By Michael E. Miller
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"[MiaFla.com] reaches the people who don't participate in community groups," says Bev Gerald, co-chair of LINC. "We are so lucky to have [Smith's] ability. It's information and access, and it's priceless." The site also touches on environmental and zoning issues. There is an urban beautification section, and news articles from local papers are archived. In a reader's forum she posts letters from citizens. Smith has provided links to important state statutes, county ordinances, the home-rule charter, and the U.S. Constitution. There is a long section on access to public records, including information about and links to the Citizen's Accountability Network.
Throughout it all Smith tries to present the facts without editorializing. Sometimes she includes the results of her own investigations scouring county documents available online. Her goal, she says, is to spark thought and research by others. Still one danger inherent in Websites like Smith's is that readers will fail to understand that the information often is open to interpretation; that it's not as methodically scrutinized or reviewed as academic or media sources can be.
Smith says that according to her traffic counter, the two most popular areas on MiaFla.com are the "Scandals" and "Only in Miami" sections. The former includes details on controversies such as the Los Van Van concert, along with foreign-policy decisions made by the county commission. The scandals section also contains news stories on indictments of politicians and information on the county ethics commission.
Under the "Only in Miami" heading is what she claims is the site's first major victory in putting a stop to a possible breach of governmental ethics. At the end of September 1999, Smith placed information on MiaFla.com about an item to be heard before the county commission on October 5. On that day Milton J. Wallace, twenty-year chairman of the Miami-Dade Housing Finance Authority, asked for a waiver of the county conflict-of-interest rules so a company he owned could bid on a three-million-dollar airport contract. His wife, a member of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust, also sought a waiver. Previously Wallace had requested a ruling by the County Ethics Commission, but when it became apparent the ethics commission would recommend against the waiver, he withdrew his request and went to the commission instead.
Smith says that after the information appeared on the Website, people called their commissioners. Wallace fell one vote short of receiving his waiver. In anger he quit the Housing Finance Authority on the spot. His wife resigned from her position as well.
Today Wallace says he is unaware of MiaFla.com. He adds that if Smith thought he didn't deserve the waiver, she was mistaken. "I feel very badly," he says. "I cannot believe that anyone who understood the picture could think there was a conflict of interest."
Despite MiaFla.com's apparent initial success, Smith made what she believes to be a troubling discovery. On August 23, 1999, a friend at the county called to inquire about a problem with the site. According to a statement Smith made to the American Civil Liberties Union, her friend previously had been able to log on from his county computer, but he now received a message stating "access forbidden." At this time Smith says her traffic counter indicated that hits to her Website from county computers had stopped.
Ramon Maury, one of her business advisors who works as a lobbyist and maintains good relations with many politicians, did his own checking. They both came to the conclusion that the county was blocking access to the site on employee computers. "It became clear that this was the only Website that had political content that was being targeted and blocked," he says.
When Smith complained to ITD, she received an unsigned e-mail from the county Webmaster. "I accessed your site and was not denied," wrote the Webmaster. "Your friends from the county may not be authorized to surf the World Wide Web. If they are authorized they should call the county's help desk to report the problem."
Smith fears that her friends at the county could suffer if it was known they read her site. Maury agrees. "The county employees that notified her about the blocking of the site are afraid of losing their jobs," he says. "People [here] can't really say what they want [to say] because of fear."
ITD Webmaster Judy Zito categorically denies the county has blocked the Website. She claims to have no problem accessing the site. "If we don't have the name of the person who is having the problem, then we don't even know what to look for," she says.
After weeks of investigation, the ACLU could not verify the blocking of the site. New Timeswas also unable to confirm the accusations. Smith insists she is not out to get anyone. "I'm not the Eve of destruction," she quips. "The only thing I am doing is expressing my inalienable rights. I find out what is going on, and I post it on the Web. All I've done is take my little American flag and signs and my blowhorn and put it up on cyberspace. That's how I perceive my role. I wanted to make a difference."