By Anne Newport Royall
Less than 150 people sat about the cold and cavernous ballroom overlooking the busy pool and beach at the Loews Hotel on Collins Avenue Tuesday evening, August 24, as the City of Miami Beach held it’s long awaited Town Hall Meeting on Memorial Day 2011. Avid readers certainly know of the decades-old debacle, which highlights all that, is right, and all that is wrong with our community.
While the events of this three-day weekend and ensuing mayhem have ebbed and flowed over the ten years since the first fateful fest in 2001, this year’s police-involved homicide, which turned the streets of South Beach into a scene worthy of the Gunfight at OK Corral, was especially repulsive to all involved: residents, visitors, and the police support from other districts.
The Mayor, Matti Bower, had vented her frustrations a few months before when she delft fully diffused the media attention the City garnered from the cell-phone captured gunning down gone viral on the Internet. After making a score of cameras and other people from the press, as well as the usual horde of angry citizens wait through proclamations and awards for one and a half-hours at the first Commission meeting held the Wednesday following the Monday morning shooting, she took a “Moment of personal privilege to make a statement about Memorial Day”
“I’m frustrated, Staff is frustrated, the residents are frustrated” she bemoaned over and over again. “The Staff, the City we try, but it gets harder and harder”
“ But we are looking at a variety of options to prepare better. To make this better weekend for the residents. (We are going to) “Look at (it) through the residents eye” she promised and quickly called to refer the discussion to a future committee meeting and gaveled the issue away.
Not willing to wait, local activist Herb Sosa created TakeBackSobe.Com and organized a “Community Rally for Unity” that Friday, June 3. While several people spoke of their horrific personal experiences, there was no call to action and no elected officials at the event.
This night’s meeting was orchestrated by Commissioner Jerry Libbin. Promised for months and rescheduled several times, Commissioner Libbin used his “office account” to fund and staff with an outside PR consultant, the well-run event. Alban Communications “a local, nimble PR group, working with Libbin to better inform constituents and the public about certain initiatives and programs,” had gotten the plum assignment.
The meeting had been all the chatter on the almost 7000 member strong Face book page End Memorial/Urban Weekend in Miami Beach that was started by Miami Beach Resident Peter Joseph Tapia, From full-page ads to robocalls, no one can say they did not know this meeting was going on.
20 members of the administration helped use the air conditioning that was courtesy of the Hotel, including Commission aides Enid Rodriguez and Diana Fontani-Martinez, City Attorney Jose Smith and Culture and Tourism Director Max Sklar. Members representing the nightlife community included David Wallack of Mangos, Steve Polisar and Mayor Harold Rosen. Community members trying to stay warm included Ray Breslin of Collins Park, Denis Russ of Flamingo Park, and Jo Manning, member of the Historic Preservation Board, and Tom Delucca, Chair of the Design Review Board. Mayoral candidates Steve Berke and Dave Crystal were there, joined by Commission candidate Maria Neruelo and her opponent, the incumbent Deede Weithorn, who was “simply informed of the meeting as was any other citizen,” although she does have some good ideas to improve conditions over the weekend in question.
Commissioner Michael Gongora “was invited to attend by Commissioner Jerry Libbin, the organizer, but I don’t know if I will be part of the panel until I get there.” And while he was not, none of the members of the panel were included in the presentations. They just stat there and stared at the room assembled.
The meeting started 30 minutes late and began with the Mayor recounting her litany of woe, “Residents are tired of the noise the trash the traffic,” she said. “ All the things that make us a popular tourist attraction”
And while she talked of the “fine line” as the “issues are very delicate, we get a lot of complaints about The Boat Show, about (The) Food and Wine (Festival), the Commissioners heard you the last time and we are here to hear from you again”.
Yet the meeting was all about talking, First the Mayor, next the City Manager, who took the mea culpa that they were caught off guard in 2001, while saying he was also there to hear from those assembled “So that we can make sure everyone has a safe, peaceful and respectful stay.” He introduced Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez who presented a power point presentation on trends including hotel occupancy figures and arrests numbers, which do not correlate at all.
Mrs. Fernandez showed the Major Event Plans they have in place, told the story of how the plans evolved and work and how they break down and they tweak them again. They showed how zero tolerance increased arrests but had little to no effect on the occupancy rates or the popularity of the weekend. They did have to answer calls from the ACLU and the NAACP when arrest jumped from 571 in 2005 to 1010 in 2006.
In fact the only dip in the popularity of South Beach as the hip-hop destination of choice was the year Cancun became the place to be. Swine flu put a swift end to that and the party had been back with a vengeance since.
After the dizzying array of facts and figures, Commissioner Libbin offered his synopsis of the situation: “I have mountains of emails and I read them all” and he held up a two inch stack, waving them in the air as if to shoo away Hurricane Irene even more, “You can divide them into three categories.” They are getting rid of Memorial Day, getting rid of Memorial Day by any means necessary and getting rid of Memorial Day as we know it and turn it into something else.
While the message that Memorial Day is a national three day holiday, and owing to the fact the City refuses to grant any permits for any special events or activities, so that people have only private clubs and parties to attend in the evenings there is nothing to cancel. The City has the arrest numbers (but few convictions, Police Chief Noriega admitted) to show that heavy-handed tactics are not the answer.
At that point, the true meaning behind the assemblage was clear: Commissioner Libbin had found a group, Verdant Capitol, who wants to use the weekend to launch Miami Fest, a marketing event focused on exposing returning Veterans and their families to the businesses invested in by Verdant Capitol. This clever initiative would be part welcome-home wagon, part family fun weekend featuring a gated beach festival and musical stages featuring local, diverse music during the day and ‘’A-List tars” at night.
“I can get Beyonce for $1.5 Million Dollars” offered Commissioner Libbin.
It was a perfect end to an almost perfect sales pitch.
Commissioner Libbin asked a few of the questions that were submitted in writing, including, whether it is legal to sleep on the beach (no), and if Memorial Day weekend makes up in tax revenue what it costs to police and clean up (no again).
And with that, the meeting was over, and the big white elephant of race, the role race plays in the challenges of Memorial Day and the solutions to all the issues of dealing with any tourism impact in and on a tourist town was left alone in the room, in the cold, by itself.
The Miami Beach Commission will formally take up this issue on Thursday, September 1st at 4pm in the City Manager’s Large Conference Room.