The SunPost’s First Annual: PERSON OF THE YEAR

The person, or collective embodiment of a people, who, for better or worse, most impacted or influenced our local community in 2012 is…

The Angry Citizen

Some would point to June 3, 2011, as the calm-shattered day that the anger burst the bottle it was in and sprayed out like champagne.

On that Friday summer evening, a crowd of residents, business owners, community activists of every stripe – young, old, black, white, Anglo, Hispanic – converged upon Miami Beach City Hall to vent their frustration over the messy aftermath of Urban Beach Weekend 2011 the previous weekend.

The streets of South Beach had seen a massive influx of holiday revelers, most from out of town. Estimates put the number at over 200,000. Lewd acts, public drunkenness, and petty crime abounded. Police, working overtime and with officers from other departments brought in, made 400-plus arrests. Streets were congested, litter was bountiful.

In the wee hours of Memorial Day Monday, a car went careening down Washington Avenue, sending pedestrians scattering, spurring police to chase it down, guns blazing. The driver, a wanted criminal, was shot dead in a hail, reports say, of a hundred bullets. Amid the commotion, stray police bullets mowed down innocent bystanders.

Civic activists and residents were livid. End this madness now, their emails, missives, and online postings demanded. This is our city, not theirs. Miami Beach should not be an annual mecca for mayhem and the misbehaving.

A Facebook page calling for UBW’s demise was launched. It quickly gained over 5,000 “likes.”

Not content to express themselves merely by word and sentiment, they resolved to kick it up a notch. And so they emerged from behind their laptops and iPhones and turned up in person, in front of TV news crews, right outside City Hall and made their dissent loud and clear.

 The anger bubbled to the surface once gain a half-year later, in December 2011, when locals turned out for a rally outside the Miami Beach Convention Center. Inside, the Beach Chamber of Commerce was convening a public forum on the pros and cons of a proposed Genting Group destination resort casino across the bay.

“Basel Yes, Casi-NO!,” “NO DICE,” the anti-casino demonstrators’ signs proclaimed.

“The protesting crowd of about 30 that showed up at the Chamber of Commerce’s gaming forum were decidedly older than the now familiar occupy Wall Street protesters, but they were just as vocally passionate,” Michael Sasser wrote for the SunPost in its Dec. 15, 2011, issue.

 Memorial Day weekend, destination resort casinos – these were but bush-league controversies to what was to come next.

Nothing could prepare City Hall and The Powers That Be for the rising typhoon of anger that would wash over 1700 Convention Center Drive in April of this year after a cadre of city code compliance and fire inspectors were nailed in an FBI sting extorting big bucks from a SoBe nightclub and conspiring to use cops to escort cocaine shipments through city streets.

This time, hell hath no fury like citizens disgusted by corrupt public servants. This time, they had had enough.

And so they converged yet again upon City Hall, demanded the resignations of top officials, threatened to pack upcoming Commission meetings with their supporters and to take out their vengeance at the ballot box. They rallied, shouted, honked their horns, waved their placards – even surrounded and jabbed fingers in the face of their mayor at one point, with TV news crews swarming about – to get their point across.

And get it across they sure did.

By the time the typhoon was over and the storm surge had subsided, the foundation and underpinnings of the city’s top administrator had been knocked out from under him; in a matter of only days, the downfall of the dozen-years-long, cement-strong city managership of Jorge M. Gonzalez, the city official they held most responsible for failing to clean up the culture of corruption within the “organization,” as he called it, was complete.

And so it is that the SunPost, commencing what we expect will be an annual year-end tradition, names as its 2012 Person of the Year, the Angry Citizen, recognizing not any one specific person, but rather the collective embodiment of countless people in our city, some well-known, others not so, who took pitchforks in hand, figuratively speaking, shook up City Hall, put their city leaders on notice, and changed their city’s future, for better or for worse. The results and ramifications of their anger will reverberate into the new year and for years to come.

The Year of Angry Citizens – A Look Back

How much power and influence did the Angry Citizen wield in Miami Beach politics this year? Plenty. The following are excerpts from stories that appeared on the pages of the SunPost, documenting quite a year in civic history:

“WE’RE NOT A LYNCH MOB. WE’RE CONCERNED CITIZENS.”

They came. They saw. They raged.

As Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane did in High Noon, the citizens that descended upon Miami Beach City Hall last Thursday at high noon came to confront an enemy. And the enemy that appeared was…

…a little grandmotherly lady, their city mayor.

Sure, there were a handful of beefy bystanders standing on City Hall’s steps, men wearing white shirts with “CODE COMPLIANCE” emblazoned on their backs – employees of a city agency where rests much of the taint of scandal from the recent arrests of five of their colleagues, a scandal largely responsible for this rare public assemblage of anger at the city’s headquarters.

Sure, there was the city’s new police chief, Ray Martinez, inside, peering down from behind a fourth-floor window in the city manager’s quarters, himself the freshly-installed head of another city agency rocked by scandal.

Sure, there were other city employees, away from their offices and cubicles, spying with curiosity the crowd, the cacophony, the TV news crews and their vans down below.

But the apex of the crowd’s anger – the official they claim should most be held accountable for the cops gone bad, the bribe-taking code enforcers and fire inspectors, and their other gripes and grievances with city government – was nowhere in sight.

“I just wanted the city manager to come down and talk to us, show his face, because Matti came down and she heard,” said a middle-aged woman, a 22-year Beach resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “And where is the city manager? Because that’s the target more than anybody else,” she added.

But Jorge Gonzalez was M.I.A. Judging from the mood of the crowd, it was likely best and prudent for the city manager that he not make his presence known – or else he might have been treated to the same greeting that a brave Matti Bower encountered when, midway through the hour-long protest, she exited the building and plunged head-on into the thick of it.

“I’m as angry as these residents are,” she began telling reporters, as protesters began to form around her, “so I support, I support…”

She was then drowned out by boos and jeers.

“WE WANT CHANGE! WE WANT CHANGE!” the chant went up from the crowd.

“Vote us out! Vote us out!” the mayor retorted to those around her.

“Matti, we will vote you out!” responded a man, despite the fact that this is Bower’s last term.

“You have failed!” another man yelled.

“I know, I know,” the mayor answered.

“But you know they were corrupt,” one woman challenged Bower.

“No, I don’t know, but vote us out, vote us out!” the mayor shot back.

“SHAME ON YOU! SHAME ON YOU!” the crowd roared.

“I supported you – you betrayed us!” Mike Burke, practically nose to nose with Bower, shouted, jabbing his finger at her as she jabbed hers at him.

The mayor chided: “You create chaos – ”

Burke: “I didn’t create anything! YOU create it, Matti!”

“RECALL!” Somebody shouted. “RECALL MATTI! RECALL MATTI!” the crowd joined in.

“I think that this is like a lynch mob,” the mayor told another gaggle of reporters as she found a clearing in the crowd and began to make her away across the street to catch a car ride to the Shelborne for Russell Galbut’s public meeting. “This happens many times. Now, it’s by social media – .”

“We’re not a lynch mob, Matti,” a calm-voiced woman nearby corrected the mayor. “We’re concerned citizens.”

Bower attempted to begin again. “I think that the Commission – ,” she started, while in the background the crowd continued to demand her recall.

“Do that!” she blurted back to them. “I think that the Commission needs to take what they [the arrested employees] have done incorrectly – I don’t think anybody knew in this particular issue. Two people were making a deal. This is very different than corruption – taking money out of the coffers of the city of Miami Beach. They are different issues. The city manager and us as commissioners have shown that when there is something wrong we fire the people. We fired the guy in the procurement department [Gus Lopez] because something was going wrong. We as commissioners were told about it and the guy was taken away. It was found by the city.”

“Madam Mayor,” asked a TV reporter, “it’s not just one issue these people are complaining about. Some say it’s a pattern.”

“Right. It’s all of it. It’s all of it, exactly. And we are taking action. Commissioner Tobin is here and he…brings things forward. He had called for the internal [inspector] general to come months ago and [he] told us at that time they couldn’t come because they were doing the school board issues.”

“Matti, what do you say to these people who want a recall?”

“They should do what they feel is the right thing to do, but I think that the city of Miami Beach is doing the best they can under a very bad circumstance.”

“But these people don’t think that, Matti.”

“Okay.”

“We are concerned citizens,” the civil-toned woman again rebutted. “Not a lynch mob.”

The mayor turned to her. “We have other people that don’t come out and rally that think that we are doing a good job. Many residents. This is – 94,000 people live here, we get e-mails also.”

With that, Bower issued a “thank you” and turned and headed off.

“WHAT DO WE WANT? CHANGE!” the shout went up. “WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!”

– From “FED UP! Citizen Rally at Miami Beach City Hall Demands Change Now,” by Charles Branham-Bailey, May 3, 2012, issue

“OUR CITY HAS TURNED INTO A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY”

Demonstrators, bearing cleverly-sloganed signs and placards, converged on City Hall’s east facade under sunny skies, a pitchfork brigade – minus the pitchforks – but no less perturbed and incensed by a municipal government they feel has lost its way, lost control, and lost their trust and confidence.

There was anti-Gonzalez Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, holding forth in español, being interviewed by a Channel 23 news crew, a sign-bearer behind him hoisting a one-word placard: “ACCOUNTABILITY.”

Over there was Ed Tobin, another commissioner who thinks it is time for a new city manager, fresh from his own email-to-email exchange, earlier in the week, with the chief administrator he wants fired.

But there was no Jorge Gonzalez.

Over there was the rally’s organizer, Frank Del Vecchio, speaking to another news crew, as other community activists and civic notables – Roger Abramson, Harry Cherry, David Kelsey, and Alejandro Arce, among others – chatted, hob-nobbed, sign-waved, and acknowledged passing drivers blowing their horns in support.

There was local author and novelist Edna Buchanan telling WPLG 10′s Michael Putney, “For the decade that he’s been city manager, our city has turned into a Third World country.” She held a sign: “COVER-UPS / GREED / CORRUPTION – OUR CITY SOLD OUT!”

Over there was Bower’s 2011 challenger, Steve Berke, hoisting his own sign: “I TOLD YOU SO.”

But Jorge Gonzalez was a no-show.

“It’s a shame,” one demonstrator remarked. “We have a beautiful city. We have so many great citizens here. Everybody wants to work with the city, but when we see this scandal, it’s a shame. It’s a shame.”

 Should the city manager go?

Replied she: “He should.”

– From “FED UP! Citizen Rally at Miami Beach City Hall Demands Change Now,” by Charles Branham-Bailey, May 3, 2012, issue

“THAT WAS A MOB”

“I’ve been an activist for many years – that’s how I got to be mayor.

“It is a hard job to do this. Do you think I want to come in front of you and talk about [the corruption issue]? But I’m here.

“What am I going to get out of a town hall meeting? What am I going to get? People yelling at me, like I went to this thing the other day? I was shocked. And I lost my temper and I am sorry I lost my temper, but I stepped out into the crowd because I knew everyone that was there. Every single person I knew, maybe one or two I didn’t know.

“I was shocked! I was shocked by their response….And I am sorry that we came out to look. In hindsight, if I hadn’t gone down – but I knew the people, it’s like if I saw you out there, and I’d go and say, ‘okay, you’re angry’ – but that was a mob.

“That was terrible to be on television doing that. I never in my life would have thought that Miami Beach would go to this extent. Never. We have activists and we get angry – just like me, I’m one of the worst. I heckle if I have to, but not to that extent.

“I’m here because this has broken my heart, broken my trust in almost everybody. I don’t know who’s good or bad anymore, but we’re going to fix it. We’re going to try to fix it.”

– From “Matti Responds to Protesters,” by Charles Branham-Bailey, May 3, 2012, issue. Mayor Bower made her comments at an April 3 “Mayor on the Move” Q-and-A at the Miami Beach Golf Clubhouse.

GEARING UP FOR ANOTHER

Organizers of last week’s protest rally outside Miami Beach City Hall plan another one at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 9, as the City Commission meets inside at that hour to determine the fate of City Manager Jorge Gonzalez.

“We need a show of support for commissioners voting to hold the city manager accountable,” declared a press release from Frank Del Vecchio, a rally organizer and community activist.  “His plan for reform cannot be trusted.”

The rally, Del Vecchio said, will demonstrate support for several commissioners who are planning to move for Gonzalez’s dismissal and to hold him “accountable for failure and corruption in his administration.

– From “Protesters to Rally at City Hall – Again,” May 3, 2012, issue

HUNGRY FOR REFORM, READY TO DEVOUR THE CITY MANAGER

Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez was barely honored at this morning’s Tuesday Breakfast Club meeting at David’s Cafe. In fact, disgruntled residents, hungry for reform, had the handsome city manager for breakfast. Many people have been afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation from city officials, but the climate of fear has been dissipated by an ongoing investigation into corruption by the FBI that has already netted seven arrests. The only honor he received was a thank you for the good things he has accomplished, with a recommendation that he resign before the City Commission considers letting him go tomorrow.

– From “Miami Beach Had Jorge for Breakfast,” by David Arthur Walters, May 10, 2012, issue

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

A crowd of angry, seething citizens awaited the city manager’s appearance before the Miami Beach Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club at David’s Cafe on Lincoln Road. TV news crews and their remote vans, parked outside the cafe, awaited him, too.

Calm, cool, collected – betraying no sign that he was under the slightest pressure or duress – he tried confidently to sell them the image of a city that, despite the corruption and kerfuffle that currently roils it, is still one its residents love living in, quoting results to them of the city’s latest resident satisfaction survey, rattling off glowing percentages.

Jorge Gonzalez’s audience bought toast, juice, and coffee, but they weren’t buying that. They weren’t swallowing it, either.

One after another, they volleyed questions and challenges to him, some even face-to-face within an arm’s distance, some with even-temperedness, others with vehemence. Two of his questioners were city commissioners on record as vowing to terminate his city managership.

Applause frequently went up from all around the room when a question had been lobbed which the audience liked. Questions, no doubt, the city manager must have enjoyed about as well as one can enjoy a root canal.

If a bomb had gone off in David’s Cafe Tuesday morning, much of the city’s body politic, brain trust, assemblage of movers-and-shakers – fill in your descriptive – would have been wiped out.

There were the Tuesday morning regulars to David Kelsey’s dining room. There were the organizers, activists, and rabble-rousers from the April 26 protest rally in front of City Hall. There were Police Chief Ray Martinez and his deputy, Mark Overton. There was Fire Chief Javier Otero. There were two commissioners, Ed Tobin and Jonah Wolfson. There were local judicial and commission candidates from the past and future. There were civic notables including Martin Shapiro, Sherry Roberts, Steve “Bubba” Cohen, Mike Burke, and former mayoral candidate Dave Crystal.

Even Mayor Matti Bower appeared minutes into the meeting. She sat down at a table, just feet away from some of the same people – like Burke, protest rally organizer Frank Del Vecchio, and others – who 12 days earlier had been in her face, in front of City Hall, loudly demanding her recall or resignation.

Explosive at moments, the tension in the room was almost palpable. Calling the manager the “intimidator-in-chief,” Del Vecchio, only inches from Gonzalez, said, “People are afraid.”

“It is a joke to say [people should] come to you. People do not believe you. They do not trust you. You have total power over the members of your administration. You approve them, you promote them, you demote them, you transfer them. You have no credibility.

“You are not the person to lead reform,” he proclaimed, “you should resign effective today.

“The buck stops here,” declared Roger Abramson to Gonzalez, “enough is enough!”

Leo Ostreicher, president of the Tranquility House co-op on Euclid Ave., ripped the city manager’s plea that complaints about wrongdoing be referred to him and other city leaders. “You’re encouraging the residents to pick up the phone and to complain and do everything, when your own [Code Compliance] officers are scared sh—less!”

– From “They Scolded…He Folded,” by Charles Branham-Bailey, May 10, 2012, issue

About Charles Branham-Bailey

Speak Your Mind