In the Dead of the Night
On Tuesday, July 25, the Dade County Commission convened its regular weekly meeting. But this particular gathering of the county's elected officials was special. It was the commissioners' last meeting before they closed up shop for a seven-week summer recess. As such, it was also the last opportunity for commissioners and the county manager to seek timely approval for pet projects and other important matters. And it provided a sort of cover for passage of controversial or complex items, detailed discussion of which naturally would be foreshortened by the collective urge to wrap up business and take off.
Over the years, these final meetings in July have become protracted affairs, sometimes running twelve or fourteen hours. But this one was historic. It began at 8:44 a.m. and didn't adjourn until almost 4:30 the next morning, nearly twenty hours later.
When it was over, the commissioners, their staffs, and other county employees limped out of the commission chambers wondering whether their time had been well spent or wasted, and in some cases whether they knew exactly what had been voted upon. Chairman Art Teele was more upbeat about the marathon session, though admittedly his criteria were modest. It had been a success, he declared, because "no one left mad and there weren't any fights." (Most commissioners, it seemed, were too tired to be mad, and serious fights were only narrowly avoided.)
Commissioners handed out more than 60 proclamations, citations, and certificates of appreciation in the first hour alone. They passed more than 200 resolutions and ordinances -- most without any debate or discussion -- ranging from a $500 allocation to help sponsor a semi-pro football team's award banquet to reissuing $145 million in bonds to cover expansion projects at Miami International Airport. They approved a dozen contracts worth at least $100 million, raised transit fares for the handicapped, and lowered property tax rates slightly for the coming year.
The commissioners approved some measures so quickly that the county attorney's staff had to beg them to slow down. "We can't keep up with you," pleaded Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg. At other times the debate was so boring, so tedious that it appeared the commission chambers had become the land that time forgot.
New Times was there from opening gavel to closing yawn, and compiled this selective and unofficial record of the proceedings.
The parade of proclamations began. Certificates for a dozen Metro-Dade police officers for meritorious conduct, and for a group of valedictorians from a few inner-city high schools, and still more for county employees with more than 30 years' service. Each had his or her photograph taken with the smiling commissioners.
Following the proclamations came the declarations, such as decreeing August 6 through 12 to be National Correctional Employee Week. A little after 9:00 a.m., commissioners decided that this day, July 25, should be Puerto Rico Day. Five minutes later they declared it Bob Beamon Day (the former Olympic star didn't show up on time for his certificate or photo.) By 9:22 commissioners had decided that July 25 should also be Gaylon Parton Day in honor of a local teacher. Three minutes after that, July 25 became Robert L. Zubieta Day in recognition of the local president of the Future Farmers of America.
Twice they handed out keys to the county, then presented outgoing assistant county manager Cynthia Curry with the Hurricane Hero Award. Last year she lost a close commission vote for the position of county manager. As a photographer snapped Curry's picture on the commission dais, one lobbyist quipped, "Head held high, but two votes shy."
Commissioner Bruce Kaplan had placed on the agenda an item that would have repealed Dade's nine-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. After the gas tax was passed last year, it became a political minefield for county politicians. For weeks Spanish-language radio sizzled with vitriolic criticism, aided and abetted by several Cuban-American commissioners (along with Kaplan) who vowed to repeal the measure. They failed in that effort, but just barely. In the year since then, all commissioners had abided by an unspoken truce, a truce Kaplan decided to break.
He offered his motion and waited for someone to second it, after which debate would begin. Without a second, however, the matter would die. The dais was silent. Kaplan then instinctively turned to gaze at his ally, Commissioner Javier Souto. "This is the motion to repeal the gas tax," Kaplan repeated incredulously. But Souto refused even to look at him, let alone offer support.
Kaplan appeared sincerely hurt, like a child whose best friend unexpectedly refused to play. Kaplan and Souto, in fact, had played this game before, for many hours on Spanish-language radio. Kaplan would decry the amount of money Dade citizens were required to pay in taxes. Then Souto would join in. Other commissioners were reckless with the taxpayers' money. These two, on the other hand, were fighting to protect the little people. Despite the demagogic nature of these diatribes, they seemed to be an effective means of boosting voter approval, at least among some of those who listened to such broadcasts. But now, for some reason, Souto wasn't playing at all.
After about ten seconds of silence -- an eternity -- Chairman Teele declared that the motion to repeal the gas tax was dead.
As commissioners quickly moved on to other matters, Kaplan, who never took his eyes off Souto, said quietly in Spanish, "What happened? You abandoned me."
Finally Souto looked up and met Kaplan's eyes with an icy glare. "I don't know what you're talking about," he replied.
"Now I'll have to go to the radio stations and tell how you didn't support me," Kaplan answered. It was a threat (though Kaplan would later say he was only joking), and Javier Souto's temperament does not permit him to take a threat sitting down.
Rising from his chair, Souto said firmly, "No me jodas!" (Don't fuck with me!) Speaking very rapidly in Spanish but still in hushed tones, Souto berated his erstwhile ally: "This was your problem. You're the one having the problem in your district. You want to use the rest of us."
Souto moved closer to Kaplan, and the prospect of actual physical assault suddenly loomed. One of Souto's aides jumped up, stepped between the two men, and quietly implored the former state senator to calm down. Souto moved past Kaplan and walked over to Teele. "Calm down, Javier," Teele said. "Don't let him bug you."
"Son of a bitch," Souto snarled, now in English. "Son of a bitch. I told him -- don't fuck with me." While Souto continued to pace nervously, Teele discreetly asked one of the plainclothes Metro-Dade detectives, who act as the commission's sergeants at arms, to stay between Kaplan and Souto, just in case.
Amazingly, this little melodrama unfolded without anyone in the public gallery being aware of it.
If the fight over the gas tax has resonated within the Hispanic community, Aventura's march toward incorporation has rumbled like an earthquake through the condo canyons of Northeast Dade. Residents of the would-be city voted earlier this year to break away from county rule and form their own municipality. Ultimately, though, the county commission controls the process, a fact that drives many Aventura citizens crazy with frustration. Several dozen of them (wearing "Let My People Go" buttons) showed up for this meeting, demanding that commissioners set a special election for November 7 so Aventura voters could approve a proposed charter, one of the final hurdles along the road to incorporation.
Their comrade in this crusade has been Commissioner Gwen Margolis, whose commission district includes Aventura. Liberating that community from the clutches of the county has become a test of Margolis's political strength on the commission, and an important measure of her ability to deliver for her constituents (even when it may not be in the best interest of the county overall).
Incorporation has also become a test for the commission generally. After ignoring the subject for years, guided by the hope that proponents would simply go away after suffering enough frustration with the bureaucratically cumbersome process, commissioners now face a crisis. In addition to Aventura, at least two other communities in unincorporated Dade -- Pinecrest and Destiny -- are moving quickly toward emancipation. More neighborhoods are expected to follow, resulting in the possibility of a dramatically reduced tax base, which in turn would force the county to cut services or raise taxes for those citizens remaining in unincorporated Dade. It goes without saying that neither prospect holds much appeal for county politicians.
Twelve days earlier the commission, led by Katy Sorenson and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, voted to slow the frenzied pace of incorporation efforts. Sorenson and Diaz de la Portilla had argued that by delaying Aventura, Destiny, and Pinecrest for a few months, the commission might be able to fashion a comprehensive approach that would mitigate the potential for damage to the county. On July 13, after hours of debate, the "go slow" approach to incorporation prevailed, much to Margolis's dismay. But in the ensuing two weeks, "go slow" had somehow transformed into "full speed ahead."
In the midst of the Aventura debate, Commissioner Pedro Reboredo was rolled into the chambers in a wheelchair and was greeted with light applause. This was his first commission appearance since he lost a toe last month in the struggle to free Cuba. (Reboredo was injured when the boat in which he and other protesters were riding was rammed by two Cuban military craft. After dramatic airlifts from the sea to Key West, then to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Reboredo surrendered the second toe on his right foot to amputation.) Back on the dais, the commissioner listened intently as the Aventura debate proceeded.
Hoping to slow things down once again, Sorenson moved to delay for several months Aventura's vote on a proposed new city charter. "It is not just about one community," Sorenson said, "it's about the entire county. And if we let one part of the community go, the rest of the county has a fiscal impact."
Margolis interjected that it was simply too late to stop Aventura. "Who are you trying to kid?" she asked, scowling at her colleagues. "The bottom line is you just intensify the distrust of this government that just permeates through this whole community. And it is wrong. It is absolutely wrong what you are doing. And we wonder why people move out of Dade County and get angry. This is why. This is why you have anger. This is why people say the Dade County Commission is a bunch of jerks."
"My sentiments exactly on the gas tax," Kaplan added incongruously. He was ignored.
The matter of greatest interest during the Aventura debate, however, had nothing to do with the issues, but rather with the disappearance of Commissioner Natacha Millan. The moment discussion began, Millan walked off the dais. In the past she had consistently voted to support the "go slow" approach. Was her absence merely a coincidence? Or had a deal been struck between Margolis and Millan leading to Millan's sudden absence? The chambers buzzed with speculation.
For Aventura residents, Millan's absence was as good as a "full speed ahead" vote. And indeed, when Sorenson's motion to delay was finally called to a vote, the tally was six in favor of delaying, six against, with Millan absent. Tie votes fail.
Seemingly deadlocked, the commission recessed for lunch at 12:26 p.m.
Rather than go out to lunch, most lobbyists and power brokers head for the horseshoe-shape hallway to the side of the chambers, where commissioners' offices are located. There they wait in hopes of a quick audience with a key commissioner on an issue they have pending later in the day. On this particular day, members of the Latin Builders Association (LBA) and the Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI) were out in force. Led by Carlos Herrera, who is president of both the LBA and HABDI, the group was visiting with a few commissioners to line up their support for his controversial and potentially lucrative plan to convert a majority of Homestead Air Force Base to civilian use.
While Herrera waited to speak with Kaplan, Reboredo's staff was eagerly ushering in the media for a few more brave sound bites. After Channel 51's crew left, the commissioner tried to clear his mind for a few moments. He was out of his wheelchair and sitting behind his desk, leaning back as far as his swivel chair would allow, until he was almost parallel to the floor. His eyes were closed and he lightly rubbed his temples. The injured right foot, wrapped in white gauze and bandages, was propped on his desk. Aides and friends quietly stood along the office walls.
"It's the last meeting," Reboredo said by way of explaining why he decided to attend against the advice of his doctors. "I had some items on the agenda and I didn't want to let them pass." He winced in pain. "The wound is open," he said cryptically, causing all in the room to stare at his foot. "The toes are all broken and there is a large cut still on my big toe." Another round of surgery was scheduled for Thursday. "I'll have to hold up tonight," he continued. "I made a commitment to myself to push those things through."
Reboredo's agenda items concerned proposed changes to the county charter that would weaken the powers of a strong mayor, scheduled to be elected next year, and transfer them back to the commission, particularly to the commission chairman -- a position to which Reboredo aspires. But at the rate the meeting was moving, it would be at least another ten or twelve hours before the charter changes would be heard. In the meantime, Reboredo had sworn off painkillers. "I'm trying to avoid taking pills," he said. "I'd like to keep a clear mind."
The commission, reconvened after lunch but still missing Millan, dove back into the Aventura debate. The resolve of opponents, however, had eroded; it was clear they did not have the votes to slow the county's disintegration. Nine minutes later the commission voted 8-3 to move ahead with the November special election on Aventura's charter, with only Sorenson, Diaz de la Portilla, and Dennis Moss voting against holding the election that soon.
For many years Vizcaya Museum and Garden has been one of Dade County's prized treasures. More recently it has become one of the commission's most blatant objects of abuse. Commissioners discovered they could enhance their popularity with civic groups (some of them influential in themselves) by waiving the fees normally required to rent the luxurious mansion and grounds for special events.
Administrators and volunteers at Vizcaya, however, say the practice has gotten out of control. In 1993, for example, commissioners waived more than $70,000 in fees for various groups. By comparison, in just the first half of 1995, more than $120,000 in fees had been waived. With the Vizcaya budget already strained and its cash reserves nearly depleted, something needed to be done. Approximately 100 volunteers turned out to support a resolution sponsored by Teele and Sorenson that would require a unanimous vote of the commission to waive fees in the future. When some commissioners wondered aloud who would have the courage to vote against some of these groups, Sorenson said, "I'll vote against all of them. I'll be the bad guy."
Ferre suggested they should simply do away with fee waivers altogether, thus removing the temptation commissioners had apparently been unable to resist. Teele disagreed. "We've got to have an escape clause," he argued. "If the Pope comes here and says he'd like to go and they don't have enough money..."
"I doubt that," Ferre interrupted, garnering laughs all around.
The Teele-Sorenson measure passed without dissent.
Natacha Millan reappeared on the dais and settled in for the remainder of the meeting. She offered no explanation for her three-hour absence.
Millan introduced item 5-D-36. As commissioners flipped through their agenda packets to learn about the measure, Teele joked, "It's on Commissioner Reboredo's toe." In fact, it was a resolution, sponsored by Reboredo, condemning the Cuban government for the attack that led to his injury. The brief exercise in international diplomacy passed unanimously and Reboredo received a standing ovation.
In rapid-fire fashion, commissioners began racing through the agenda with little discussion or debate. One item, though, caught the attention of perennial commission gadfly Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga: approval of the county's supplemental budget, a document that proposes changes to the original county budget. In this case, the revisions amounted to additional expenditures of about $67 million. "I don't even know what is going on here because I am never supplied the proper information," Gonzalez-Goenaga complained, noting that nothing had been itemized. "What we need here is full and fair disclosure, timely disclosure."
Commissioners smiled condescendingly as they listened to Gonzalez-Goenaga. His chiding speeches have become a staple of every commission meeting, and he has become something of a court jester. "I don't want to make a fool of myself," he continued, "even though I am afraid I am kind of a fool." The smiles broadened on the dais. "But sometimes the fools are right."
No one seemed interested in what Gonzalez-Goenaga had to say A no one, that is, except Teele. "Let me just say this," the chairman began, "Mr. Goenaga was more right than anyone today." Teele then pointed out to his colleagues that they were about to approve spending $67 million, with at least $20 million of that coming from "unanticipated revenues" such as federal grants the county had not anticipated receiving, as well as from an increase in the amount of tax revenue the county had projected it would collect this year. Commissioners stopped smiling and began searching for the material Teele and Gonzalez-Goenaga were referring to.
Teele wanted to know where these revenues were coming from and why commissioners hadn't been made aware of them earlier. The county's budget director tried to explain that nearly all the money was dedicated to specific projects; there was very little flexibility in how it could be spent. Teele relented. "And we're going to approve this item without any discussion," he shrugged. Now it was Gonzalez-Goenaga's turn to smile. The budget passed unanimously.
Because commissioners decided not to take a meal break, the county manager arranged for dinner to be catered by Versailles restaurant. (The restaurant donated the food.) Two large trays of arroz con pollo and a pan of fried plantains were set up inside a nearby conference room and commission aides rushed in to scoop up something for themselves and their bosses.
"I'd put a bit more on there," another member of his staff advised.
"Is this kosher?" asked Billy Hardemon, Commissioner James Burke's chief of staff. "Jimmy will only eat it if it's kosher."
Through dinner on the dais, commissioners heard an appeal of a "dewatering permit," which allows a developer temporarily to remove the ground water from beneath a piece of property so that a building's foundation can be poured. Never before could anyone recall a challenge to such a permit, but as commissioners learned, this wasn't just any project. This was the twin-45-story-towers development at 47th and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, the Green Diamond and Blue Diamond condominiums of New Florida Properties Corp. And they were being erected right next to the Doral Hotel.
The Doral's owners were dismayed that these two behemoths would soon rise next to their relatively modest building, and in an act of desperation, they were trying to stop construction by objecting to the permit. If they can't dewater, the Doral owners reasoned, they can't build.
And so began a debate between opposing attorneys that lasted more than two hours. About halfway through, Teele realized he might have a problem. When considering some issues, such as zoning, commissioners are prohibited by common law from speaking with interested parties prior to meeting on that issue. A "cone of silence" over the process must be preserved. Teele asked the county attorney if this matter qualified as one of those "quasi-judicial" issues. The attorney said yes.
Teele then admitted that earlier in the day he had met privately with the opposing attorneys in the case. Kaplan raised his hand to confess the same, as did Millan. "I had no idea," Millan said. "Had I known, I would have followed the rules."
"Mr. Chairman, I, too, have a similar problem," said Margolis.
"Does anybody else want to confess?" Teele laughed.
"Will you for the record include me in the list of deviants," Ferre said, adding, "I want to know who wasn't talked to."
Sorenson, Dennis Moss, and Alex Penelas raised their hands.
County Attorney Robert Ginsburg seemed troubled, but decided the tricky situation could be resolved if both sides stated on the record they felt the commission could be fair and impartial. Both sides agreed.
If this was a "quasi-judicial" hearing like a zoning matter, Kaplan noted, then all witnesses should have been sworn in before testifying. Ginsburg decided there was a way around that, too. The witnesses could be sworn in after they testified. The clerk then had all the earlier witnesses stand and raise their right hands: "Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God A and gave, so help you God?"
"I do," they replied.
In the end, commissioners narrowly decided to grant the permit and allow construction to continue. But they also instructed the attorneys for New Florida to try to strike a compromise with the Doral by either lowering the number of floors or moving the towers farther back from the water. If they don't make the attempt or if a compromise is not reached, the dewatering issue could be reconsidered in September.
The commission picked up steam again, and rolled through a number of agenda items without any discussion or debate. Ferre then pointed out that they were about to approve the aviation department's budget, a $436 million vote. "We zip right through these things," Ferre noted. "Anything that is over $100 million we just do in three seconds. But if it's some small, little thing of $83 or $10,000, we'll spend half an hour discussing it. Here is a $436 million expenditure, an increase in the budget of $31 million, and we are just going to pass it. I'd like to know who's seen this budget? Have you seen this?" he asked Reboredo, chairman of the commission's aviation committee.
"No," Reboredo replied. Other members of the aviation committee quickly chimed in. It all looked alien to them, they protested.
"Well, Maurice, we do have a two-page handout," Kaplan said sarcastically. Holding up the two-page synopsis, Ferre shook his head. "Look at this. And we're going on that?" he sighed. "Can you imagine the Port Authority of New York approving the budget for the Port of New York in just a few seconds?"
Aviation Director Gary Dellapa sheepishly approached the podium and told commissioners the budget had been presented at the June 30 aviation committee meeting. "Where was I?" demanded Ferre. Despite Dellapa's claim, no one on the aviation committee remembered the briefing three weeks earlier. Nonetheless commissioners gave tentative approval to the budget, with the understanding they will receive more detailed briefings over the summer recess.
Gadfly Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga attempted to comment on the aviation budget, was ruled out of order, refused to sit down, and was thrown out of the meeting. "What we need is democracy!" he shouted as he was led outside.
Throughout the day, a group of the county's most prominent lobbyists had been circling the commission chambers, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to pounce on a specific issue. That time came when commissioners were asked to decide whether the county should waive competitive bidding requirements and award an exclusive, ten-year contract for county ambulance services to Metro Ambulance Service.
To help win the $40 million contract, Metro Ambulance hired celebrated arm-twisters Christopher Korge, Lucia Dougherty, Rodney Barreto, and Dusty Melton. A competing firm hired a couple of big guns of their own, including George Knox and Phil Hamersmith.
Javier Souto was the most vocal opponent of the plan, complaining that the contract lasted too long and should have been competitively bid. "Ten years is ten years," he huffed, and noted that future commissions and county mayors will be hamstrung by such a decision. "This is America and competition is the name of the game in America," he lectured. "It is really unfair to have something locked up like this. Isn't this America?"
Despite Souto's civics lesson, commissioners gave the exclusive contract to Metro Ambulance. Teele later asked the county manager to figure out how many county mayors will be elected over the course of the Homestead Air Force Base lease, a 70-year deal being handed to Carlos Herrera without competitive bidding but endorsed enthusiastically by Souto.
As midnight approached and Robert L. Zubieta Day came to a close, Ferre and Margolis suggested the meeting be recessed and continued either Wednesday or Thursday.
"If there is any commissioner who would like to leave, it's me," responded Reboredo, his toes throbbing. "But I'm ready to stay."
"The issue isn't whether we could stay here until three o'clock in the morning," Ferre said. "We could all do that. The issue is judgment."
"Let's finish," injected Millan. "I'm sure Commissioner Ferre's judgment will maintain itself until three o'clock in the morning. Maybe this will keep him a little bit quieter than he usually is."
After arguing and sniping at each other for ten minutes, they decided to keep going.
Commissioners passed without discussion items 5-A-17 and 5-A-18, which approved five million dollars in "change orders" on behalf of the firm Church & Tower for asphalt-repair work along Flagler Street. Rather than putting the extra work out to competitive bid, the county decided to add it on to another contract already awarded to Church & Tower, which is owned by the family of Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation.
First Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg fell asleep in his chair. As aides and other county staffers moved quietly around him, Commissioner Betty Ferguson gently stroked his hair.
After almost seventeen hours, the commission finally took up the issue Reboredo had been waiting for A the role of the county mayor, who will be elected in the fall of 1996. Forty-five minutes later commissioners decided that nothing would be decided until next spring, when a measure may or may not be put on the ballot. Margolis, however, did extract an agreement from Penelas, Teele, and Ferre A the three likely mayoral candidates on the commission A that a division of power between the mayor and the commission is appropriate.
Reboredo then delivered a short speech in which he talked about "special interests" controlling the mayor and the commission, though he didn't get specific, and how the mayor needed to have "reason" and not "power," though he didn't clearly explain what he meant. When he finished, the commission moved on to other matters. Reboredo slumped into his chair and waited for the end to arrive.
For about an hour commissioners had been listening to arguments from a series of competing bidders who wanted to be the county's travel agent. Dade officials spend almost two million dollars per year on air travel, and the contract could be a lucrative one, though the amount is unclear. As the debate bogged down in a numbingly tangled mess, Commissioner Burke rose from his seat and decided to stretch his legs.
"That's impressive," Burke said, having settled into a seat toward the rear of the gallery. He nodded toward the front of the room and left the impression he was referring to the travel-agent debate being conducted by various lobbyists.
"No," he corrected, and pointed to the twelve-foot-wide television screen high above the commissioners' heads. The screen carries a much enlarged version of the televised commission proceedings carried by all Dade cable companies. "I meant the picture," Burke explained. "It's very clear."
He stared at it a while longer. "I wonder why they don't make the picture wider so it would fill the whole screen," he mused. He continued gazing. "It all looks so very different from back here," he said dreamily before finally getting up and walking back toward the dais.
Dazed and deadlocked, the commission was unable to select a travel agent, and so put off the matter until September. Teele then adjourned the meeting, wished his colleagues a "happy and safe summer vacation," and began packing his bags. His assessment of the unprecedented session: "As long as the commission is awake and smiling, we have a chance."
Muttering to themselves, the others headed for the door.
Kaplan's assessment: The entire affair was a "clusterfuck.