Wicked

Melt this commissioner


It's early Friday evening this past November 10 at the Billiard Club in Miami Lakes. Recall committee members and guests mingle in a private lounge area of the smoky sports bar during an informal fundraiser. Committee Chairman Luis Sanchez sips a mug of beer while smoking a cigarette. Treasurer and Kendall-based accountant McHenry "Hank" Hamilton chows on a plate of meatballs and chicken tenders. John and Pat Wade chat with fellow committee organizer and former community Councilwoman Millie Herrera.

Michael Pizzi, Seijas political rival and Miami Lakes councilman, gathers the crowd around a pool table. Depeche Mode's "I Just Can't Get Enough" blares loudly over the sound system. "Unfortunately we are not going to raise $10 million," intones Pizzi, who's dressed in a dapper two-piece suit and matching loafers. "We're not going to have money for banquets at catering halls or have developers and lobbyists lining up to give us $500 contributions. But what we have is the will of the people.

"Natacha Seijas and her friends don't believe in democracy! How many of you are going to knock on doors? Stand on street corners? How many of you are going to send our message that we are tired of corruption? How many of you are going to tell people to vote yes on December 19?"

The rabble responds with a resounding "Yeah!"

But there's a problem. The committee needs cash. "We'll take whatever you got," Pizzi continues. "If you only have ten cents, give ten cents. If you have $10 million, give $10 million. Right now we don't even have money to buy T-shirts."

The recall began sometime in mid- to late-January with talk among neighbors throughout the county. Pizzi and Sanchez were frustrated by Seijas's failure to curb dynamite-blasting in Northwest Dade. Hamilton was fed up with the commission's effort to stop the East Kendall incorporation. The Wades had grown tired of fighting developers' plans to build in the Everglades. "In my twenty years of community activism, I have never seen a county commission that is so at war with the citizens," opined Pat Wade during a recent conversation. "The system is broken. How do we change it?"

One day about 25 people — including Sanchez, Pizzi, Hamilton, Herrera, and the Wades — representing seven commission districts, gathered in a lunch room. "I can't remember who suggested recall," Pat Wade said. "But once someone said recall, the hardest part was picking a commissioner to go after, since everyone wanted theirs to go first."

After some discussion, Seijas's name emerged. Joe Martinez, Dennis Moss, and new chairman Bruno Barreiro were also mentioned. The group formed the Committee for Recall of Miami-Dade Commissioners in early February. Sanchez, a Miami Lakes resident, was elected the group's chairman and the lead petitioner. The recall PAC had to collect more than 3000 signatures in Seijas's district, home to 59,187 mostly Hispanic Republican voters, to hold an election.

By November 24, the recall PAC had raised only $43,868, with most of the donations coming from four committee members. Hamilton, the Wades, and Pizzi contributed $23,100.

Most of the money was used for legal fees and to pay canvassers to help collect 6177 signatures, which were submitted on April 21. A month later, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin deemed 3978 signatures inadmissible because petitioners had failed to print their own names on each page. The recall PAC sued, and on September 21, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick ruled in favor of the petitioners.

Trawick said Ruvin's finding "failed to serve [as] a valid basis to prevent voter fraud." Recall PAC member Millie Herrera charged that Ruvin, a former county commissioner with a University of Miami law degree, disqualified the signatures to protect Seijas. "It was an absolutely political move," she said. "With his experience as a lawyer, he should know the intent of the voter has to be protected."

Ruvin scoffed at the allegation. "I acted without any political motivation," he said. "I was just doing my job."

Since the recall movement's inception, Seijas has impugned her opponents' credibility. The signature-gatherers posed as county employees and "broke into people's houses when they wouldn't open their doors," Seijas ranted at an April 19 county commission hearing.

Another effective weapon for Seijas has been Spanish-language media. In March, as the rebels were collecting their first signatures, Seijas appeared on Radio Mambí (710 AM). "Beware the people who knock on your doors who say they work for me," she warned. "They are delinquents who want to take away your meal programs and all the good things we have accomplished."

Responds recall committee member Millie Herrera, who was in charge of the paid canvassers: "She has slandered us as criminals and delinquents. She doesn't fight fair."

Meanwhile Seijas's allies have rallied around her. Two political action committees, largely funded by developers, businessmen, and lobbyists who have long supported Seijas, have mailed propaganda to voters and filed lawsuits against the recall group. John Rivera, president of the county police union, sent letters to Hialeah residents warning of petitioners disguised as Miami-Dade Elections Department employees.

One of the PACs, People Improving Our Neighborhoods, raised $12,000 between January and April. Longtime Seijas supporters and real estate developers Masoud Shojaee and Pedro Adrian gave $4500 and $4000, respectively. Shojaee and Adrian had both proposed massive developments outside the urban development boundary. (The developers withdrew their applications before the county commission could vote on them.)

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