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On a recent Saturday afternoon about two dozen people and a well-mannered yellow Lab gathered in a courtyard in Miami's Design District. Most owned homes in the nearby neighborhood of Buena Vista and they'd come to discuss mundane issues such as trash pickup, beautification, and code compliance. But the underlying agenda was power; for the past several years neighbors have battled one another over the fate of this somewhat rundown but architecturally rich inner-city community.
The man leading the meeting has emerged as a community powerhouse. He is 46-year-old Luis Penelas, president of the Buena Vista East Neighborhood Association and older brother of Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas. In spite of his famous name and growing visibility in the area, he is practically unknown in other parts of the county.
Luis Penelas moved into Buena Vista less than a year ago, but he has already sparked changes. He is involved in numerous local cleanup and improvement projects. His neighbors have even speculated that he might run for city commission. Although Penelas terms the idea "silly" for now, he doesn't rule out the possibility of a political career in the future.
The aforementioned Saturday meeting was unusual because it brought together Penelas's group and the Historic Buena Vista Homeowners Association, chaired by Jim Keane. Their aim: to solve problems of noise and loitering around the Food For Life Network's food bank at NE Second Avenue and 47th Street. (Buena Vista's sixteen square blocks are bounded by NE 41st Street, 49th Street, Second Avenue, and North Miami Avenue.)
Penelas opposed several residents' efforts to evict the food bank, which didn't comply with all zoning requirements. He called the meeting to elicit promises from Food For Life that it would become a better neighbor. If residents and the bank could reach a compromise, Penelas offered to reassure city zoning officials about the operation. "Since the main issue is noise coming from the [garbage] trucks, I would like for you to demand, not ask, that your trash pickup start after seven o'clock," Penelas addressed a Food For Life representative at the meeting. "Tell [your trash hauler] if they won't change the pickup times, you'll change companies."
For now Penelas declares himself content to be the 37-year-old mayor's "nagging conscience" on social issues. He says he "needled my brother to do something about saving the circle" (the downtown Tequesta Indian site endangered by development). And he volunteered with SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) Dade this past year in efforts to pass the county human rights ordinance. "I feel very proud in saying that my father and I were both instrumental in pushing my brother into taking action [in support of the measure]," Penelas says.
Alex Penelas didn't have time to speak about his brother, according to his press secretary Juan Mendieta. But the mayor did respond in writing to faxed questions. "It is not uncommon for [Luis] to offer me advice and opinions generally as any brother would," Alex Penelas wrote. "I value his advice generally, especially on issues that he is genuinely concerned about. An example of this counsel was his supporting my position to save the Tequesta Circle. He also helped me in the process as our community passed a human rights ordinance."
Luis Penelas is dark-haired (now graying) and handsome like his brother. He doesn't downplay his connections. "Why not use them to do good?" he reasons. He isn't reluctant to drop names or call key bureaucrats to arrange meetings or request advice. "Since I've been back a lot of people have called me for different things," he says, crossing his legs and bouncing his Topsider-clad, sockless foot. "Sometimes I've been sort of embarrassed. But because of my brother I am able to put people in contact with each other. If somebody around here wants to meet with the mayor, they call me. I truly love helping."
But not everyone loves Luis Penelas. There is some antipathy toward him within the Buena Vista community, though hardly anyone will publicly express it. Instead it seems phone lines are buzzing with rumors and observations about the new kid in town. Some perceive him as a partier who's getting a free ride on his name. Others think his admittedly emotional style has been divisive.
Penelas once criticized the tactics of some neighborhood activists, especially Kenny Merker, former president of the Buena Vista homeowners group. Although Merker has worked hard to upgrade the area, he has a reputation in some circles as an intolerant enforcer. Penelas hasn't done anything to improve Merker's image, Merker complains. "I don't like [Penelas] getting so much recognition when there are people working harder and donating money to community organizations," he adds.
Critics of Penelas also suspect that his family ties helped him win a job this past February with Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF). After decades as a restaurant, pool hall, and banquet manager, Penelas recently started a new job as a $446-per-week "public assistance specialist," interviewing applicants to determine whether they are eligible for public assistance. "Everybody asks me if I got the job because of my brother," Penelas acknowledges. "That's one of the reasons I never looked for a job in the county. I never even told him I was going to apply." (In 1997 the Dade State Attorney's Office investigated and dismissed allegations that Alex Penelas exerted improper influence in the hiring of his father-in-law Fermin Arrarte for a county Aviation Department job.)