As Nasty as They Can Possibly Be

The mean season is upon us. The Dade mayor's race is in full swing, a half-dozen county commission seats are up for grabs, and after months of wrangling over fractious issues such as building a new arena, repealing the county's gasoline tax, and leasing portions of Homestead Air Force Base to a private developer, commissioners are as irritable as a busload of school kids after a long field trip.

"You can tell," says one veteran county staffer, "that they are getting on each other's nerves. Thank goodness the August recess is coming up."

"It's really gotten bad over the past few weeks," agrees a long-time commission aide. "The tension is extremely high right now. It's bizarre, it's unprofessional, it's nasty, and it is just plain embarrassing."

Adds another commission staffer: "As the tension has gone up, the collegiality that used to keep things civilized has been blown out the window."

Tempers are short. Snideness abounds. And decorum, never in abundance, has all but evaporated. The nastiness reached a peak (or is that pique?) during the commission meetings held June 18 and June 20. Natacha Millan, for example, suggested that Katy Sorenson's opposition to the proposed redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base was racist. James Burke, whose meandering, often unintelligible, declamations have taken years off the lives of many of his colleagues, attacked Sorenson on the same issue for grandstanding and making unnecessary speeches. (As it turned out, Sorenson had caught a major problem with the proposed lease agreement between the county and the developers that could have left the county vulnerable to a lawsuit.)

The late-June meetings also saw Maurice Ferre and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla sniping at each other over the gas tax, Gwen Margolis losing her patience with members of the public during the debate over building a new arena, and Art Teele lobbing grenades at just about everyone.

Indeed, there is little disagreement that Teele, commission chairman for the past three years, has become the most combative of all the commissioners. He accused Bruce Kaplan of spreading lies about him on Spanish-language radio, he exposed what he described as a secret meeting between the county manager and a handful of lobbyists tied to Alex Penelas's mayoral campaign, and he derided Maurice Ferre for having a "failed vision" regarding the future of Dade County.

When he announced his candidacy last month at a press conference, Teele harked back to his days as an elite Army Ranger, and worked his military service into speeches as evidence of his leadership abilities. His was the only press conference with its own LZ (landing zone) as he chartered three helicopters to ferry himself and a pack of reporters across the county. All allusions to Apocalypse Now were intentional, his not so subtle message clear: In Dade County, politics is war.

And Teele is hoping that the napalm he levels against his fellow commissioners will smell like victory come election day. "There is no question that the Board of County Commissioners at this historic juncture, where everything is on the table, is in the process of turning into a very mean-spirited, parochial, feudal state," says Teele. "The gloves are off. I'm not going to sit there and take it on WQBA, on Channel 51, on Channel 23, and not respond in kind. I told everyone I would not go negative first. But I am not going to be a potted plant."

Never was Teele's aggressiveness more evident than during the June 20 debate over repealing two cents of the county's six-cent gas tax. The $45 million raised by the tax annually is used to maintain roads, improve bus service, landscape major arteries, and install warning and safety lights near schools. Since the gas tax's imposition nearly three years ago, the measure has been a frequent target for attack, particularly on Spanish-language radio stations, and specifically on La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140).

For the past six months opponents of the tax have made repeated attempts to repeal up to five of the six cents, and have succeeded in placing it at the center of debate in the mayor's race. Penelas, who has long opposed the tax, has taken to beating up on Ferre and Teele, who have supported it. Ferre finally cracked under the pressure and announced he would support a reduction in the tax by two cents. Teele refused to support any reduction.

On the morning of the vote, WQBA station manager Augustine Acosta blasted Teele, claiming that the chairman would try to use dirty tricks and unethical parliamentary maneuvers to keep the gas tax. At the start of the meeting, while Acosta was still speaking on the radio, Teele, returning to his Army Ranger theme, made several disparaging remarks about Acosta, and declared he was not going to accept such insults from someone who had not even fought in a war to defend the United States.

Several hours later, Acosta appeared before the commission to confront Teele. "I am not a racist," Acosta insisted, "and I am not the things you probably think I am. I am a very nice person."

But Teele was in no mood for conciliation. Pulling out a transcript of Acosta's remarks made that morning on the radio, Teele began reading them into the record. "'WQBA demands publicly from Commissioner Teele that he stop playing dirty tricks with the gas tax,'" Teele read aloud. As an aside, Teele also opined that the station had obviously gone downhill since Amancio Suarez sold it last year and added that the previous management was "a far more enlightened and intelligent management."

Reading again from the transcript, Teele continued: "'So we ask Mr. Teele, don't the wishes of Dade's Hispanic population, which represents half of the electorate, count in regards to the gasoline issue?'

"To my knowledge," Teele interjected, "Hispanics, blacks, whites, and all persons are going to pay the gas tax, and not just one group. But obviously WQBA has a different view about how the laws of this country work." WQBA's handling of the tax issue, Teele said, was "exactly what I would expect a radio station under Mr. Castro would do."

And then, drawing a bead on a fuming Acosta, Teele added, "Sir, I will not pander to you or anyone."

But pander the commission would. Despite hearing testimony in support of the current tax from nearly a dozen municipal mayors, representatives from the school board, and anxious parents (the only speaker in favor of reducing the tax was Acosta), the commission voted 7-6 to roll back two cents, which will cost the county $15 million per year in needed funding and save the average driver a whopping twelve dollars per year -- assuming, of course, the oil distributors and station owners pass on to motorists the two-cent savings.

Besides Ferre, the other crucial vote for repeal was cast by Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who had originally voted for the tax. Diaz de la Portilla's flip-flop was particularly disappointing to supporters of the tax because, as a former chairman of the commission's transportation committee, he understood better than most why it is needed. "I personally believe that while the gas tax is one of the most unpopular taxes we have, it is also one of the most equitable," the commissioner explained in an interview last week. "But I don't think I should be in a position to impose my will on the people. I have no right to impose my beliefs on the people I serve."

Some people, of course, define leadership as having the courage to do what you know is right even if that might be unpopular. But in this mean season, Diaz de la Portilla felt he had little choice. Up for re-election in September, he so far has no opponent. But it seems almost certain that if he had voted for maintaining the gas tax, and as a result had cast the deciding vote, he would have been vilified on Spanish-language radio as being the only Hispanic commissioner to support the tax. It is also likely that an opponent would have entered the race with a hot-button campaign issue that even the President of the United States decided to sidestep this year.

Those voting to reduce the gas tax: Penelas, Ferre, Diaz de la Portilla, Millan, Javier Souto, Pedro Reboredo, and Bruce Kaplan. Those against the reduction: Teele, Sorenson, Margolis, Burke, Dennis Moss, and Betty Ferguson.

Hoping to deflect criticism over the gas tax issue, Diaz de la Portilla later said he thought it was hypocritical of those who argued that public money was desperately needed for transportation problems to then embrace a plan to build a $165 million arena for a billionaire. "I have a problem with those who argue forcibly in support of keeping the gas tax and then give public dollars to the Miami Heat," he complained. "Now, that was a bad decision."

Perhaps no two votes taken in the same week could better define this commission and its priorities than the repeal of the gas tax and the commitment of more than $430 million of public money over the next 35 years to build a new bayfront arena. In one of the more moving presentations during the commission debate, representatives from the Human Services Coalition of Dade County described the human needs that could be met with the roughly $14 million per year the county will spend on the arena project.

For only $11 million per year, commissioners were told, they would be able to provide day care for the 3600 children from poor and working-class families who are on waiting lists. For about $14 million per year the commission could also pay for foster care for 1723 physically or sexually abused children who have been removed from their homes. Or they could expand Dade's Head Start program to include an additional 5000 kids.

Commissioners quickly dismissed these ideas as demagoguery, and voted that current state law only allows the commission to use the proposed funding -- which is coming from a tax on hotel rooms -- for convention, tourist, or sports facilities. But according to attorney Dan Paul, if commissioners were so inclined, they could go to Tallahassee and ask that the legislature expand the categories for which the tax money can be used. And Diaz de la Portilla later added that the commission might have been more creative in its approach. For example, he said, by using the tourist tax money to fund certain programs currently being paid for out of the county's general fund, commissioners could have freed up those funds to use any way the commission saw fit.

But a majority of commissioners had their priorities set, and despite seven hours of discussion, the vote was never much in doubt. It passed easily, with only Diaz de la Portilla, Penelas, Sorenson, and Ferguson voting against the arena. Groaned Diaz de la Portilla: "Last week was a hard week.


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