The Power of Samson

A power-crazed mayor, angry citizens, a state attorney's investigation. Is this any way to run a city?

Following the CAC allegations, nine city officials, including City Manager James DiPietro and Police Chief Richard Harrison, stepped aside. DiPietro left following Samson's recommendation. While Samson maintained DiPietro was asked to resign because he failed to hire administrators, Stewart says the city manager left rather than follow Samson's order to fire Harrison. Harrison quit a few days later. According to Stewart, Samson was angered by a Miami Herald “Neighbors” story in which the chief had professed ignorance of the CAC funds. Then, on the last day of September 1999, six zoning officials resigned. Assistant City Manager Bob Pushkin, alleging he was verbally abused by Samson, left on November 4. According to Herald interviews, one official had been pressured by Samson to overlook building code and permit requirements. Building, planning, and zoning director Bob Ruiz alleged Samson asked him to overlook code violations at Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House restaurant at 17190 Collins Ave. Samson denied the charge.

Zoning administrator Jorge Vera disputes Ruiz's claims. “It depends on who you talk to; I haven't been pressured,” he says. “I've been here since day one, and I can tell you the commission and the mayor have acted properly for the [sic] better of the city. There was a lot of pressure to do a lot in very little time, and the commission had to make difficult decisions; some people are always going to be unhappy.” (Perhaps another sign of pressure occurred May 30, 2000, when Samson and the commission suspended DiPietro's replacement, Jack Neustadt, for incompetence. The city approved Neustadt's retirement July 11.)

Irvin Turetsky won't comment on the resignations but says the CAC funds are frozen pending the outcome of the SAO investigation. “That money is in the bank and it is in limbo; the money is not being touched,” he says. Turetsky also contends all the CAC cash has been accounted for.

Private dick and former FBI agent Don Stewart has triggered a state investigation
Steve Satterwhite
Private dick and former FBI agent Don Stewart has triggered a state investigation
City officials promised more beach access to offset increased development; these three-foot-wide alleys are what they have provided
Steve Satterwhite
City officials promised more beach access to offset increased development; these three-foot-wide alleys are what they have provided

The heart of Samson recall headquarters is the Century Towers rental complex on Kings Point Drive. The core anti-mayor group, including Stewart, has met both in Nadine Litterman's Trailblazer Travel agency office on the ground floor and at John Wiggins and Richard Davis's fifteenth-floor apartment. It won't be easy to remove the mayor. The group will need to acquire 617 signatures (ten percent of the registered voters in the previous election year) in 30 days. If the county validates the document, the mayor will have five days to offer a rebuttal. Then the group will have to circulate a petition containing Samson's statement and garner nearly 1000 names. If this second round is successful, Samson will be given the choice to resign or participate in a new election. “The whole process could take several months,” says Davis, a human-resources worker.

Wiggins and Davis moved from Minneapolis to Sunny Isles Beach in November 1999. They were seduced by Internet descriptions of the town as a tourist hamlet full of funky 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s architecture. They were particularly charmed by the mermaid statues that supported the valet canopy at the Blue Mist Motel, since destroyed. “When we got here, they were there all right -- surrounded by construction fencing. The mermaids lasted a month [after our arrival] before they were torn down,” remembers Wiggins. There's a hard edge to his voice, a manner of speech that is not uncommon among Samson's detractors.

Litterman, a tall, thin 47-year-old, joins Davis and Wiggins. The three present a diverse mix of personalities and styles. Wiggins is an unemployed 32-year-old who describes himself as a “beach bum, a kept man.” The most vocal of the group, he sits cross-legged, the sides of his head shaved, a black crown of hair on top. Davis wears faded jeans and a flower-print shirt. He is bald and has a goatee and a trim mustache. Litterman looks pensive beneath a brown mop of hair. She wears jeans, a blouse, and thin-strapped leather sandals. Sitting on a black couch, they all remember the zoning hearing that crystalized their movement. Behind them, through sliding glass doors and a balcony, is a view northward.

Litterman recalls arriving in the area nine years ago, when there was little new development east of Collins Avenue. But as time passed, she saw construction of towers including the Millennium, the Ocean One, the Ocean Point Condo, the Pinnacle, and the Sands Pointe Ocean Resort. The old motels seemed to be going down as fast as the new high-rises were going up.

At first she didn't think much about incorporation. She hardly paid attention to it, in fact. When election time came, she voted for Commissioner Connie Morrow, because the two had mutual friends. She ignored the mayoral race. Then, in March 1998, zoning officials cited Litterman's modest business along with two others -- a restaurant and dentist Stanley Frommer's office -- for the signs they hung outside Century Towers facing Collins Avenue. Frommer's sign had been in the same place for thirteen years; Litterman's had been there since July 1992. After taking the sign down and storing it in her office, she applied to present her case to the new city zoning board. By the time she was given a date, nearly two years had elapsed.

At the March 1999 hearing, city zoning officials argued businesses within Century Towers were only supposed to service the building's tenants. While it was zoning officials who targeted the signs, it was Samson who, along with commissioners Danny Iglesias and Lila Kaufmann, denied Litterman's appeal. And it was Samson who became the focus of the group's anger. (Zoning administrator Jorge Vera, who opposed the signs because they violated city regulations, says he does not rule out the possibility they will be allowed after a review of the city's master plan is completed in September.)

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