Skid Marks on the Runway

Since last October's election of Alex Penelas as Dade mayor, Natacha Millan has emerged as the most commanding -- some would say domineering -- influence on the county commission. None of her colleagues on the dais moved as quickly to fill the power void created when Penelas, Art Teele, and Maurice Ferre resigned from the commission to run for the county's top executive post. Although a large measure of her current success is derived from her alliance with Penelas, Millan has nevertheless shown a true knack for the intricacies, and thuggery, of Dade politics.

Elected in 1993 at the advent of district elections, Millan, a former Hialeah city councilwoman, was careful not to breach the commission's informal rules of seniority, deferring to her more experienced brethren and learning from their successes as well as their failures. Rather than grandstanding on issues, she became a student of the process. And while other commissioners hired staffs filled with cronies who knew little about the county's bureaucracy, Millan sought out Terry Murphy, a seasoned political insider who had been chief of staff to then-Commissioner Larry Hawkins.

"Without question, in the last year she has moved to a higher level of commission politics," says veteran political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "She is involved in every issue. Not just every major issue, but every issue. All you have to do is watch any commission meeting and she is one of the dominant players up there. She's a pretty tough lady."

Millan does have her shortcomings. She is quick-tempered, exceptionally thin-skinned, and is known to hold a grudge longer than a professional wrestler. Once during a commission meeting, she spoke in favor of a proposed development project; but several minutes later, when the vote was taken, she surprised everyone by deliberately walking off the dais. As a result of her absence, the measure was defeated. It turned out that initially she hadn't realized the proposed developer was former Latin Builders Association president Sergio Pino, a bitter adversary. When she discovered who was behind the project, she could not bring herself to vote in favor of it.

Millan is also obsessed with the way she is portrayed in the media, particularly in newspapers such as the Miami Herald and New Times. Hardly a commission meeting goes by in which she doesn't make a derogatory comment about "those people who buy ink by the barrel."

In the coming months, a greater share of that ink is likely to flow in Millan's direction if a lawsuit filed three weeks ago in federal court is allowed to proceed. The civil suit, brought by a Dade company called JP Aviation Investments, alleges that Millan has blocked its efforts to develop 35 acres at the Opa-locka Airport. The county owns and operates the airport, and JP Aviation hopes to refurbish and build new facilities there. The firm asserts that if it weren't for Millan, who is chairwoman of the commission's Aviation Committee, it would have been awarded the lease last year.

One of the partners in JP Aviation, Jim Robinson, claims that Millan has discriminated against his firm because he is not Hispanic. He further claims that she is blocking any development at Opa-locka Airport in an effort to forestall competition for the development efforts of her good friend Carlos Herrera, president of Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI). "They are absolutely trying to get everybody to build in Homestead," says Robinson. "It's not right for them to bleed one airport to death to try to line the pockets of Carlos Herrera. If my name were Hernandez instead of Robinson, I'd be fine. She is absolutely, positively discriminating against us."

The lawsuit, which names both the county and Millan personally as defendants, makes other claims as well, the most sensational of which is that Millan allegedly attempted to solicit a $150,000 bribe from JP Aviation officials. The lawsuit states, "During a discussion between a JP Aviation representative and Defendant Millan, the representative told Defendant Millan that the inability of JP Aviation to have an opportunity to be heard with regard to the Lease was costing JP Aviation substantial sums of money. Defendant Millan responded, 'That's your problem. I don't care how much it's costing you. If you want to do business with the County it's your risk. If you want to do business with Dade County you've got to pay the price. HABDI has spent over $150,000 already and look where they are.' When the JP Aviation representative asked Defendant Millan to identify the department of Dade County where this $150,000 'fee' was to be paid, Defendant Millan replied that JP Aviation would have to wait. After the meeting, the JP Aviation representative understood that Defendant Millan was soliciting a payment from JP Aviation in exchange for action on the Lease."

The JP Aviation "representative" discussed in the lawsuit is Bernard W.H. Jennings, the firm's executive vice president for operations. During an interview last week, Jennings repeated the allegations made in the lawsuit. He said the conversation took place in a parking lot outside county hall. He claimed Millan repeatedly mentioned how HABDI had spent more than $150,000 to get its lease approved. "I had the impression from Commissioner Millan that we didn't pay the price, and I wanted to know who we had to pay that price to," he said. "It could mean one of two things: Either there is a legitimate fee to be paid somewhere or there is an illegitimate one, and I don't know of any department in the county where a legitimate fee like that could be paid."

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