Flying Blind

Homestead Air Force Base: Hundreds of millions of dollars. An arrogant developer. Nine compliant politicians. A vote taken so late at night you never knew what hit you.

At four o'clock in the morning, County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan looked beat. He got up to stretch his legs and walked along the makeshift dais set up in the gymnasium at Southridge High School in Cutler Ridge. As he passed his commission colleagues, he tapped several of them on the shoulder, as if to see if they were still awake. Then he ventured onto the gym floor, amid the scattered remains of several hundred folding chairs.

Twelve hours earlier those chairs, and the bleachers behind them, had been packed with approximately 700 citizens. Now they were largely empty, the crowd having dwindled to an obsessed core of about 75 people who weren't going anywhere until the commission made a decision.

Kaplan eventually plopped himself down in one of the chairs farthest from the dais, which offered him a different perspective on the proceedings. As he watched the debate drag on, lobbyist Armando Gutierrez strolled over -- in part to say hello, but also to see if he could still count on Kaplan's vote. As Gutierrez approached, Kaplan's face grew taut. "Arrogance!" he shouted without any further greeting. "You are so fucking arrogant that you would risk losing this lease."

Gutierrez laughed nervously and playfully tried to put his hands around Kaplan's throat, as if this were some well-worn comedy routine. But Kaplan kept up his verbal barrage and eventually Gutierrez retreated.

Only one issue was on the commission agenda that night of January 10: whether to grant a group of Dade developers a 70-year lease to privatize a large portion of Homestead Air Force Base. The developers, led by Carlos Herrera, president of the politically powerful Latin Builders Association, had been negotiating the pact with the county for more than a year. This South Dade meeting was supposed to be the final hurdle before approval for Herrera's group, known as Homestead Air Base Developers Inc., and commonly referred to as HABDI (pronounced hab-dee).

The Dade County Commission had never in its history convened a meeting in South Dade but did so on this occasion in an effort to placate growing citizen resentment of HABDI's anticipated selection. The anger of South Dade residents had intensified dramatically during the preceding months. They were furious with the politicians at county hall for handing over this base -- without competitive bidding and without community input -- to a group of well-heeled political insiders. To the citizens of Homestead, the base represented more than just a regional economic engine. It was an intimate part of their lives, an institution that helped define them as a community. Even Commissioner Alex Penelas, a long-time HABDI supporter, had recently acknowledged that the selection process was wrong, and that a cloud now hung over the commission as a result.

And as happens so often in Dade County, the debate concerning the project had taken on an ethnic tone: Some HABDI opponents had made it clear they didn't want a bunch of "Hialeah Cubans" invading their neighborhood. Many HABDI supporters, however, were just as vitriolic and had been using Spanish-language radio to denounce all opponents as bigots.

But those volatile exchanges faded into the background during the commission meeting as Herrera began to face a more immediate problem. It boiled down to the issue that had so irritated Kaplan: arrogance.

For months County Manager Armando Vidal and his staff had been asking HABDI to provide crucial financial information about the project and about HABDI's partners. His staff needed these documents in order to evaluate the group's ability to meet specific commitments outlined in the proposed lease, commitments that were considered essential.

HABDI, however, had refused to cooperate.
At about 7:00 p.m., when Vidal admitted that HABDI had not complied with the county's "numerous requests" for the information, the commission meeting erupted.

"Here we are about to vote on a lease when we don't have the basic information on the financial capabilities of the principal individuals," complained Katy Sorenson, who has been the commission's most consistent critic of HABDI. "This is absurd. This is a travesty."

"This isn't some mysterious kind of request that has popped up at the eleventh hour," added Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes the air base. "This has been a request that has been made time and time and time again. It has always been an issue." Moss then posed a disturbing question: If HABDI was acting with such contempt for the county at this time -- when the commission still held the threat of rejection -- how trustworthy and cooperative would HABDI be once the lease was signed?

Hours later, as the criticism continued, Commissioner Javier Souto, who had supported HABDI in the past, had this to say: "I don't know if it is the time of night, but things are becoming unreal here. I don't understand -- and I don't think most of us understand -- what is going on here. It's like flying an airplane . . . by the instruments, but then the instruments don't work." For Souto, the county manager and his staff were the commission's instruments, but incomplete information caused them to malfunction.

"The instruments don't work and we are in heavy clouds. . . . Well, the clouds are getting thicker and thicker. Am I going to vote for this?" he asked rhetorically. "Am I responsible as an elected official voting for something when I don't know what the hell is going on? Do we know what is going on? Does anyone here know what's going on? Nobody knows what's going on.

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