Politics: We Are Being Snookered

City Hall’s Most Crucial Decision in Years Was A Sloppy, Flubbed One, Critic Charges.

It is a foolhardy thing to provoke the anger of the electorate, especially in an election year.

It is equally not a wise thing to provoke Frank Del Vecchio, election year or not, especially when he seizes upon a folly or fumble committed by the Powers That Be who sit four stories above Convention Center Drive.

The email traffic between him and his correspondents this week has been more electric and passionate than usual, and all due to what transpired in City Commission chambers in the unusually late hours of a critical meeting two weeks ago.

Facing city commissioners that night was one of the most crucial and long term-impacting votes they will ever cast in their City Hall careers – and the majority, believes Del Vecchio, just plain f’ed theirs up that evening.

The City Commission has abrogated its responsibilities to the public. I am disgusted,” he fumed this week. “I was prepared to swallow a bona fide selection, whichever way it went, but the performance Wednesday [the 17th], and worse yet, when they gave away the power of succeeding commissions with their vote Friday [the 19th] goes against my lifelong efforts for integrity in government.”

Whichever way they voted, commissioners must have known they’d catch flak from the losing bidding team and its backers.

But who could have seen coming the can of worms their vote would open, one whose contents Team Del Vecchio now sees spilled out and crawling all over the place?

Suspicions of scheming, political brokerage, and backroom deals. Allegations of disingenuousness. Skepticism and mistrust about motives and machinations.

In the two weeks since the decision to award the estimated billion-dollar convention center rebuild to Dan Tishman‘s South Beach ACE design wizards and not to those of Jack Portman, the fallout has been rivened and roiled with rancor and recrimination.

The Commission’s selection was meant to be the decisive end to a months-long tug-of-war between two capable design teams, one that sometimes featured political campaign-style tit-for-tat charges and counter-charges that spilled over into blogs, tweets, and email in-boxes. But the selection is provoking more questions than it settled and, for some, has left a bad taste and foul smell that doesn’t promise to go away anytime soon.

CORRUPTION HAS GONE ON DURING THIS PROCESS”

If the Commission’s selection was meant to settle one phase of the proposed project and move it forward to the next, it succeeded at that.

But commissioners also succeeded at further fueling and perpetuating long-persistent impressions that here is a city government that tone-deafly refuses to recognize that a significant and growing portion of the public perceives it as a corruption-plagued one – and which, despite vows to the contrary, does disappointingly little to divest the public of that perception.

As reported in Michael Sasser‘s SunPost cover story last week, Jonah Wolfson, one of 2 Portman votes, fears the selection was born from the demon seed of a monster from whose tentacles City Hall has been unable to extricate itself in recent years.

Wolfson referred to the monster by name, when he dropped the “c” word:

The vote basically encapsulated all of the corruption that has gone on during this whole process. It’s a further example that the Commission doesn’t do what’s in the public’s best interest, but instead does what’s in friends’ best interests.”

Ed Tobin, the only other Portman vote, delivered a spirited case for choosing the Team Portman, drawing upon his past strengths as a prosecutor as if he were in a courtroom delivering up a closing argument.

In the end, the jury was not swayed. The vote went 5 to 2 for Team Tishman.

GANG OF FOUR

Del Vecchio singled out four on the dais for “behavior” on the Night of the Big Vote that caused him to recoil. Holding nothing back, he blistered each of them this week with withering criticism:

They waved aside [city manager Jimmy] Morales‘s recommendation on public costs and timetable, and gave specious reasons for their votes.”

Frank’s Gang of Four are:

MATTI BOWER

The mayor, observed Del Vecchio, “said nothing.”

Matti said she would take the votes orally, and after the four announced their vote for Tishman, Deede [Weithorn], who said she favored the Portman deal, and that ‘the Tishman plan is a higher risk,’ added her yes vote.”

He suspects the motivating factor behind Bower’s campaign for the Group 3 seat this fall – “against the advice of her closest friends” – is “to ensure she will be part of a Commission majority after Nov. 5 that will kowtow to the Tishman group” and “cement the deal and head off torpedoing later.”

We saw this Friday the 19th, when the ballot question drafted by Tishman’s Al Dotson, with [city attorney] Jose Smith‘s willing assistance, was rammed through, emasculating the power of any City Commission to exert real legal leverage over the Tishman group.”

JORGE EXPOSITO

Exposito, according to Del Vecchio, “was, at best, disingenuous.”

He said he was voting for Tishman, not Portman, because of the ‘process,’ because Portman revised his figures. Exposito was in effect saying that what [Morales] was saying was not true, because the Portman figures had been submitted late.

Morales pointed out that the revised figures of July 8 were not included in his calculations, which used instead the initial July 5 response to his request for new numbers based on the scaled back plan.

Exposito had previously heard this from Morales at least twice: Morales spelled it out in his two-page, July 10 Letter to the Commission, and went over this in agenda review with Exposito prior to the Commission’s July 17 meeting.

I also know from other sources that Exposito was well aware that the city administration was basing its calculations on the July 5 response, not Portman’s July 8 correction.”

MICHAEL GONGORA

Del Vecchio’s slam against the mayoral candidate was succinct yet scathing, seeming to suggest that Gongora’s decision had been weighted too heavily on aesthetics and not enough on other criteria:

Gongora had a one-liner: ‘[Tishman's] more iconic project appealed to me more.’”

JERRY LIBBIN

Libbin’s reason for voting the way he did, Del Vecchio emphatically pronounced, “was patently false and totally unacceptable to anyone who had been following the agonizing process of financial analysis.”

After all these months, including two meetings of the Finance Committee and exhausting exchanges among the parties, and use of outside independent financial consultants, set out in great detail in the city manager’s 30-page July 12 memorandum for the July 17 Commission meeting, Libbin dismissed all of this saying that the numbers didn’t matter ‘since we can negotiate.’”

To illustrate his point, Del Vecchio cited figures from Morales’s memo showing Tishman’s public costs exceeding Portman’s, and Tishman requiring more in city bond and RDA financing.

Morales recommended the Portman financials as well as the Portman shorter construction time frame. I could understand a debate over the figures (where the manager came down on the aggregate in favor of the Portman financing plan), but Libbin didn’t do that. He waved them aside.”

THEY’LL “FALL IN LINE” WITH THE DEVELOPER

 What happened in Commission chambers, Del Vecchio alleges, “was no accident.”

It had been orchestrated for many months. What we saw Friday [the 19th] with a fast gavel ‘vesting’ property rights in Tishman is a preview of what is to come over the next several years if we don’t get new, unencumbered blood on the dais.

Look at this from the perspective of a developer. What is it that you want? Of course, you need the four votes here and now for your selection and for a ballot question that comes as close as possible to legal vesting.

Let a future commissioner try to argue you’ve not been vested, especially if you control the mayor and commissioners.

As a guarantee, you need a Commission majority for the next several years so that you have smooth sailing on all contracts, zoning changes, and public hearings. Your clever lawyers know all the angles.

Here is a VERY BIG angle. The ballot question gives the illusion that there will not be overdevelopment north of 17th Street. It limits development to an 800-room hotel and 17,000 square feet of retail/restaurant, but it does not restrict convention center hotel accessory uses.

Unless limits are imposed by specific district regulations, or elsewhere in the zoning regulations, the interpretation of ‘customary’ accessory uses [as referred to by city ordinance] is made by the zoning director.

There are no ‘conditional uses’ in the convention center district. All zoning determinations are made by the City Commission. By controlling a majority of the Commission, and arming that majority with your legal position that the Nov. 5 ballot referendum vests property rights in Tishman, the Commission will fall in line with anything you need or want.”

GRAND SCHEME”

It has taken a tremendous effort on my part, and also my wife Marian‘s, to penetrate what has been going on,” Del Vecchio, a former attorney, wrote one of his correspondents. “We’re both retired, enabling us to go to every meeting. We are the only residents to have done so. Further, without a legal background, it is impossible for the ordinary citizen to appreciate the legal effect of what is being done.

Let me put it bluntly. I believe we are being snookered.”

He then proceeded to provide a brief, no-holds-barred history of the convention center re-do, from his vantage point:

For several years, former city manager Jorge Gonzalez had a grand scheme: to generate enormous income from the city’s major asset: 52 acres of prime South Beach real estate – the convention center and surrounding city property.

Stuart Blumberg, chair of the city’s Convention Center Advisory Board, publicly accused Gonzalez of holding the much-needed upgrade of the convention center ‘hostage’ to his scheme. But the scheme was developing legs.

On Nov. 9, 2011, as Gonzalez was putting together a prospectus for a ‘public-private’ development partnership, he and Bower, with whom Gonzalez had developed a co-dependent relationship over twelve years, gave gambling mogul Steve Wynn an off-the-record tour of the convention center real estate.

Then they headed to Joe’s Stone Crab for lunch. Tipped off by a waiter, an NBC-6 TV crew caught them exiting. Gonzalez tried to duck out of the picture, but Wynn made on-camera remarks: ‘I think Miami Beach is the greatest site for a destination resort in the United States.’

A “CHARADE”

Let me fast-forward to where we are today: The four city incumbents running for election this year – Gongora, Exposito, Bower, Libbin – voted for ACE/Tishman as the convention center complex developer, over the city manager’s recommendation.

The city manager, with use of experts, rated the competing Portman plan as less costly to taxpayers and capable of completion on a much shorter timetable. The plans were comparable as far as public amenities were concerned.

The ostensible purpose of the public/private offering was to upgrade the convention center, but the outcome was a vote, with disingenuous reasons given by the four [aforementioned] incumbents.

They approved the Tishman plan, which integrates the hotel and the convention center in a single structure that could function as a casino complex when state law authorizes it.

On July 19, the Tishman attorneys and [city attorney Smith] put before the Commission a Nov. 5 ballot question that [Smith] declared would ‘vest’ development rights with Tishman, irrespective of any existing or future charter changes, including one that would require a 60% voter approval for the sale, exchange, or lease of convention center district land.”

To Del Vecchio, the vesting element in this is “profound.”

ACE/Tishman will be in control. This is the single most distressing aspect of this charade.”

As for the ballot question, it was “rubber-stamped” by commissioners to accommodate Tishman.

Tishman is meeting with industry groups to finance a major campaign to pass that ballot question,” Del Vecchio observed. “Then he will be off and running.”

NOT WORTH THE PAPER THEY’RE WRITTEN ON”

So what’s next?

Del Vecchio expects Wolfson’s effort to push a charter amendment requiring the 60% voter approval will be met by the city’s own “voter education” campaign to sell its July 19 decision to vest development rights to Tishman.

He’s pessimistic that the Commission will heed his calls to correct the deal.

The four members of the Commission who voted for vesting will reject all attempts to change it. They will ignore my call for a special meeting to remove the ‘vesting’ aspects of the ballot question, to put a No Casino charter amendment on the ballot, as well as a charter amendment that would limit further development in the district without voter approval.

If the heat is turned up on the casino and overdevelopment issue, Tishman, the mayor, and commissioners, will pledge to put these guarantees into the contract, and even have Tishman sign a covenant not to have a casino. Those agreements will not be worth the paper they’re written on with a malleable Commission in office.

The developer and the Commission can always change the agreement and the city can release the developer from any covenants. We need charter protections to give residents half a chance.”

WHAT TO DO NOW WITH THOSE “LIBBIN FOR MAYOR” SIGNS?

Early on, I – and any number of other political handicappers – had Jerry Libbin pegged as the odds-on favorite to be the city’s next mayor.

He certainly had the proven credentials, the fund raising ability, and would have no doubt accrued substantial residential and business-sector support in his bid.

What a stunning turn of events, then, when he abruptly withdrew last week, citing the demands on his time a campaign would require.

Another possible reason for his exit, albeit unspoken: what second-quarter campaign financial report filings in early July revealed.

What they showed was the strong emergence of anti-establishment candidate Philip Levine as a frontrunner in the mayoral race. Levine has bankrolled his campaign with massive infusions of his own money, electing not to accept public contributions of more than $100.

What they also showed was the solid fund raising prowess of Michael Gongora, who has led the way among mayoral hopefuls in public contributions. Year-to-date, Gongora out-raised Libbin by 2 to 1.

The writing on the wall must have started to appear to the Libbin campaign, and it must not have been optimistic.

Nevertheless – from the comments I’ve been hearing this past week – a solidly good, decent and civic-minded man who really cares about his city has left the race, and decided to bring his City Hall career to a close, if not for good, for now.

LIBBIN OUT, “MORON” IN

Whatever the real reason for Libbin’s exit, you can bet it wasn’t because he was scared off by Raphael “Rafi” Herman tossing his dunce cap into the ring.

The candidate who the New Times once christened the “moron of the election cycle” is the newest wannabe vying to become your mayor. For the third time.

The last time Rafi’s name graced Beach ballots was in 2009. Before that, 2007.

Rafi’s proof positive that the city clerk’s office doesn’t demand to see proof of mental competency when filing for public office.

The screwball in the Prince Valiant haircut vowed to a mayoral debate audience in 2009 that he’d collar America’s Most Wanted Enemy:

It is not a secret anymore; after 9-11, I had a fight with Osama bin Laden. I almost got him and brought him to America to face justice.

 “For the last 8 years, I was looking for him. I know where he is now. I spent millions of dollars of my own money.

After the election, I’m flying to Israel,…with Israeli commanders, where he’s located, we’re going to pick him up, fly back to Israel, from Israel,…land [at] Miami International Airport. [Presidents] Obama, Bush, and Clinton will be waiting to see that criminal.

With bin Laden in handcuffs, I will give a speech for one hour [at the top of the plane]…the media from all over the world will be there and the picture will be live on TV all over the world. This will attract a lot of tourists because they will want to see who is this man who was successful at bringing him to America. It’s going to be me, an Israeli commander, a Navy Seal commander.

[JFK] gave me the American flag and told me, ‘Raphael, one day you will be a great leader in this country. America will be very proud of you. The people of America will fall in love with you.’ The intention was for me to become, one day, the president of the United States.”

Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering – that’s what Rafi was busy doing last year. Challenging a certain somebody for the Democratic presidential nomination.

He apparently failed. So he’s back to run for mayor. Lucky us.

 Levine might want to take notice. Big-spender Rafi – speaking in the third person – also said this in the debate:

Raphael Herman is going to be your next mayor. I have put a few million dollars of my own money already in my account. I plan to have at the end of this week TEN million dollars.”

Phil, can you match that?

Truth be told, Rafi’s statement wouldn’t have stood up to a reality check: according to city records, he loaned his campaign no more than $2.3 million in the four months he was in the race.

Oddly, he reported no public contribution – none. Not even a family member’s, a relative’s, a friend’s.

But at the bottom of some of the pages of the treasury reports he filed with the city, Rafi wrote, “GOD BLESS AMERICA THE LAND THAT I LOVE.”

Well, how could you not vote for a candidate as patriotic as that?

Four years ago, Rafi was sure that the city’s fortunes would take a downturn –

Miami Beach is going to hit rock bottom. I’m the only one who is able and capable to resolve a lot of problems in the city.”

and he promised to be an “honest and fair” mayor:

My office will be an open office, no more gates. Any one of you who has a problem, you come to my office on the spot. We have lunch, we have a coffee, I pick up the phone, and I resolve your problem. I am a problem solver. And you better believe it.”

He crystallized in one word that which has since put the city in the glare of unwelcome attention:

Corruption in the city…is a way of life. There’s a lot of things under the table going on here. I know what’s going on in City Hall. There’s a lot of corruption. Very soon, the FBI will step in and clean up the mess. And guess what? I will assist them to resolve this matter. I will do exactly what Giuliani did in New York, clean up the mafia of New York. I’m going to clean up the mafia of Miami Beach.

Some of you are laughing here, I know. Miami Beach is being run by a mafia, believe it or not, and I, an Israeli commander, a Navy Seal commander, once and for all [am] going to clean it up. Sir, you can laugh as much as you want, who cares? I’m the next mayor of Miami Beach whether you like it or not.”

 He pledged to knock down the Bal Harbour Shops and put up a new mall between 82nd and 86th. To bring in a billion dollars in revenue in one year. To lure hundreds of millions of visitors to the city on the basis alone that he was the man who nabbed bin Laden.

We knew election politics were already going to be exciting what with Steve Berke in this race. But now that the lovably lunatic loser of past elections has joined it, we’re guaranteed to have a rollicking race this year, by golly!

I can barely wait for the debate. Or for what’s now on Rafi’s mind. No matter how loony it may be.

And you better believe it.

Whether you like it or not.

WHY THEY REGARD ‘FDOT’ AS A FOUR-LETTER WORD

City Hall’s frustration with the state’s transportation department over its month-long, congestion-causing shutdown of the Alton flyover should come as no surprise. Indeed, commissioners have long been bitching about the way FDOT so often kicks the city to the curb.

The flyover shutdown. The Port of Miami tunnel excavation. The just-begun Alton Rd. construction project. That’s just for starters.

The FDOT-City of Miami Beach relationship has got to be one of the most strained and difficult of any of the city’s intragovernmental pairings. City leaders’ discontent has been no secret.

Jorge Exposito, speaking about FDOT’s imminent Alton Rd. project plans at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club in January 2012, called the agency “somewhat intransigent” and described it as one with its “heels in the sand…not willing to fully talk openly to us.”

Numerous discussions between the Commission and FDOT, he complained, left him and his colleagues with the feeling that the state’s highway authority was too my-way-or-the-highway.

At the end of the day, FDOT should be accommodating to us,” said Exposito, not the other way around.

Mayor Bower, too, has vented about FDOT in past “Mayor on the Move” Q-and-A’s with the public.

HAVE YOU TRAVELED THE VENETIAN CAUSEWAY LATELY?

It can’t be said enough – and I’ve been remiss not to have commented before now – but the Venetian Isles roadwork and beautification improvements are just splendid.

It’s been a personal pleasure for years to eschew the MacArthur as often as possible in favor of the more relaxing and equally scenic jaunt across the bay via the Venetian Causeway. Barely a week goes by in which I don’t take that route.

New landscaped medians, palms, plants, bike lanes, sidewalks, and repaving prove that, despite all else, the city and county that we pay taxes to still are good for something. Even when spots elsewhere around town have been in dire need of repair, some – incredibly, inexcusably – for decades. One that instantly comes to mind is…

THE 1500 BLOCK OF PENNSYLVANIA

A travesty more befitting a Third World country. On second thought, I wouldn’t wish it on a Third World country. It’s so bad, when I’m out on my bike or blades, I detour onto the sidewalk.

That’s what I wrote about the beleaguered block 119 columns ago, in October 2010. Last week, I noticed the potholes were deeper and wider, the cracks and crevices more numerous.

And still, Silly Hall has done nothing to fix the street.

Sure, they’ve patched up other roadways around town. Slapped on new layers of asphalt. Good. Much appreciated.

But I periodically use this one mere block as an example to illustrate the astounding benign neglect city administrators have shown and continue to show for necessary infrastructure improvements – like street resurfacing – that, too often, get short shrift.

In an open letter to Mayor Bower and then-manager Jorge Gonzalez, I wrote this three years ago:

We are the Billion-Dollar Sandbar, but replete with wooden nickle streets reminiscent, in some cases, of Third-World abandonment. There are rural pockets of this country, I can attest – I’ve seen ‘em and traveled ‘em – that have better streets than we. That’s a crying shame.”

The shame of the city, I called it then.

To read more of my “Fix Our Streets” column, go to http://miamisunpost.com/politics-matti-jorge-fix-our-streets.

I intend to periodically return to the status of 1500 Pennsylvania, if only to alert you if the city ever steps up to the bat and repairs this sorry street.

Don’t anyone hold their breaths waiting for a fix, though. Silly Hall is notorious for its sometimes glacially slow response. But if a fix is in, you’ll read about it here.

IN APPRECIATION

In the fall of 1989, President George H. W. Bush spoke at a Virginia campaign rally on behalf of a gubernatorial candidate there. I was a free-lance stringer at the time.

Following the president’s remarks, the press corp exited the building to encounter a group of pro-choice abortion demonstrators waving their signs and chanting outside the venue. I stopped to observe.

 After a long moment watching, I turned to my left and standing next to me was Leslie Stahl, then-CBS News chief White House correspondent and Face the Nation moderator, who had also stopped to briefly observe.

Turning to my right, I noticed a small woman of advanced years who I also instantly recognized: UPI’s Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corp.

All reporters – and I mean all – must, at some point in their careers, imagine, fantasize, or dream of being assigned to the choicest beat of ‘em all, the White House.

Helen not only became one of the first of her gender to break through what had been a male-dominated fiefdom by becoming a White House correspondent in 1961, she remained on that beat for nearly a half-century more, grilling and being a veritable pain in the ass to eleven presidents in all, from Ike to Obama.

She fulfilled what so many of us only dream of being able to do, and she did it for longer than many ever do.

We could sure use a Helen Thomas in the White House press briefing room now, demanding answers from this president for what many consider the NSA’s unrestrained – and unwarranted – snooping into our phone records and metadata, a further erosion of our perpetually-eroding liberties and privacy that, with each year and with each successive presidential administration, seem to be escaping our clutches, falling through our fingers like sand.

When asked what was the difference between Cuban democracy and U.S. democracy, Fidel Castro once reportedly replied, “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”

Regrettably for the nation – and for the sake of holding our leaders accountable – no president will again have to answer to her.

I hope, at least, that what this one little lady did has inspired countless Helen Thomases – male and female journalists alike – to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire, no matter what the level of government, be it federal, state, or local.

About Charles Branham-Bailey

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