News: Miami Beach City Commission Meeting

Adonis Garcia with Alex Bello

September 14, 2011

After three hours of morning announcements, awards and presentations, the meeting began in earnest when Alex Bello, President of the Police Union and Adonis Garcia President of the Firefighters Union came with their attorney to ask that the pension changes ironed out during last budget season be put on the January 31, 2012 ballot, as mandated by a court order.  The City Attorney, Jose Smith, continues to believe that previous PERC (Public Employees Relations Commission) decisions favor the City’s position that the contract and pension concessions granted by the unions do not have to be ratified by the voters.  Millions of dollars in budgetary savings from last year and next hang in the balance.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson caused a bit of a stir with an item to refer the notion of the Valet Parking Franchise to a commission committee.  In his referral memo, Wolfson asked that, staff “cease discussions at other levels, committees or pilot programs until such time as the finance committee discusses the matter and refers it back to the Commission and the Commission makes a recommendation” and so the staff did.  The item was pulled from Monday’s Transportation and Parking Committee agenda.  Commissioner Ed Tobin voiced his concern with the directive and swift implementation. But it had been done and so it goes.

Steven Scott was approved by consent as the new Building Department Director. He was most recently an Assistant City Manager and Director of Economic Development at the City of Fort Lauderdale.  The City had over 700 applications for this position, to head a department rife with corruption.  The City utilized the services of a headhunter, and narrowed the search to seven candidates. While Scott still has a few weeks before he starts, he was sworn in at the commission meeting by City Clerk Robert Parcher.  “It’s good to have another Florida Gator on board” quipped City Attorney Smith.

John Page from Global Spectrum flew down from Philadelphia to discuss the management of the Convention Center and to thank the Commission for extending their contract for another two years. This was done even though the promises that Global Spectrum made to increase usage at the Convention Center have fallen short over the last three years.

South Shore Hospital on Alton Road has sat empty for years.  The adjacent ten-story medical office tower was heavily damaged in a hurricane several years ago, and stands in need of major repairs.  When the hospital was founded in 1967, Miami Beach was home to three other hospitals, St. Francis, (The current Aqua condominium development at 63rd Street and Alton Road), Miami Heart, and Mount Sinai.  While back in the day, all four hospitals were filled to capacity, changes in demographics and health care have made the need for all these hospitals redundant. While a Mac-daddy plan to bring a massive LVMH elite retail center to this site was rejected before it even got off the ground, the rezoning of the site from Hospital use to CD-2, Commercial Medium Density went ahead on second reading.

During the Sutnick Hour,  Mayoral Candidate Dave Crystal addressed Mayor Bower directly, “Madame Mayor, nothing personal, but I need to get to the bottom of this” Crystal was referring to Bower buying two years of extra pension credits with her dental assistance work experience being equated with her role as Mayor.  Crystal wanted to know who “told her to sign” the papers, as she told Miami Herald reporter David Smiley.  Bower did not address the issue and wished Crystal “Good luck.”

Steve Berke, another candidate for mayor also complained about the Mayor’s defense of “signing papers you did not read.”  And called on the Mayor to resign to save face. Then, he introduced musician Sexy Sax Man, Sergio Flores to play her departing theme song.

It was a welcome random act of culture in the over 12-hour meeting.

The ever upbeat Chris Hodgkins stepped back into the Lions Den and faced the Mayor and Commissioners about the status of the Port of Miami Tunnel.

This is in the 23rd month of thr big dig project, and Hodgkins boasted that there has been very little closure of the McArthur Causeway during that time.

The mayor’s concern related to the way the “muck” was going to be removed from the tunnel hole as the boring machine works it way underground from the Causeway to Dodge Island.  At the start of the project, the City was assured that barges would be used to remove the spoils.  Now, due to cost concerns, trucks will be used.

During the initial excavation of the launching pit, where the boring machine (Harriet) was first set, those spoils were removed by 7000 truckloads.  They have leased land from The City of Miami to hold the spoils when they first come out of the ground.   Their concrete-lined holding bin holds about 4,000 cubic yards of muck, about a day’s work of digging.

From there, the muck trucks travel to Virginia Key to deliver the spoil-soil, although that plan has recently been called into question by environmentalists who have decried further dumping on Virginia Key.

Harriet, runs 20 hours a day, stopping only from 7:00 am to 11:00 a.m. for maintenance.  75% of the hauling of the muck will occur 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.

Commissioner Jorge Exposito showing some spunk, questioned the MAT consortium reps about their rationale for changing the spoils removal method.  “Is it a safety issue or a cost issue?” he pressed. They answered, both.

“Our concern is that you are taking care of Miami by removing the trucks and putting them in the tunnel” and not taking care of Miami Beach, the mayor complained “We are worried there will be big problems.” She continued bemoaning that there was not enough of an issue made from the Miami Beach side before the tunnel project started.  She brought up the revisions to the managed lanes on I-95, where an entrance for the Julia Tuttle was promised, then not realized as an example of poor treatment of Miami Beach by FDOT.

Exposito brought attention to the fact that Miami Beach is a nightlife community, and that most of the congestion occurs when most of their work is happening on the Causeway.

“You keep breaking promises that you told us,” the mayor concluded.

They promised to provide 350 extra trucks a day on the Causeway.

In looking for the doggy vote, although he was defacto re-elected last Friday when no one filed to run against him, Wolfson wanted to llow residents to run their dogs off-leash on the Par 3 Golf Course until construction begins on the course in the Bayshore neighborhood.  The Parks Committee voted against the plan, because the concern  was raised  that once the privilege is granted it will be hard to rescind.

“You are going to take this away?” the mayor asked, ‘Once you give the okay, it will be hard to take it back.”

“Well, you don’t want dogs running loose on a new golf course”, Commissioner Wolfson countered.

“We don’t take care of the kids the way we take care of the dogs” in Miami Beach, the mayor said, “We have parks for dogs, for big dogs, for small dogs, in Flamingo, in Pinetree in Southpointe,” she noted.

Lisa Bergwin, owner of the famous T-Mex Taco Bar on 14th Street came to speak for the dogs.  She and her neighbors have recently been ticketed for bringing their dogs on the Par 3.  There are new signs in her neighborhood, saying, “Dogs are not allowed.”

“We are a neighborhood, we are family.  No one is afraid of my dogs”, Bergwin implored. “It’s a nice community area that we just want to use.”

The City agreed to reduce enforcement until the construction begins.

DecoBikes request for advertising was tabled until October, giving the City an opportunity to discuss the issue once again at the Finance Committee once City CFO Patricia Walker finishes her analysis of DecoBikes’ books.

A new star architect will add to the City’s collection of world-renowned designed buildings.  Zaha Hadid, the 2004 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize was chosen to design the new 23rd Street Garage being built in Collins Park. When built, her design will join the works of two other Pritzker Prize winning architects whose buildings are on display in Miami Beach. Frank Gehry, the 1989 Winner designed the New World Symphony and garage, and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meurin, the 2001 laureates were the designers of  the 1111 Lincoln Road  parking garage, retail and residence space.

Hadid was the first woman to be so honored in her profession, and only one of two women ever to receive the Hyatt- foundation award bestowed on “a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”

The discussion of replacing current Chief of Police Carlos Noregia provided the most fireworks of the day.  Commissioner Tobin does not want the assistant police chief, Ray Martinez, to be promoted to chief, even though Martinez has been with the Department for ten years and the rank and file feels comfortable and confident about him.  Tobin insisted on a wide-ranging search with a 60-day timeframe to find a candidate from outside the organization.

“I don’t mind searching for a chief, but I do not want you preclude anyone from being a candidate”, the manager, Jorge Gonzalez countered.

“I have been living here for a long time, but I have seen people come in from the outside, and sometimes it is not a good thing” the mayor offered.

“While I was hard-core on the Cynthia Curry issue, (the questionable former Miami-Dade County executive who was hired by the manager to be the head of the building department and not confirmed by the Commission) I believe the Commission has the final approval over who should be department heads”. Wolfson added,  “I understand that this is a HR function, and it is the managers purview to present a candidate and if we don’t like that person, we don’t have to approve them.”

“The assistant chief is in a weird situation,” Wolfson said,  “because you (Tobin) called him the chief, but he is not and to taint him with the activities of the police department is not fair”.

While Tobin had already set out a strict timetable and search protocol, the mayor suggested the Commission charge the City Manager to bring back a timetable and procedure at the next meeting.  Commissioner Jerry Libbin chastised the manager for not being prepared for the departure of the current chief who had declared his intention to retire three years ago, “You should have been prepared for this and presented us candidates now, and we could have avoided this.” Libbin said.

“This is the sort of personal attack that I will not tolerate” Wolfson said to Tobin  in aside, after Tobin criticized Wolfson’s perspective on the issue as one from a personal injury attorney. Wolfson countered with “you are a police officer” when they did not agree on how wide ranging a search should be.

The manager will start working right away to look for candidates by advertising the opening on the Internet.

In a most surprising move, after years of hard work and a spirited discussion on the merits of the deal, the Commission voted not to renew the Florida Power and Light Franchise agreement

While the points negotiated put the City in a very favorable light in regards to terms with FPL, the cost to the residents of the pass-thru “Franchise Fee” and the 30-year term of the contract gave the majority of commissioners pause.

But not having a new deal in place for February 2012, allows FPL to continue to charge the franchise fee and remit to the City a little less, because FPL subtracts what they pay to the City in property taxes from what they charge the residents under the current deal.

Then just as soon as the deal was undone, they realized that maybe they made a mistake and started hunting around for someone who voted on the prevailing side to reconsider the vote.

Tobin made a motion to rescind the vote, that was seconded and accepted, and so they instead deferred the item to some later date.

But the budget took a million dollar hit and then the argument started as Wolfson made suggestions to the budget that had not been discussed before.

The mayor was upset, calling out Wolfson for missing the committee meetings when the budget was hashed out. “Your ideas are good, you do your homework, but this is the last minute.”

Some of Wolfson’s ideas were to fire the 13 part-time Code Enforcement officer’s hired last year, consolidate some departments and eliminate the three Assistant City Manager positions.

The manager showed a bit of temper at that one.  Fiercely protective of his staff, he retorted, “You are talking about the people in this room who are here at 10 O’clock at night, working hard for you.”

Commissioner Deede Weithorn had had enough of Wolfson’s last minute chatter and walked off the dais, “I don’t feel well, I am done” she announced, pulling her computer bag behind her as she walked out the door.  Several staff members followed her out, trying to get her to return.  The mayor called for a two-minute recess.  Weithorn returned, only to stand by the door for a few minutes before she left the room again.

The back and forth over a little savings here and a vision for a smaller government there continued, “It’s like pulling teeth” the mayor announced.

The budget passed 4-2 with Wolfson and Libbin voting no.

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