I owe Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson an apology. Several weeks ago I wrote a column about a group of developers known by the acronym HABDI, and an internal feud that raised doubts about their ability to turn nearly 2000 acres of Homestead Air Reserve Base into a commercial airport. The article noted that at least one of the original partners was no longer with HABDI (Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc.) and that a power struggle had erupted for control of the company's board of directors. Tensions had reached such disturbing levels that during a recent board meeting, HABDI's president, Carlos Herrera, initiated a fistfight with one of the company's principal stockholders.
More disturbing, however, was the revelation that HABDI had lost a significant portion of its financial support when the Wall Street banking firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette withdrew its offer to provide up to $100 million for the redevelopment project. According to at least three HABDI sources, the firm pulled out because of Herrera's refusal to cede control of HABDI to individuals with actual experience developing airports.
Another major defection from HABDI's ranks: the multibillion-dollar Raytheon Corp. Last year a Raytheon subsidiary, American Logistics Services, purchased approximately fifteen percent of HABDI. At that time several commissioners heralded the news as significant because they assumed that with Raytheon even tangentially involved in the deal, HABDI would be financially secure. But Raytheon recently sold its interest in American Logistics, thereby severing its ties to the air base proposal.
My column also noted that despite HABDI's pledge to offer black investors up to 25 percent of the company's stock, and South Dade residents up to 24 percent, neither group currently owns more than 3 percent. Allegations have been raised by a consortium of black investors that HABDI refused to deal with them in good faith. That group is now suing HABDI.
Sorenson wrote a brief memo to County Manager Armando Vidal asking that HABDI officials provide both a written and an oral report to the commission in an effort to determine if my information was accurate. Because of her request, Sorenson has once again come under attack by HABDI.
With characteristic bravado, Herrera declared in a seven-page letter to county administrators that he would not respond to Sorenson's questions as he could find nothing in HABDI's lease with the county that would require such accountability. He did feel free, however, to criticize Sorenson for her unrelenting scrutiny of HABDI and was bold enough suggest that she should "focus her efforts on the project itself, rather than our company...."
Herrera also accused Sorenson of being responsible for the delays in developing the base. He even suggested that she was using my story to turn the public's attention away from her own shortcomings. "I believe that possibly the Commissioner may at this point wish to change her community's continual focus on the real causes for delay by somehow deflecting blame toward our company," Herrera's letter stated. "We will not participate in those efforts."
Sorenson was dumbfounded by Herrera's missive. He was accusing her of the very thing he was engaged in -- accusing others of misconduct in order to divert attention away from himself. "It is Orwellian," she says. "I can never recall a time when a commissioner asked for information about an ongoing project and it was not given. And instead they launch into a diatribe against me and how I am responsible for holding up their project."
The formal transfer of the base from the U.S. Air Force to the county is being hampered because of concerns raised by environmentalists, who fear that rapid development would endanger both Biscayne Bay and Everglades National Park. "The South Dade community is very intent on having that base developed," Sorenson says. "I believe you can have development that is compatible with the national parks; the national parks superintendents have even stated that, and I believe them. But I want to know for my community if the developer the county has chosen is ready to do the job they committed to do. Are they prepared to do it? And so far I have gotten nothing but obfuscation. I don't care how much they slam me, I'm not the issue. The redevelopment of the base is the issue."
HABDI, however, is apparently succeeding in its efforts to foster the impression among some people in Homestead that Sorenson is the real problem. For years HABDI has exploited the post-hurricane suffering of South Dade residents. In its scheme to secure the no-bid lease, HABDI propounded the mistaken belief that redeveloping the air base would be simple once a developer was selected. HABDI enticed residents, desperate to see their community rebuilt, into supporting its plans by dangling visions of Federal Express and other major job-producing tenants for the base.
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But HABDI has been unable to satisfy the community's heightened expectations and has decided to make Sorenson the scapegoat. "Villainize Katy Sorenson and make her the target, and then we really won't have to account for what we're not doing," Sorenson asserts. "Unfortunately some people are buying into it. I think, however, the smarter members of South Dade can see through a lot of that."
Herrera's letter attacking Sorenson was widely distributed as an attachment to the agenda for the commission's May 20 meeting, under a section titled "County Manager's Reports." When the meeting commenced, Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, another HABDI critic, demanded that the manager withdraw the letter from the official agenda. Diaz de la Portilla said he found Herrera's tone offensive and that the letter violated the commission's rules of decorum. "It is not a report," he stated. "It is nothing more than an attack. It's a poison-pen letter."
Commissioner Natacha Millan rushed to Herrera's defense and said she did not find the letter insulting. Millan, who has been one of HABDI's greatest supporters on the commission, makes no secret of her long-time friendship with Herrera. Despite her rescue attempt, the letter was withdrawn.
After the meeting, Sorenson said she will continue to press for a legitimate response to her questions: "I guess I'll just have to keep asking to get the answers I think the South Dade community is entitled to. And I do intend to keep asking.