Politics: Lord Of The Stings

By Jeffrey Bradley

“This is a unique, one-of-a-kind project and there are no guidelines.” —Jeff Bercow, Attorney

Those words, from that source, should have you running for the exit. If they don’t, consider that Custer’s scout told him, “Those are friendlyIndians over the hill.”

Now, while we seldom cross the causeway (anything west of Mt Sinai makes us nervous), and seldomer still upbraid Miami for political hijinks—tho’ it’s absolutely imperative sometimes to take the County Commission to task—there are limits. Like, why is that city rushing through plans to rear a pair of advertising towers so sneakily over the Adrienne Arst Center? These Twin Toweresque electronic billboards will blatantly blare ads from giant LED screens—hi-tech finials throwing light more piercing than a Fresnel lens—looming some 350 feet overhead of an already 100-foot-high parking garage (that’s 50 as in five-oh stories, Gertrude) to make sure nobody misses the kitsch.

Now, you can always tell when Miami’s up to something. You read the papers; but nothing makes any sense. So you’re left with a dull dread, because you know the shoe is about to fall. It’s like being home alone at night and suddenly the cellar door rattles hideously.

Just another episode of Miami’s benthic politics, one of those crazy ideas that surface occasionally like weird fish from abyssal depths, right? But there’s more to this billboard than meets the eye. Much more.

Sure, it seems like Miami’s pulling a fast one. Add it up—letting a developer hatch, plan and implement his own design with little adjunct help from the city, those behind-the-scenes closed-door negotiations, the hush-hush let’s do it during recess aspect that makes it seem like someone somewhere’s doing something—wasn’t it the Beatles said, one and one and one is three?

Crowds are not company, and faces are but portraits in a gallery.

There’s cloak-and-daggery afoot. Everybody knows that developer Marc Siffin has a snowball’s chance in the hot place of making this fly. State and federal laws are specific as to the size and place of commercial signs, and these are so literally and legally over the top that DERM and a slew of other alphabet agencies are just itching to pounce like flies on dung before the ink on the permits is dry. Obviously, he hasn’t a clue as to his impending fleecing, but then, if God did not want them sheared he would not have made them sheep.

We wonder when he’ll first sense something is wrong?

Miami Mayor Regalado justified the rush by explaining that things must be done before addressing the budget crisis. Doesn’t he know that the faster the collision, the bigger the wreck? Even tho’ the city stands to make a killin’, Jack, that’s surely not the answer.

In politics, the hangnail of doubt morphs into a sucking chest-wound of despair, and when we came to understand that the rules barring a private attorney from handling any public permitting process carte blanche were obviated because—get this—the proposal merits special treatment as the city has no rules, we grew so agitated that we fell to the floor rolling and snapping. In effect, the city wrote a new law to get the towers approved.

Deals-within-deals apparently hang on the towers completion: the new parking garage; the long-dormant City Square retail mall that Siffin vowed to get done; even that Miami Herald parking lot worth a cool $200 mil, which the newspaper ironically had “no comment” on. It means having a huge complex abutting the Boulevard Shops and Performing Arts Center that alters the skyline forever.

Still, much could unravel… an independent analysis found the signs apt to throw “offensive glare” in a half-mile radius (Siffin sniffs it wasn’t conducted by a “lighting expert”), the Highway Beautification Act could mean running afoul of state and federal rules, FDOT harrumphs it as excessive, even the FAA is concerned over height restrictions and the hazards to low-flying aircraft… complications, complications!

But this is Miami, so the rules may or may not apply. And in art’s yin to clutter’s yang, supporters want the towers deemed “murals,” ala those commercial banners festooning the sides of downtown buildings. They contend the county has often let the city disregard billboard regulations unbeknownstlike.

To get a handle on it, remember the name Marc Sarnoff (of the-Commissioner-who-is-to-be-Mayor fame). We’re betting there’s more to it than political quid pro quo.

In fact, this is political hardball. Compared with the hamhanded tactics of County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle—who hides a large gray animal with tusks behind a bamboo shoot then disingenuously asks, “Elephant? What elephant?”—Sarnoff serves his constituents by masterfully finessing the system. Good Ford! Consider how long it takes to accomplish anything here on the Beach (if you said, “Since the late Cretaceous,” we agree with you): writing the new ordinances, that pesky permitting process, jumping through design review, historical relevancy and public-input hoops—the rigmarole is endless. But under Commissioner Svengali’s, er, Sarnoff’s aegis, the developer was not only suborned into handling all that, his firm’s also charged with cobbling an ordinance that circumvents the messy public-vetting (hey, deals need doing!)—evenpaying for it.

(We’re more quaint this side of the Bay. We pay the developer and pony up a half-million dollars or more when the project invariably comes in overtime, overcost and overrun—then congratulate ourselves on how sly we’ve been. The term, we believe, is the bush leagues.

Returning to Commissioner Sarnoff…

This all brewed up last May, when City Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff ostensibly dragged the towers into the limelight by demanding a public presentation. Or is that just the official line? Anyway, things unfolded and questions surfaced. Then more questions.

In fact, concern became rife with the not altogether wisely-timed hiring of two of Sarnoff’s staffers by a community agency at some pretty handsome salaries.

Charged with addressing “elimination of slum and blighting”, a Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is a special taxing district in the city. Except for salaries, property-tax money paid within the district stays there. Most, unfortunately, have an execrable track-record as commissioner slush funds. It was an irksome audit of the late Art Teele’s Overtown CRA that led to that unfortunate’s one-time drama of blowing his brains out all over the lobby of The Herald.

What staffers profited? Why, no other than two that worked on the Siffin deal. Apparently, after Commissioner Sarnoff trimmed his budget, these two managed to land on their feet. They still work for the city: one doubled his salary by becoming assistant executive director for the Omni CRA—which <ahem!> Commissioner Sarnoff oversees—and the other, formerly Sarnoff’s communications director, oversees all threeCRAs at a very princely sum. Perception takes a dent, too, because the commissioner made a previous run at CRA funding to pay for staffers, who do indeed handle some CRA work, but whose salaries fall far outside permissible use of agency money—and raises the spectre of potential abuse.

CRA Executive Director Pieter Bockweg averred no deals had been struck, and the commissioner himself expressed shock; the agency hadinformed The Herald of the shifts. Still, if we find the self-same staffers who worked intensely on the Twin Towers deal now allocating community funds—in the very heart of the district where the towers will sit—you’ll forgive our skepticism. And with the knowledge that Mr Bockweg spent the last two years working with Sarnoff in crafting the city’s mural ordinance, you don’t need opposable thumbs to conclude that things… are kinda murky.

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