Pocket the Difference

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

Teele balked at approving the measure. "J.L., you see the problem is [this would make it seem] we don't have money for people but we've got money for a park," he groused. "It's a good, beautiful park. Every city in America should have a park like that, but that's not right."

Plummer responded the companies were awaiting payment for the electrical work. Teele relented. "Of course I'll do it, J.L. Just move the thing. It's wrong, though," Teele complained, as the commission unanimously approved the expenditure. (Plummer did not respond to several telephone messages seeking comment.)

On May 4, 1999, commissioners agreed to pay the additional $492,000. Following a yearly routine meant to justify the budget with actual expenditures, Warshaw recommended the city pay the expense. Although not a pocket item, the payment was buried in a stack of others so few people noticed it. Warshaw says Plummer suggested the strategy and he approved it.

Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999
Bill Cooke
Commissioner Arthur Teele introduced 80 pocket items in 1999
Pocket items stink, argues attorney Dan Paul
Steve Satterwhite
Pocket items stink, argues attorney Dan Paul

The following day the large amount caught the attention of members of the state's oversight board, which was appointed after the Odio/Dawkins scandal to keep an eye on city affairs. The board's scrutiny led to an audit of the parks department's books. The ensuing report, issued this past February, found Katz had written an inordinate amount of checks to cash, reimbursed expenses without supporting documents, and handed out no-bid contracts.

Later that month the Bayfront Park Trust, headed by Commissioner Joe Sanchez, fired accountant Vikas Surana and suspended Katz with pay. City and federal investigators continue to review volumes of paperwork before deciding whether to file criminal charges.

Plummer's pocket item, which began the process, clearly was improper. He did not receive written approval from Warshaw to present it, according to the clerk's office. Carollo, who was mayor at the time but didn't approve the expenditure, sees the vote as an example of bad government. "Too many times pocket items at the end of a meeting have been put forward with a detrimental effect to the city," he notes.

"I have two pocket items pertaining to Bayfront Park," Sanchez declared on December 17, 1999. He didn't have a written recommendation from the manager. Nor did he seek an exception from his colleagues, who can allow more than one item if four of five commissioners assent.

"They are of an emergency nature," he continued. The crisis related to a scarcity of parking at the new American Airlines Arena. Gloria Estefan fans would not have enough space to leave their vehicles when the Cuban diva christened the venue on New Year's Eve.

Sanchez proposed allowing the city's Off-Street Parking Authority, a quasi-independent body, to take control of Bicentennial Park for most of January. He also pledged to protect the grounds: "No cars will be parked on the grass; they will be parked on the racetrack."

Commissioners expressed some misgivings. "If it's an ongoing thing, I really do think we have to have public hearings," said Winton. "We are going to get whacked for doing it for one event, never mind ongoing."

In the end commissioners unanimously approved the measure.

Sanchez acknowledges he erred in not obtaining the city manager's endorsement but explains he was trying to shore up the Bayfront Park Trust's depleted accounts. "You are right. We should have had public input on that," the chairman answers. "We already had parking for the construction workers in the park. What we were trying to do was generate income to pay for the maintenance of the park."

Then the commissioner adds: "I can assure the public I have not pulled a pocket item with a financial impact on the city.... I'm all for getting the people involved in the process."

When New Times points out that parking revenues affected the bottom line, Sanchez clarifies: "It was not a negative impact."

After approving the temporary parking, the commission decided to revisit the issue on January 13, 2000. In the interim the Urban Environment League organized rallies to save the park. The group opposed using the public space for parking as well as the Florida Marlins' plans for a stadium there. After some park advocates expressed their opposition, commissioners killed the parking proposal.

"If there is some sort of serious financial consideration, [the pocket items] should go through a public process," says Urban Environment League president Greg Bush. "I can see the necessity of bringing things up in a rapid fashion. But I can also see where it can be abused."

During the past month, New Times reviewed dozens of pocket items considered by the commission during 1999. Most acknowledged charitable works by citizens or delegated a specific task to the city manager. Those issues had no financial impact on the city.

But commissioners also employed the pocket-item maneuver to reduce by 40 percent the rent on the James L. Knight Center for a concert by the rock group Mana last September; to waive permitting fees for the Miami-Little Haiti Roots and Culture Festival at Lemon City Park last August; and to donate police protection to the Shriners' parade last July.

Another example: When Inter-Forever Sports, Inc., proposed staging a soccer game between Honduras and Haiti at the Orange Bowl last May, company representatives approached Regalado. Not a bad choice considering the commissioner introduced 25 pocket items last year. On May 11, 1999, without public notice or Warshaw's approval, Regalado proposed capping the stadium's rent at $7500, half the usual cost. (Inter-Forever Sports eventually paid $7500.)

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