As Nasty as They Can Possibly Be

The mean season is upon us. The Dade mayor's race is in full swing, a half-dozen county commission seats are up for grabs, and after months of wrangling over fractious issues such as building a new arena, repealing the county's gasoline tax, and leasing portions of Homestead Air Force Base to a private developer, commissioners are as irritable as a busload of school kids after a long field trip.

"You can tell," says one veteran county staffer, "that they are getting on each other's nerves. Thank goodness the August recess is coming up."

"It's really gotten bad over the past few weeks," agrees a long-time commission aide. "The tension is extremely high right now. It's bizarre, it's unprofessional, it's nasty, and it is just plain embarrassing."

Adds another commission staffer: "As the tension has gone up, the collegiality that used to keep things civilized has been blown out the window."

Tempers are short. Snideness abounds. And decorum, never in abundance, has all but evaporated. The nastiness reached a peak (or is that pique?) during the commission meetings held June 18 and June 20. Natacha Millan, for example, suggested that Katy Sorenson's opposition to the proposed redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base was racist. James Burke, whose meandering, often unintelligible, declamations have taken years off the lives of many of his colleagues, attacked Sorenson on the same issue for grandstanding and making unnecessary speeches. (As it turned out, Sorenson had caught a major problem with the proposed lease agreement between the county and the developers that could have left the county vulnerable to a lawsuit.)

The late-June meetings also saw Maurice Ferre and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla sniping at each other over the gas tax, Gwen Margolis losing her patience with members of the public during the debate over building a new arena, and Art Teele lobbing grenades at just about everyone.

Indeed, there is little disagreement that Teele, commission chairman for the past three years, has become the most combative of all the commissioners. He accused Bruce Kaplan of spreading lies about him on Spanish-language radio, he exposed what he described as a secret meeting between the county manager and a handful of lobbyists tied to Alex Penelas's mayoral campaign, and he derided Maurice Ferre for having a "failed vision" regarding the future of Dade County.

When he announced his candidacy last month at a press conference, Teele harked back to his days as an elite Army Ranger, and worked his military service into speeches as evidence of his leadership abilities. His was the only press conference with its own LZ (landing zone) as he chartered three helicopters to ferry himself and a pack of reporters across the county. All allusions to Apocalypse Now were intentional, his not so subtle message clear: In Dade County, politics is war.

And Teele is hoping that the napalm he levels against his fellow commissioners will smell like victory come election day. "There is no question that the Board of County Commissioners at this historic juncture, where everything is on the table, is in the process of turning into a very mean-spirited, parochial, feudal state," says Teele. "The gloves are off. I'm not going to sit there and take it on WQBA, on Channel 51, on Channel 23, and not respond in kind. I told everyone I would not go negative first. But I am not going to be a potted plant."

Never was Teele's aggressiveness more evident than during the June 20 debate over repealing two cents of the county's six-cent gas tax. The $45 million raised by the tax annually is used to maintain roads, improve bus service, landscape major arteries, and install warning and safety lights near schools. Since the gas tax's imposition nearly three years ago, the measure has been a frequent target for attack, particularly on Spanish-language radio stations, and specifically on La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140).

For the past six months opponents of the tax have made repeated attempts to repeal up to five of the six cents, and have succeeded in placing it at the center of debate in the mayor's race. Penelas, who has long opposed the tax, has taken to beating up on Ferre and Teele, who have supported it. Ferre finally cracked under the pressure and announced he would support a reduction in the tax by two cents. Teele refused to support any reduction.

On the morning of the vote, WQBA station manager Augustine Acosta blasted Teele, claiming that the chairman would try to use dirty tricks and unethical parliamentary maneuvers to keep the gas tax. At the start of the meeting, while Acosta was still speaking on the radio, Teele, returning to his Army Ranger theme, made several disparaging remarks about Acosta, and declared he was not going to accept such insults from someone who had not even fought in a war to defend the United States.

Several hours later, Acosta appeared before the commission to confront Teele. "I am not a racist," Acosta insisted, "and I am not the things you probably think I am. I am a very nice person."

But Teele was in no mood for conciliation. Pulling out a transcript of Acosta's remarks made that morning on the radio, Teele began reading them into the record. "'WQBA demands publicly from Commissioner Teele that he stop playing dirty tricks with the gas tax,'" Teele read aloud. As an aside, Teele also opined that the station had obviously gone downhill since Amancio Suarez sold it last year and added that the previous management was "a far more enlightened and intelligent management."

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