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Just prior to their special meeting this past July 22 to discuss tightening the city's already-strict lobbying rules, Miami Beach's six city commissioners and Mayor Matti Bower got a special delivery in their city hall office mailboxes. It was the latest edition of the Drainage Chronicles, a cartoon newsletter that skewers the Machiavellian misadventures of the city's political establishment.
The main headline, in capital letters, screams, "SPECIAL ETHICS MEETING!" The subhead proclaims, "Rounding up six commissioners and one mayor for a meeting on ethics has proved trickier than rounding up seven cats for a bath. Will city hall have a mysterious power outage? Will commissioner-only swine flu sweep through city hall? Will there be a spate of flat tires? We'll see!"
A sidebar displays a black-and-white caricature of Commissioner Ed Tobin. He stands in front of the door to his business office, which he shares with his best friend, Miami Beach developer and commission candidate Fredric Karlton. The caption: "[FR(ED)]: All the elegance of a mathematical equation. Math is what it's all about!"
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Created by Miami Beach artist and gadfly David Bolger ten months ago, Drainage Chronicles is an insightful and snarky little tool to help outsiders understand the surreal political landscape in Miami-Dade's most glittery city. "I started doing Drainage Chronicles to shine a spotlight on these people," the 49-year-old native New Englander explains. "Tobin, Karlton, and their cronies seem very intent on getting power in Miami Beach, and I found that alarming."
Indeed, the city commission is engulfed in a power struggle, with the election less than three months away. On one side, there's Tobin and Commissioner Deede Weithorn, both of whom support Karlton's bid to replace Saul Gross, who will not seek re-election. Standing in their way is Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who is backing Jorge Exposito against Karlton.
The bickering can be traced to last year, when Richard Steinberg gave up his commission seat to run for state representative. Tobin's buddy Karlton "wanted that seat," Wolfson asserted in a recent interview at his city hall office. But Wolfson preferred to appoint former Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer on an interim basis until the election. "When I informed [Karlton] that I believed David would be the best caretaker, Fred told me he wouldn't let Ed or Deede vote for Dermer." Karlton declined to comment for this story.
Sure enough, Commissioners Tobin and Weithorn rejected Dermer, publicly stating the city should instead hold a special election for a replacement. Tobin claims Wolfson used his confidante and political campaign manager David Custin as an emissary to threaten Weithorn — who did not respond to two calls for comment.
"Custin told her that if she didn't vote for Dermer that they would run a Hispanic candidate against her," Tobin claims. "We met with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's public corruption chief, Joe Centorino, but nothing happened." (Centorino would not confirm or deny the meeting.)
This past December 3, the city commission appointed former planning board member Victor Diaz to the empty seat.
In January, shortly after the political rift began, Bolger filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade ethics commission. He accused Tobin and Weithorn of giving preferential treatment to a developer (not Karlton). A separate, anonymous complaint alleged Tobin did not disclose all of his real estate holdings, and claimed he violated city rules that prohibit commissioners from speaking about pending contracts before voting on them.
Some of the allegations were dismissed, but this past February 26, the ethics commission found probable cause that Tobin violated the city rule prohibiting communications about pending contracts. Even that charge was ultimately dismissed, but the ethics commission instructed Tobin not to do it again. He believes Wolfson was behind the anonymous complaint.
Wolfson scoffs at his colleague's accusations but says Tobin should come clean about his ties to Karlton. "I'm not the one doing whatever Fred tells me to do," Wolfson grouses.
On Miami-Dade property records, Karlton and Tobin are listed as co-owners of a first-floor office suite they share in the Sunset Harbour condo building in Miami Beach. Also, Tobin purchased his condo at the Collins, at 6917 Collins Ave., from Karlton.
In a phone interview, Tobin says he has no business relationship with his childhood chum. He also insists Karlton does not control his vote. "I've known Fred since I was in the second grade," Tobin says, brushing off Wolfson's criticisms. "[Wolfson] will say and do anything to further his agenda."
But the infighting among Tobin, Wolfson, and Weithorn continued unabated. At the July 22 meeting, Wolfson and Weithorn each introduced legislation that would strengthen the city's lobbying restrictions. On the surface, both measures could be construed as good and ethical governmental reform. But the reality is that the proposals would actually inflict serious damage on political rivals.
First, Wolfson's proposed legislation: He wants to enact a rule barring city commissioners from working for city vendors. It just so happens political rival Weithorn is an accountant whose firm represents the company that holds the city's waste-hauling contract as well as the city's beach concessionaire. At a meeting prior to the July 22 gathering, Tobin lashed out at Wolfson: "This ordinance does not affect me at all. But it does affect another commissioner. And you are mad at her."
Weithorn has her own ammunition: She proposed legislation, which would bar political campaign consultants from lobbying on behalf of city vendors. That would prevent Wolfson's campaign manager Custin from doing business in Miami Beach. According to the city's lobbyist registration log, American Traffic Solutions and World Waste Services, two companies that vied for city contracts, each paid Custin $20,000 for his services.
There are other motives for Tobin and Weithorn to want to weaken Custin's influence: He also happens to be running the campaign for Exposito, the opponent of Tobin's buddy Karlton.
City hall insiders note Custin is not particularly liked in his profession because of his abrasive style. This past December, Custin caused a stir when he sent a mass email to other lobbyists urging them not to support the re-election of state Rep. David Rivera. Custin wrote, "By the time the Republican primary takes place in 2010, the electorate will be made clearly aware of Rivera's horrible record of using his political positions to put his own personal interests over that of this community."
Custin was also linked to the disappearance of some absentee ballots from Hialeah voters, who generally supported Raul Martinez's congressional run against Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Custin ran the congressman's campaign.
But at the meeting, when Weithorn spoke about her proposal, Custin piped up. "I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted," he informed the commissioners, "so I will keep it neutral." He also dropped a bombshell: He claimed Karlton had paid him $15,000 in cash in 2007 to consult on Tobin's campaign before the rift with Wolfson occurred. In Florida, it is illegal for one person or entity to contribute more than $500 to a candidate.
"Fred paid me directly," Custin tells New Times. "I would advise Fred, and he would take the advice to Ed."
Tobin says he never knew Custin worked on his campaign: "You have to discuss that with Fred."
Karlton declined to talk about the $15,000, saying, "I don't want to dignify anything David and Jonah have to say. They are who they are."