Gelber Unbound

He managed to leave office without being indicted, which may explain why Miami Beach's former mayor feels free to unload on development, corruption, and the bad boys across the bay

Was last year's charter amendment requiring a referendum to increase the zoning density of waterfront property the landmark event it's been made out to be?

I thought the referendum crystallized the sentiments of the people. But in the election, they ran against an ogre named Thomas Kramer. There was no way anybody was going to support him. I distanced myself [from the "no" campaign] by saying that I was opposed to the amendment but that I didn't support Kramer's group and their campaign tactics.

Still, people on the "yes" side criticized you. What were your reasons for opposing the amendment?

I'm as strong an advocate as they are for quality of life and all the other cliches, and I would just as soon have a small building over here than a large building [he gestures toward the 20 Venetian Way site]. I felt, from the legal point of view, that the amendment would put us in a bad situation, and no matter what was resolved we were going to have to pay a heavy price, either in legal costs and judgments or in what was eventually built. I opposed the referendum primarily because the city attorney declared that it was unconstitutional. Of course, I also voted against it as a voter; I felt that there was a complete lack of understanding on the part of voters of the history of developer lawsuits in South Pointe. That's why we had to make [the Portofino Agreement] with Thomas Kramer. The Portofino Agreement was the best we could do.

And by voting for the amendment the voters effectively killed that agreement.

Right, but they did it because they only looked at the result [of the agreement], at all the tall buildings Portofino was going to put up. I knew that people would be critical of me, and expected they would prevail in the referendum, which they did. But when you're in public office the game shouldn't be played according to the best scenario for the officeholder. I had people who were supporters of mine who said, "I'm not going to ever support you again because you came out against it." I said, "Well, you don't understand the legal ramifications."

Do you fully understand the legal ramifications?
As far as I know, [the referendum] might turn out to be the wisest thing that ever happened to the city, even though I don't think the people who supported it were necessarily wise. They were emotional, or they were taking advantage and benefiting politically by it, pretending that they were big populists. But I don't know whether or not this is going to damage the city. I can sit back and figure out that A-B-C-D is going to happen. [New York developer] Ian Bruce Eichner is going to sue, Kramer is going to sue, we're going to lose most of the judgments based on the kind of state we are. But then they turn around and they work out another compromise that could be damn better than [the Portofino Agreement] we originally worked out.

Among those who are vehemently opposing development on the Miami Beach City Commission, who is sincere and who is posturing?

It's difficult to say. Let's take Martin Shapiro. He's well-liked by his fellow commissioners, although most of them take positions totally contrary to his. He's for the most part civil, he's willing to laugh at himself. I think he's posturing in a political sense by opposing most things that involve expenditures of money. But some of it I think he's very sincere about. He really believes in small community, small government, the Beach as a kind of oversize bedroom community.

Is that constructive?
I think as a commissioner he probably has a role. It doesn't hurt to have one guy on a commission who stands up and opposes almost everything, even though it's a little wearisome to listen to his speeches to the audience. But with elected officials, you have to assume some of that. I think he'd be tragedy as a mayor of a city like this, but as a city commissioner I think there's a role for someone like that.

What about the person who led the referendum drive, David Dermer?
Dermer is a young, ambitious man. Nothing wrong with being young and ambitious. I'm just concerned that Dermer is so ambitious, I don't know who he's willing to tie himself with to be successful. But I don't think that's his biggest problem. I think he and Shapiro are willing to be absolutely reckless in placing the city in precarious positions as far as lawsuits. It's a kind of heroic posture to be fighting for the city against developers and not willing to give an inch. Politically that's a pretty positive thing. So I have some reservations about him, but I also have hopes for him.

What about the two other new commissioners, Jose Smith and Simón Cruz?
Well, I think the city was so fortunate, number one, in electing Hispanics at all, and second, in electing two quality individuals, regardless of whatever their [ethnicity] is. We're just lucky to get two high-quality people like that. I hope they stay in government. This is probably the best commission we've had. It's better than the commission I had, with these two guys.

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