By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Sitting at a desk in his office, which is in a strip mall on Collins Avenue, Dave Samson thrusts his large head forward. The palms of his hands press on his desktop, supporting the weight of his squat torso. He wears a white polo shirt. What is left of his hair seems to be electrically charged, springing outward in unruly gray-white strands. His voice adopts the bemused and chintz-laden cadences of W.C. Fields, leavened with an edge of hard-boiled Chicago bravado. “This will be the jooo-uhl of North Dade County,” says the 83-year-old mayor of Sunny Isles Beach, referring to his city near the Broward County border. His full Edward G. Robinson lips take on a pink-purple hue as they pucker around the word “jewel,” and he extends his short right arm forward, jabbing an index finger down repeatedly on the wood of his desk. “The jooo-uhlof North Dade County,” he repeats, thumping away.
Before him, resting to his right on an artist's easel, is an emblem of what he hopes will be his legacy: a five-by-one-and-a-half-foot painting that shows condominium high-rises jutting up like white corrugated game pieces on land before a teal sea. Indeed the luxury towers give an angular geometric beauty to the painting; they are everything the old two-story motels that once gave Sunny Isles Beach its signature charm are not.
Samson's city lies between Haulover Cut and Golden Beach along a 1.7 mile stretch of coastline no wider than a half-mile at some points. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the west the Intracoastal Waterway. With a population of 13,871, it is the thirtieth and most recent of Miami-Dade County's enclaves to incorporate as a city. Three years old this past June, it has been experiencing an identity crisis practically since its first day as a municipality. Elderly residents vie with young renters for power. Old-style delis compete with classy restaurants. Big buildings contrast with small, quirky tourist hotels. Indeed several more towers are slated to go up, and developers are targeting the purchase of the remaining open land.
About ten years ago, when Sunny Isles Beach dwellers began pondering incorporation, they wanted better services and a government that would enforce zoning regulations and control development. Samson pledged to deliver just that. But today an ever-growing group of critics contends he has reneged on his promises, caved in to developers' wishes at the expense of small-business owners, and annihilated the area's former identity. They say Samson, who walks with the aid of a three-wheel walker, is a corrupt megalomaniac whose tenure as mayor is casting a shadow over the city.
Since Samson's election three years ago, only weeks after the city's residents voted for incorporation, he has managed to make enemies of many former friends and supporters in Sunny Isles Beach, where 34 percent of the population is over 70 years of age. Samson-baiting and Samson-sniping have become a sort of recreational sport. Among other seniors former FBI agent, now private dick W. Donald Stewart, age 75, has been particularly vocal, appearing at public meetings and writing letters to the local press. He has criticized Samson on subjects ranging from poor public park development to outright corruption. Stewart's efforts have triggered a State Attorney's Office (SAO) investigation of Samson's activities.
A trio of younger residents, angered by the deaf ear they claim Samson has turned toward their concerns, say they are preparing to launch a recall effort. Nadine Litterman, John Wiggins, and Richard Davis, all tenants at Century Towers, an eighteen-story complex that accounts for a large segment of the city's renters, argue that Samson participated in the creation of a zoning code that doesn't meet federal standards. Furthermore they say Samson has been unfair, forcing small businesses to comply with the code, while routinely (with commission support) granting variances to big developers. “We seem to have uncontrolled growth on the beach, and it is a genuine embarrassment to have him as our most visible leader,” says Wiggins.
Samson declined to respond to his critics' claims and refused comment on the SAO probe. Although he spoke with New Timeson June 22 for about an hour about his biography, a week later he balked at answering further questions after learning his critics had been contacted. Sunny Isles Beach Commissioner Danny Iglesias disputes the claims of Samson's detractors. He says development is being carefully planned and controlled in the new city. “Samson is the most hard-working gentleman and has been involved in improving the community for many years,” Iglesias opines. “You look at where this place was three years ago and where it is now. We were like a stepchild to the county and now things are booming.”
Born in Chicago, Samson has been in the business of building businesses and dealing with famous and infamous personalities almost as far back as he can remember. He says he pumped gas for Al Capone, delivered Maria Shriver to grammar school, and has known every one of the Kennedys except their patriarch, Joseph.
Samson is the son of owners of a mom-and-pop grocery store. His college education was cut short when his father became ill during the Great Depression and young Samson joined his mother in running the family store. His father eventually recovered and bought a bankrupt gas station in Cicero, Capone headquarters since the 1920s. “I knew Al Capone.” Samson boasts. Then he yells, “Don't print that!”
When he was 29 years old, Samson bought a failing liquor store and developed it into a profitable operation. In 1949, while still in the booze business, he took a vacation to see his father-in-law in South Florida, visiting for the first time the strip of sand and hotels then called Sunny Isles. Back then it was a sleepy part of North Miami Beach. (The neighborhood would secede from that city to become part of unincorporated Dade in 1951.) In 1952, after selling the liquor store, Samson says he embarked upon his glory years as a businessman; he leased a 100-car parking lot, and then moved across the street and managed the Lincoln Park Ritz Garage. The garage was a 300-space, three-story affair located at 2427 Clark St., just blocks from the homes of many of Chicago's most notable families. “I don't know if this means anything, but I parked the cars of Marshall Field, William Wood-Prince, and Mr. and Mrs. Sarge Shriver,” he offers.
The Chicago blizzard of 1967 put a chill on Samson's glamorous life in parking. The five-day paralysis of the city helped him decide to move to warmer climes. He had heard praise for the pleasures of living in Winston Towers so, after spending a several more winters in South Florida, he bought a condo there in 1972. Two years later he moved in permanently.
Samson's political career began at the condo complex. In 1974 he became president of the condominium association, a post he would maintain for 23 years. Although he downplays his role, the job clearly was the foundation for his later mayoral bid.
Around the time Key Biscayne incorporated in 1991, residents of Sunny Isles were weighing the pros and cons of becoming a city. Residents and business interests considered teaming up with Aventura, which already was building strong momentum toward cityhood. That plan fizzled in April 1993, when Aventura leaders snubbed the poorer enclave across the Intracoastal Waterway, fearing annexation would be detrimental to their image.
By the time Aventura incorporated in 1995, people in Sunny Isles had become worried that a concrete canyon of buildings would form along Collins Avenue. They cited plans for a 30-story condo at 194th Street and Collins Avenue, signs of strain on water and sewer services, and the frequent issuance of variances for buildings with more than 10 stories. As president of Concerned Citizens of Northeast Dade, a watchdog group, Samson tapped that anxiety. On May 17, 1996, he filed an incorporation petition for Sunny Isles. About 750 of the area's roughly 14,000 residents signed it. Despite the snub by Aventura, Samson made an end run: He proposed naming his coastal strip Aventura Beach. Samson argued the name would promote construction of classier hotels. On July 2, 1996, the county commission approved the petition.
Within a month opposition arose. Unsurprisingly much of it came from the one percent of Sunny Isles' population that lives in single-family homes. They feared developers would ruin the town, and preferred the charm and architectural flourishes of the seaside motels. It became a battle of symbols. Canopy-holding mermaids at the Blue Mist Motel versus the staggered, more abstract design of the four-building, 40-story Pinnacle. The mermaids clearly were on the defensive.
By January 1997 Samson, as chairman of the Committee for the Incorporation of Aventura Beach/Sunny Isles, had amassed a $35,000 war chest. Developers such as Joseph Milton, president of J. Milton & Associates (whose Pinnacle condominium tower was then under construction) backed the incorporation movement and its proposed copycat name. Milton joined International Developer Construction, developer Tom Daly, and R.K. Associates (which owns the strip mall where the current city hall is located) in making $5000 donations. On January 7, 1997, 73 percent of 1,922 residents voted in favor of incorporation. One step remained: A city charter would have to be drafted and residents would have to approve it. This was accomplished June 16, 1997.
Less than a month after the charter was approved, Samson drew on his influence as a condominium president and his high profile in the incorporation movement to win the new city of Sunny Isle Beach's mayoralty.
W. Donald Stewart sits in a wicker chair in the den of his spacious home in Golden Shores, a section of Sunny Isles Beach that includes about 250 homes west of Collins Avenue. On this muggy afternoon, he wears an off-white guayabera, shorts, and light-brown moccasins. Blue-green streaks, the beginnings of varicose veins, mark his thick calves. The pale skin of his forearms is mottled with age spots. He and Dave Samson used to be good friends. They once joined forces to draft the city charter, and Stewart even backed Samson's election campaign. Now the former federal agent bends over slightly, handling an inch-thick file of documents he says is evidence of Samson's corrupt activities as mayor. His large, rough hands are steady; they starkly contrast the thin sheets of paper he shuffles back and forth. Somehow he makes sense of the pile.
During a failed summer 1999 campaign for a commission seat, the gray-haired Stewart says he came upon flyers requesting donations for the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), a city nonprofit group that offered financial support to the Sunny Isles Beach Police Department. The forms requested the money in Samson's name. Stewart, who had once served for nine months on the CAC, says he quit after Samson took over as chairman. “I saw it was a fucking joke,” he says. “He's the only one talking and he's running the whole show.” Stewart's gray eyebrows rise high on a face that vaguely resembles that of a puffy-faced Robert Mitchum. “You see I'm an old FBI man, I've dealt with this kind of stuff. I recognized there was some sort of fraudulent practice right off the bat.” Stewart began his own investigation and discovered that, of the $31,000 raised for the fund in 1999, $8000 was used for activities not directly related to the police department, including $3800 for a Christmas party thrown by Samson and $160 in flowers for a bedridden city attorney. Only Samson and then-Vice Mayor Irvin Turetsky had access to the money. On July 29 the CAC was turned into a private organization, thwarting the rest of Stewart's attempts to follow the money. But that did not stop him from publicizing his findings. He wrote Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) news, which ran a short exposé on the incident. He penned letters to Gov. Jeb Bush and the SAO, which currently is investigating the matter. “Samson was asking [local businesses] for the money; this is blackmail, a shakedown,” Stewart contends. “I mean if these guys don't come up with [the money], then someone's out there -- a code-enforcement officer or somebody -- talking to them.”
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 Heraldinterviews, 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.
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.)
On the same day Litterman made her presentation, commissioners deliberated for six hours regarding the Boardwalk Bar, a gay nightclub owned by businessman Victor Zepka. This past February 24, officials had shut it down along with two other bars owned by Zepka. “[The Boardwalk hearing] was like a Perry Masonepisode,” recalls Wiggins. “Ridiculous!” Among a variety of violations, officials charged the club with operating for sixteen years without the required licenses. Code enforcers also pointed to a rash of arrests at the nightclub. In one incident a man entered the bar with a paint gun, shouted anti-gay obscenities, and doused the bartender. Samson blamed bar patrons for having provoked the attack, Litterman says. After a closed session, commissioners declared the club would be allowed to reopen, but if there were any more incidents necessitating police enforcement, it would be shut down without opportunity for appeal.
“The Boardwalk hearing was when I realized there was something very wrong here,” Litterman says. “This was an example of selective enforcement. The city wasn't using its code enforcement to curb overdevelopment from outsiders. It was using it to hurt the small businesses which had been here all along.” Indeed several condo projects, including the Ocean Grande, Ocean Two, and the Aqualina, have been awarded multiple variances since incorporation.
The anti-Samson group also cites a mid-May code-compliance sweep of Stewart's Golden Shores neighborhood as an example of bad enforcement. Warning letters from the city's zoning and code-enforcement department were sent to 24 residents of the area, indicating a variety of violations. “It's like they're trying to get [Golden Shores residents] out, while Samson's cozy with the developers,” Wiggins comments.
Commissioner Danny Iglesias disagrees. “I understand where they're coming from, but you have to compare apples with apples,” he says. “The variances we allow go by what property we are talking about. What may be good at a certain location might not be good for another. You take Oceania, 27 variances, but you can't say that's an ugly building. You have to look at the overall picture.”
Vera points out the group's anger is misdirected. Samson had little to do with the zoning code. Furthermore officials are presently in the process of fine-tuning it. “This is not a developer's free-for-all,” Iglesias says.
In the battle for Sunny Isles Beach's identity, there is perhaps no greater symbol of Samson's dominance than the proposed new city hall. Bigger, it would seem, is better for the future of this tiny new city and the planned eight-story, $22.5-million-dollar structure is no exception. To be built on 163rd Street just west of Collins Avenue, the 85,000-square-foot government center will have a 250-car garage, a 48,000-square-foot administration tower, a 12,000-square-foot library, a 6000-square-foot council chamber, a 16,000-square-foot police department, and 3000 square feet for a post office and public-works department.
“It's a testament to Samson's ego,” says Stewart. “We don't need something that big.”
Iglesias disagrees. “Too big? In respect to what? Five? Ten? Fifteen years? Sunny Isles Beach is growing, property values are up, and that city hall is going to be in the revitalization corridor, the gateway to the city, reflects the future,” he says.
City hall construction was scheduled to begin last week. Regardless of the stringency of the local zoning code, two huge vacant lots south of Oceania Towers will beckon developers.
As for the recall campaign? David Leahy, Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections, says most recall efforts fail. “Collecting signatures is not easy; people normally begin the process because they are angry, but the lengthy process generally does them in,” he explains.