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Last week Katy Sorenson waited patiently for her item on the commission agenda to be called: a report from County Manager Steve Shiver on the future of Homestead Air Force Base. A commissioner for the past seven years, Sorenson is the board's leading critic of Miami-Dade's effort to put a commercial airport on the base.
In January the Air Force sided with Sorenson and every major environmental group in the nation by deciding the base was the wrong site for an airport owing to its proximity to the Everglades and Biscayne National Park. But Sorenson's opponents on the commission refuse to accept the Air Force's decision, and Mayor Alex Penelas has been pushing hard for the Bush administration to reverse it.
Sorenson realized the bulk of the county's lobbying campaign is being done in secret, often through private meetings with key leaders in Congress and the White House. In May Sorenson told Shiver she wanted to know about any meetings or discussions he had and see any memos, e-mails, or letters he possessed regarding the base. By keeping a close eye on Shiver, Sorenson hoped she could learn what really was going on.
The only flaw in her plan is that it requires Shiver to be both honest and candid about what he is doing. Honesty and candor are not among the county manager's strengths. And nobody realizes that better than Sorenson.
Last week she had a chance to test him.
On Monday, June 3, President George W. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, came to South Florida to visit the Everglades. The trip was part of the president's public-relations campaign to improve his image regarding environmental issues. Sorenson attended a giant photo op, hoping to talk to the president for a few minutes about Homestead. Sure enough, she did, and she urged him not to reverse the Air Force decision. After chatting for several minutes, the president even gave her one of his famous nicknames. He called her "the Commish."
Sorenson also was able to talk to the governor. Then she met with David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. While they talked, Struhs told Sorenson her county manager had just sent him an urgent e-mail demanding that Struhs help set up a meeting between Shiver and the president during Bush's visit to South Florida. Sorenson tucked away that piece of information to use at the next day's commission meeting.
A little after 8:00 p.m. on June 4, Sorenson's item came up on the agenda. "Mr. Manager, on May 27 I asked you for weekly reports," she began. "I have yet to get one [addressing] your involvement [in the lobbying effort on Homestead], including calls, e-mails, and any written correspondence.... My first report ... would have been due last Thursday."
Shiver shrugged. He said he was going to Washington later in the week but that he hadn't done anything regarding Homestead. "I have had no other discussions at this point," he said, adding he would check to see if anyone on his staff had anything to report.
"I'm interested in your personal involvement," Sorenson said.
"Absolutely," Shiver interrupted.
"And I asked for calls, e-mails, and correspondence," she continued. "You're telling me you have done nothing."
"E-mails and correspondence," Shiver repeated to himself. "I've been so tied up with the budget, I have not. I can't recall off-hand any conversations I have had regarding the Homestead Air Force Base."
"That's interesting," Sorenson responded. "I had a conversation with Secretary Struhs yesterday. Do you know him?"
"Right. David Struhs. He's the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection."
"Oh yes, yes," Shiver said.
"And he told me about an e-mail you sent requesting a meeting with the president regarding Homestead Air Force Base. Do you remember doing that?"
"Actually that was some time ago," Shiver replied. "That was some time ago. I don't know the exact date. I will try to get that for you tomorrow. I will get that for you tomorrow the date that that was sent."
Sorenson then reminded Shiver that she still wanted weekly reports on his activity.
"Absolutely, absolutely," Shiver promised.
As the commission moved on to the next agenda item, Shiver popped up from his seat and walked around the dais to where Sorenson was sitting. Pulling her aside, Shiver told her he forgot to mention that he actually did meet with the president and the governor about Homestead the day before. He explained it had just slipped his mind.
Sorenson was incredulous. She told Shiver that it wasn't good enough for him to whisper it in her ear, that she wanted him to put it on the record, in the open for everyone to hear, and that if he had anything else to report, he had better do so now. Shiver agreed and skulked back to his chair.
"Mr. Chairman," Shiver said, asking for permission to speak. "If I may I want to point out and apologize to Commissioner Sorenson. In fact yesterday when I met with ..." Shiver paused and rethought his words. "When I greeted the governor and the president, in passing I said I was going to D.C., and is there anyone appropriate I should meet with. You caught me off-guard, and I apologize for not relaying that brief meeting.
"I have not had an answer from him yet," Shiver continued, apparently referring to the president. "Also I was just handed a letter that is from the mayor -- it's dated today -- which I have not read yet. And this is to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. And I have not read that yet. This is from the mayor."
"I'd like to get a copy of that letter, please," Sorenson said.
"Absolutely," Shiver replied.
And then, continuing his impression of a TV anchor during a breaking news story, Shiver declared, "I have just been given my schedule" for the trip to Washington. His itinerary, he said, would include meetings with Florida Reps. Peter Deutsch, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Alcee Hastings, as well as Congressmen James Oberstar of Minnesota and John J. Duncan of Tennessee. And he also had a meeting set up with Jimmy Dishner, a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force.
"I just want to make it clear Mr. Manager, I don't question your right to do any of these activities," Sorenson explained. "You have the full authorization of this board. But at the same time I want to have all of the information pertaining to it as well, because I have that right."
"You have that right, and I apologize deeply for that," Shiver emoted. "It was just a brief meeting that took place, and I have quite a few of those during any given day."
Does Steve Shiver think he's fooling anyone with this routine?
Thanks to Sorenson's ability to keep the pressure on Shiver, the letter Penelas sent to Rumsfeld came to light, and we learned about the mayor's last-ditch effort to cut a deal with the Air Force on the future of Homestead. Under Penelas's proposal, the county would agree to scale back the size of the proposed airport if the Air Force would reverse its decision. If the mayor was so proud of this proposal, why didn't his office send a copy of the letter to every commissioner, or issue a press release announcing his newest initiative?
The reason is obvious: Shiver and Penelas and the legion of lobbyists representing HABDI (Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc.) want to operate in the shadows. They don't want to give the environmental community and those who oppose the airport the opportunity to respond, because they know their proposal will not stand public scrutiny. Revising projections on the number of commercial flights in and out of Homestead to 100,000 per year -- or 200,000 or 300,000 -- is ridiculous. The issue is much simpler: Should there be a commercial airport there or not? Besides, even the county's own staff admits the projections are meaningless. An airport in Homestead will grow and expand and mutate as the market demands.
In the past two years, HABDI has spent more than $1.2 million employing the high-powered Washington-based lobbying firm of Verner Liipfert. When Shiver noted that he and the mayor were flying to Washington to meet with high-ranking officials at the Air Force last week, it was Verner Liipfert that set up the meeting. According to Doug Heady, a senior Air Force attorney, it was former Indiana senator and current Verner Liipfert lobbyist Dan Coats who arranged the tête-à-tête.
A key component of the Penelas/HABDI campaign has been the enlistment of members of Congress to pressure the Bush administration to reverse the Air Force's decision. In response to a letter from Virginia Senator John Warner, who at the time was Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld agreed to "review" the Air Force decision.
Despite Rumsfeld's review, it is unlikely the Republicans will cave on this issue. As Bush's recent visit to South Florida showed, the president realizes his environmental policies are under attack. How would it look if, just a few weeks after visiting the Everglades and pledging his support to restore the River of Grass, the president then allowed a commercial airport to be built only a few miles away?
The president's support for an airport could also have a damaging impact on his brother's chances for re-election.
So let's assume for a moment the Air Force decision stands. Penelas may have something even more nefarious in the works. There is a clause in the decision that says the 717 acres of the base may not be "developed or used for commercial airport purposes or to support a commercial airport."
Environmentalists fear Penelas may strike a deal with the Air Force to quietly delete those last six words. The county would then begin developing its portion of the base to support a future airport. (The base itself is 1632 acres, with the remaining 915 acres under the control of the Air Force.)
The county would then wait until next year, when the Department of Defense is expected to announce another round of base closings. At the top of the DOD's list is likely to be those 915 acres of land in Homestead. The county would apply for that parcel (which includes the actual runway and control tower) and request to use it as an airport. And the fight would begin anew.
But don't expect a fair fight. In anticipation of next year's battle, Penelas and HABDI are working to pass a measure through Congress that would exempt facilities like Homestead from falling under the terms of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
If the tactics employed by Penelas and HABDI seem kind of sleazy and backhanded, it's because they are. Which is precisely why they don't want anyone to know what they are doing.
Steve Shiver promised during the commission meeting to tell Sorenson, on the very next day, the date of the e-mail he sent to David Struhs. He failed to do so. More than a week later, Sorenson is still waiting.
Shiver also agreed to provide her weekly reports on his activities regarding Homestead. "You have that right," he declared, as he "apologized deeply" for not providing some of the information sooner. By Friday, however, Shiver dropped the pretense of his heartfelt apology, angrily calling Sorenson's chief of staff and telling her he did not believe he was obligated to provide the commissioner with that information.
The county manager keeps forgetting he is merely an employee, and that as a commissioner, Sorenson does indeed have the right to require that Shiver keep her informed. And thank God, because it is the only chance we'll have at knowing what is really going on.