Pocket the Difference

Miami commissioners use a well-worn strategy to avoid public notice of their sweetheart deals

Critics like Dan Paul say this pocket item presents two problems besides the lack of public notification: (1) Officials did not put the contract out to bid, therefore they did not obtain the best deal for taxpayers; and (2) Officials improperly sidestepped a law called the Carollo Amendment, which requires a vote by the citizenry on use of bayfront land. They did so by adding a condition that allows the city to reclaim the land with 30 days notice.

Teele acknowledges voters were not informed. It should not have been recorded as a pocket item, he adds, arguing the paperwork was distributed to his peers, Warshaw, and City Clerk Walter Foeman in time to be included on the agenda. He categorized the lack of publication as "an administrative glitch."

Foeman disputes Teele's account. The commissioner submitted the plan too late to be printed on that meeting's agenda. "It was in fact a pocket item," he says.

Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999
Bill Cooke
Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999
Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999
Bill Cooke
Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999

At a recent commission meeting, after New Times inquired about the deal, Teele asked his colleagues to schedule more public discussion for June 5.

From the outside Little Havana's Tower Theater appears as it did in its heyday. The two-story building on SW Eighth Street and Fifteenth Avenue opened in 1926. When Cuban exiles arrived in the 1960s, owners began showing Spanish-language films and subtitled English movies there. The cinema closed in 1984 after much of its clientele moved to the suburbs.

In 1993 a nostalgic Miami commission approved a $1.5 million restoration of the movie house that they hoped would reverse the deterioration of Little Havana's main street. After several years of planning, the groundbreaking finally took place in June 1997. At the event Commissioner Tomas Regalado spoke of seeing his first film there. Administrators announced plans to reopen it by summer 1998. It would include a 1000-seat theater with two screens and a museum showcasing the neighborhood's immigrant history.

In mid-April the curved white Art Deco marquee and posters announcing the Miami Hispanic Film Festival suggested the place was open for business. But a peek through the glass doors revealed white walls smelling of fresh paint and loose wires dangling from the ceiling. Only construction workers were allowed to enter. The grand opening of the renamed Tower Art Center, postponed numerous times during the past three years, was scheduled to take place April 24. But after the dramatic events revolving around Elian Gonzalez, it was again delayed until April 28.

Back in July 1998 the commission voted to transfer a $400,000 state grant -- earmarked for sound equipment and a concession stand -- to pay for building renovation. On December 17, 1999, the crowd was thin at Dinner Key when Regalado came up with a pocket item that would remove $250,000 from city coffers to buy speakers and an amplification system.

"The Tower Theater has had a lot of problems, as you all know," the commissioner explained. "I couldn't get [this issue] on the agenda, and public works has already identified the source of the funding. If we were to place it on the regular agenda for next month, the opening would not be able to be done in March, but maybe in April or May."

Freshman Commissioner Johnny Winton asked whether the administration endorsed the funding. Regalado answered that City Manager Donald Warshaw had recommended the expenditure December 13. The resolution passed unanimously. Regalado said Warshaw asked him to present the expenditure to the commission. "I've been pushing the administration to complete the Tower Theater for months," the commissioner commented. "There was no corruption here."

Despite the fact that the proposal met the letter of the law, it makes critics cringe. "It's a complete end run around the Sunshine Law," attorney Dan Paul complains. "There was no opportunity to analyze this and there was no opportunity to speak for or against this." And it illustrates another problem: Elected officials rarely challenge colleagues' pocket items for fear of losing support on their pet projects, he says. "The commissioners scratch each others' backs. You stop my item, I'll stop yours. It's an unwritten rule," Paul declares.

Before Winton upset J.L. Plummer last November, the 29-year commissioner was considered the king of the pocket. The former commission chairman introduced hundreds during his tenure. Most were innocuous resolutions honoring citizens or directing the city manager to investigate a problem. But every now and then Plummer would use the tactic to steer some money to his dominion, Bayfront Park, which he oversaw as chairman of the Bayfront Park Trust. One of these pocket items brought the trust's finances into the federal government's cross hairs.

The park, located just south of Bayside, was the site of Super Jam, a four-day party in January 1999 to celebrate Super Bowl XXXIII. To prepare the grounds, park director Ira Katz spent $52,000 on electrical improvements for illuminating a large tent, powering minikitchens, and energizing live bands' sound systems.

The soiree that preceded the Denver Broncos' drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons was a bust. In addition to the electrical work, the park ran up a deficit of $492,000. Not to worry. Toward the end of the February 9, 1999, meeting, Plummer proposed the city pay for the upgrades. "I have two [pocket items]," the commissioner explained. "The first one is the monies for ... paying these people that did the work at Bayfront Park."

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