsuit is currently stayed. If Villazzo prevails and the ordinance is invalidated, 2009 State law prohibits any Florida city from passing any other ordinance regulating rentals. Then the chance of regulation is gone forever, and it’s going to be the wild west of rentals – much worse than now or before the ordinance.”

Jagodzinski is an actual Gongora supporter, however.

“Yes, me and my friends and business partners are supporting Michael Gongora,” he said. “We have watched him in office over the past five years and found him to be balanced on the issues and willing to listen. He never gave me a word on anything he would do, and I have never asked him for it. I support people that are in favor of working out a solution to the issues with vacation rentals rather than banning them through anti-constitutional ordinances. And I support people who understand that for Miami Beach to be a high-end destination, you need certain luxury home rentals. Mr. Levine does not seem to understand these issues at the moment.”

 Jagodzinski cited tightening poll numbers as his reason for reaching out to Levine.

“I wanted to see what [Levine’s] stance is on this matter, as obviously he is in the polls close behind Mr. Gongora.  We tried to get feedback from him before, but received no response. That’s when I added ‘possible support’ as a bait — which obviously worked because he responded. There is a lot more to discuss before I give my support to a candidate. Mr. Levine, so far, has not replied about a personal meeting that I had suggested. Not a good sign for a mayoral candidate.”

In his alleged email reply, Levine showed no sign of wavering on the topic and took a swipe at his opponent as well.

“I am opposed to short-term rentals because I believe they are detrimental to established residential neighborhoods and negatively impact the quality of life of Miami Beach residents,” Levine wrote. “This has been my stance since I entered into the mayoral race and continues to be so.  Short-term rentals result in increased noise and traffic in single-family neighborhoods; many times are not compatible with existing residential communities; and since occupancy is maximized, our already overburdened infrastructure is further strained.  I am pro-business, but I am also pro-resident.  The number one business of Miami Beach should be enhancing the quality of life of Miami Beach residents and short-term rentals do not enhance the quality of life of Beach residents. I appreciate your willingness to switch your support from Commissioner Gongora to myself. However, Commissioner Gongora is a proponent of short-term rentals, and for the aforementioned reasons, I am not.”

That’s not how Gongora sees it. He said the content of the email exchange in question was not as it appeared in the version acquired by SunPost.

“I never vowed to kill the current ordinance and, in fact, voted for the most recent short rental ordinance,” Gongora said. While he said he is aware that Jagodzinski was a supporter, he said he did not know without researching it, to what degree Jagodzinski had contributed to the campaign. Nor, Gongora said, is he aware of any possible check-bundling on his behalf conducted by Jagodzinski.

As for the dubious email’s claims in terms of his commitment, Gongora said, “Christian’s assertions are not true.”

Levine is standing by the emails as accurate and claims they serve a public purpose.

“The public has the right to know what Commissioner Gongora’s stance is on short-term rentals,” he said. “This email is the perfect example of politics as usual in Miami Beach. Pay to play has become the norm throughout city hall.”

However, both Gongora and Jagodzinski claim the emails are bogus, and that they have been circulated by either Levine or members of the community supporting Levine. Jagodzinski rightly pointed out that at least one version of the alleged email exchange seen around town also bears cartoon commentary from a well-known local activist. SunPost did not acquire the emails in question from anyone officially affiliated with the Levine campaign, nor did Levine contact SunPost about the issue. Real or not, neither email bears a standard email privacy statement at the end of the narrative.

With no means to verify the validity of the content of the emails, they seem unlikely to affect any real change as the campaign period dwindles down to weeks.

“Much ado about nothing,” said one source familiar with city hall for many years. “Relative to what goes on behind the scenes, emails like this – real or not – aren’t really going to change any minds or define any candidate. There are much uglier things going on. They just can’t easily be contained in – and leaked as – emails.”

About Michael W Sasser

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