By Terrence McCoy
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From Miami-Dade's far western reaches to the downtown corridors of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, people are talking about a peculiar municipal incorporation proposal wending its way through the county's bureaucracy. The oddly configured boundaries for the proposed new city form the shape of a pistol. Its handle runs along Krome Avenue in the west. The barrel reaches eastward all the way to NW 69th Avenue. That eastern swath happens to contain one of the most valuable concentrations of commercial real estate in unincorporated Miami-Dade County and includes the Dolphin Mall, the International Mall, an industrial park, a free trade zone, and acres of commercial warehouses. It is land coveted for either incorporation or annexation by the neighborhoods of Doral, Fontainebleau Park, and the City of Sweetwater.
Some wags at county hall have dubbed the gun-shaped, imagined city Miriamville. Others prefer Alonsoland. Its official name is West Dade.
The jokes refer to District 12 Commissioner Miriam Alonso, who lives within West Dade's proposed boundaries and represents the area. Alonso officially launched the incorporation process for West Dade this past July, just around the time rumors began to circulate (later confirmed) that she was under investigation by the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. Those who oppose the incorporation believe it is nothing less than an effort by Alonso to provide a political future for herself, or a proxy, should she be forced from her commission seat by prosecutors. (Phone calls as well as faxed and e-mailed questions requesting comment went unanswered by Commissioner Alonso.) "This is it for her. She's facing possible corruption charges, and if she loses this, she loses everything," declared Sweetwater Mayor José Diaz. "This woman is trying to take away all of our futures for her own greed."
Diaz was speaking from Sweetwater City Hall on November 27, just after 10:00 p.m. Less than three hours earlier, the mayor and all seven of Sweetwater's commissioners were verbally attacked and physically jostled at a public meeting organized by Alonso, who claimed to have called the gathering on behalf of concerned residents to discuss a county commission resolution being sponsored by Commissioner Javier Souto. The resolution would instruct county staff to conduct two simultaneous studies: Examine Sweetwater's long-held desire to annex the Dolphin Mall area, and review the proposed City of West Dade's claim to the same property.
The Alonso gathering took place at Belén Jesuit Preparatory School, which sits in District 11, not Alonso's District 12. Joe Martinez is the county commissioner for District 11, and though he was not invited to the meeting, he attended anyway. Reached by telephone the next day, he characterized the evening as "an embarrassment." Said Martinez: "I apologize to the people of Miami-Dade County for what happened."
Martinez only learned of Alonso's meeting because a confused constituent contacted him about a flyer she had received. It was printed on Commissioner Alonso's official stationery. Written in English and Spanish, the leaflet warned of Souto's effort to "annex vital areas of our neighborhood to the City of Sweetwater."
The day before the meeting, Martinez wrote Alonso a note indicating he would attend. "I will be present and available to answer any questions pertaining to my district," he offered diplomatically.
Nearly a half-hour before Alonso's 7:30 p.m. meeting began, the second-floor Belén auditorium was already three-quarters full of anti-annexation protesters bearing Day-Glo poster board placards. By the appointed hour the room was packed with several hundred people. At least a hundred more spilled into the hallway. The mood was ugly -- and no wonder. For nearly two hours the audience was subjected to repeated efforts by Alonso to scare them: If Sweetwater succeeded in annexing their neighborhoods, taxes would go up and property values would go down.
"We don't want Sweetwater!" chanted Yvonne Gibbings, goading the incensed crowd from the stage, where she clutched a bright orange sign featuring an anti-annexation message. Gibbings is among the people Alonso has tapped to fill the West Dade Municipal Advisory Committee (West Dade MAC), created by the county commission at Alonso's behest to begin the process of studying incorporation. Also present and inciting the crowd were Alonso's husband, Leonel; her chief of staff Elba Morales; and Luis Rodriguez, another member of the West Dade MAC.
Municipal advisory committees have become an integral part of an emerging county policy that eventually will likely result in Miami-Dade's complete incorporation into municipalities. The push toward incorporation began with Key Biscayne in 1991. Through fits and starts, including a one-year moratorium in 1996 and several lawsuits by residents who wanted to incorporate, commissioners, under the guidance of former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, fashioned a makeshift policy on how municipalities should be created. Under the plan new cities must remain within the county's fire-rescue district and its public library and solid-waste-collection systems, and must continue to receive law-enforcement services from the Miami-Dade Police Department. They also need to prove they are revenue-neutral and thus won't financially penalize areas left unincorporated. Otherwise they must pay a "mitigation fee" to a county trust fund.
Following Key Biscayne's successful incorporation, the neighborhoods of Doral, Country Club Lakes, Palmetto Bay, Miami Lakes, Aventura, Pinecrest, Sunny Isles Beach, Destiny, East and West Kendall, the Redland, and Westchester expressed a desire to become autonomous cities. Of those areas Aventura, Sunny Isles Beach, Pinecrest, and most recently Miami Lakes have actually incorporated. (Last month the county commission allowed Palmetto Bay in South Miami-Dade to proceed with a vote by residents to see if they want to incorporate.) In 1999 the county created the Miami Lakes Municipal Advisory Committee, the first MAC under the new model, composed of area residents and appointed by the commissioner in whose district the incorporation would take place. MACs currently exist for West Dade, West Kendall, Doral, Redland, and Country Club Lakes.
Miami-Dade County already has 31 cities, the majority of which have populations of less than 50,000. Experts on the county staff have estimated that, were the trend to continue, the county would end up with an additional 40 cities if all areas incorporated. For that reason they have urged commissioners to consider having existing cities annex territory rather than creating new municipalities. Sweetwater is heeding the advice, though it appears to have been lost on Alonso. "The people of the area are worried," she asserted at her Belén gathering. "They don't want to be annexed."
Shortly after the meeting began, Sweetwater Mayor Diaz and his commission colleagues forced their way into the crowded room, though other partisans from the city couldn't get inside. Diaz looked on incredulously as Alonso professed her love for Sweetwater and then proceeded to trash the place. "Quality of life is a problem in Sweetwater," she announced, warning the audience that this could be their fate if they were annexed.
When Diaz raised his hand to explain Sweetwater's position, Alonso refused to allow him to speak. "Tonight is the people's meeting," she proclaimed. "The officials of Sweetwater shouldn't create a confrontation."
Meanwhile Alonso's commission staff and the West Dade MAC's members gestured for the crowd to continue shouting, "No Sweetwater!"
"She wanted me to start yelling," Diaz marveled hours later in Sweetwater's city hall. Instead the mayor and commissioners decided it would be wiser simply to leave. But as they tried to squeeze through the crowd, with Alonso looking on, they were surrounded by angry residents. (Commissioner Joe Martinez, who earlier had been introduced by Alonso but not invited to speak, left at the same time.) Diaz claimed one commissioner was punched by what he characterized as "outside agitators" brought in by Alonso. "It was professionally done," he said. "They were hitting commissioners." As he spoke, some of the Sweetwater commissioners sat in a nearby office watching a videotape of the meeting filmed by a cameraman they'd hired. "Not to be allowed to speak!" Diaz continued in exasperation. "She lied to the people and then didn't give us the opportunity to defend ourselves. This is not Cuba, after all!"
Shortly after Diaz and his commissioners departed, Alonso decided to move her meeting downstairs to the Belén cafeteria, where there was ample room. (The cafeteria had always been available.) After repeating her warnings against annexation by Sweetwater for those who had not been inside the cramped auditorium, she opened the floor to questions. An area resident asked why they couldn't stay in unincorporated Miami-Dade instead of forming a city. Alonso responded by saying this was not the right time to discuss a new city. The issue was the proposed annexation by Sweetwater and Commissioner Souto's upcoming move to have county staff study that plan. (Mayor Diaz later scoffed at that claim. "This is all about her hysteria to create Miriamville disguised as West Dade," he said angrily. "We were used as a propaganda tool by her to rally people to establish her own city.")
Also present in the cafeteria were several residents of the Doral area, which has struggled for nearly a decade to create its own municipality. Among them was Juan Carlos Bermudez, a Doral resident who is president of a new community organization called One Doral. He complained that the proposed boundaries for West Dade took large bites out of Doral's original outline for a city, including very valuable commercial property. "It's turning into “Honey, I shrunk the boundaries,'" said Bermudez.
Among the multitude unable to enter the auditorium earlier in the evening stood Roger Lorenzo, president of the Fontainebleau Park Federation, a homeowners group. In a phone call the next day, Lorenzo fumed that Alonso has ignored hundreds of letters from residents of his community begging her to allow them to start their own incorporation process. Fontainebleau also wants some of the gun barrel desired by West Dade. "It's not fair that she would come and take away our survival," he said.
Alonso's campaign to create West Dade has only just begun. Under county guidelines, the West Dade group must hold at least two public meetings and go before both a standing Boundaries Commission and the Planning Advisory Board. Only then can the county commission grant permission to hold a referendum of area residents. "Stay tuned," advised Assistant County Manager Pedro Hernandez, who also attended the Belén meeting. "It is just getting interesting."