Down in Flames

Miami's business leaders vowed to yank MIA from the clutches of politicians, but the politicians yanked back

For the sixth time in recent years a promising effort to create an independent body to govern Miami International Airport has flamed out. A group of business leaders last month dropped its plans to place on the November ballot a referendum for an airport authority that would finally put an end to the county commission's predatory meddling in MIA affairs.

The referendum's petition drive was well under way when its sponsoring organization, the Miami Business Forum, unceremoniously aborted it. As a result the airport remains a snake pit, venal politicians desperate to maintain their grip on MIA are gloating, and county manager George Burgess has taken the occasion to smack down aviation director Angela Gittens, who had the audacity to sign the petition and whose professional demise is now only a matter of time.

Many people are appalled that the forces of evil on the county commission seem to have prevailed yet again. How could this happen? In one form or another, I've been hearing that question a lot over the past couple of weeks.

The answer: It's been two full years since a county commissioner was arrested.

In this town that qualifies as a landmark moral victory. But it also has had the effect of lulling the populace into a complacent civic slumber. The airport authority fiasco, however, has been a harsh reminder that our famously wicked commission is still in charge, still Miami's most potent political force.

The failed MIA referendum also revealed the Miami Business Forum to be a pitifully naive crew that, in its first major bid to affect public policy, performed miserably and squandered what credibility it may have had. Formed in 2000 as a successor to the notoriously secretive and exclusionary Non-Group, the Business Forum is a collection of 40 prominent men and women who are still somewhat secretive and exclusionary, but markedly more diverse than their good-old-boy forefathers. (See sidebar for a membership list.) As the airport petition drive demonstrated, they are also political neophytes.

This past January the county commission's transportation committee, led by Commissioner Dennis Moss, shot down an opportunity for Miami-Dade voters to decide whether they wanted an airport authority -- the fifth time in four years politicians successfully blocked reform attempts. Moss in particular was insultingly dismissive of the notion that MIA's future should be of interest to the general public.

In response the Business Forum vowed to circumvent the pols altogether and use the initiative process to put a measure on this November's ballot. Mario Artecona, the group's energetic executive director, was refreshingly blunt in his assessment of the situation. "If the commission doesn't have the guts to [place the issue on the ballot], the business community will," he told the Miami Herald. "Turning down an aviation authority is one thing, but turning down the voters' right to say for themselves just stinks to high heaven."

Artecona and his Business Forum bosses sounded like they were ready to rumble. A good thing, too, because surely a vicious street fight lay ahead. Commissioners regularly bellowed that an airport authority represented an attack on their integrity -- a line that was always good for a laugh. Those of us gleefully watching the Business Forum from the sidelines had no doubt it was going to get nasty and personal. After all, that's politics in Miami.

The push for an independent authority over MIA enjoyed widespread support among many business and community groups, from the Beacon Council to the chamber of commerce to political pros like Sen. Bob Graham. Early polling showed the measure passing by a huge margin. Success seemed assured.

But then reality caught up with the leaders of the Miami Business Forum. They may have had the public on their side, but they seemed blind to the fact that county commissioners still controlled the machinery of government, and wouldn't hesitate in using it to crush what Commissioner Javier Souto endearingly referred to as the downtown "wine and cheese crowd."

The Forum had 60 days to collect some 40,000 valid signatures. With their collective resources, members could have and should have showered the petition drive with money, enough to collect 100,000 signatures in 50 days. Call it political intimidation -- the wine and cheese crowd would look more like a lynch mob. Instead the approach was lackluster. Records show that some members -- Adolfo Henriques, Leonard Abess, Ed Williamson, Chuck Cobb, Philip Blumberg, George Feldenkreis -- ponied up cash of their own, but overall the Forum did not spend money like they really meant it.

That may have been a tactical error, but it was soon dwarfed by a colossal strategic blunder. Somehow Forum members had not taken into account the fact that their airport initiative would be sharing the November ballot with the biggest county bond measure of the past 30 years, a $2.75 billion behemoth. Of course, the political animals crouched on the county commission dais sniffed out that oversight immediately -- and then pounced. Forum members didn't know what hit them.

A fine, upstanding organization like the Miami Business Forum would naturally want to promote the general-obligation bond, right? Rebuilding infrastructure, priming the economic development pump, filling potholes, patching sidewalks, beautifying parks -- the classic civic-group agenda. One problem, though. According to the county hall crowd, there was a conflict. How could voters hold these two thoughts simultaneously -- county commissioners cannot be trusted to manage the airport, but they can be trusted to wisely manage billions of dollars in bond money.

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