North Bay Village boasts a long tradition of colorful characters, controversy, and power grabs. In the Sixties the small community on Biscayne Bay was a favorite meeting place for organized-crime figures. In the Eighties its police department was regarded as a haven for rogue cops even before three of its members were convicted of selling protection to an FBI agent posing as a drug smuggler. Make no mistake, North Bay Village has earned its reputation for civic corruption and political shenanigans.
Even so, the town's current campaign season appears to be one for the record books. The November 7 municipal election so far has produced a developer-turned-reform-party boss, allegations on both sides of influence peddling, a dirty-tricks campaign intended to divide the city's Hispanic voters, and a mysterious mass mailer. And there are still five days to go.
This is the last political stronghold, says Al Coletta, looking out over the town of North Bay Village from the fifth floor of the Bayshore Yacht and Tennis Club condominium. Like the communities of Bay Harbor Islands and Bal Harbour to the north, North Bay Village is an invention of South Florida's post-World War II building boom. Incorporated in 1945, the predominantly middle- and working-class city of roughly 5600 residents is composed of three manmade islands located between Miami and Miami Beach and linked by a milelong stretch of the 79th Street (or Kennedy) Causeway.
By stronghold Coletta means the kind of town where, politically speaking, anything goes, from electoral trickery to questionably cozy relationships between city commissioners and developers. It's not like Miami Beach, laments Coletta. The politicians here can get away with things because no one's really watching.
This might strike some local observers as ironic commentary coming from Coletta, one of North Bay Village's most established political players -- a landlord and developer who owns numerous local residential and commercial properties, including the vacant penthouse and all the first-floor retail space at the Bayshore Yacht and Tennis Club. But Coletta says he's sincere in his desire to change North Bay Village for the better. And he's got the candidates to prove it.
Every two years North Bay Village holds a municipal election to fill the mayor's office and four commission seats, including that of vice mayor. This year Coletta is promoting candidates in three of the city's five contests. He's backing Bob Dugger in the race to represent upscale North Bay Island, Alfredo Osuna in the Harbor Island campaign, and William Stafford for re-election as the commissioner at large.
Coletta makes no secret of his role in the campaigns of Dugger, Osuna, and Stafford, or of the fact that the candidates essentially are running as a slate. In fact he openly refers to them as my candidates. Promotional materials for the group include a reproduction of the famous Uncle Sam recruiting poster with the inscription Come Join the Team. The three share the same campaign headquarters, a corner storefront owned by Coletta and located on the Bayshore Yacht and Tennis Club's first floor. The developer claims to contribute no actual money to the campaigns. He says he's donating the space, not to mention his time and energy, to the candidates because he wants to see a city commission that will give something back to the people for a change.
Vice Mayor Eric Isicoff, running for re-election against Bob Dugger, scoffs at that suggestion. He believes the developer's civic interest is spurred by his long-standing desire to open a nightclub in the yacht and tennis club's penthouse. Coletta owns it but still needs the space rezoned for commercial use. Last year he twice petitioned the city commission for the zoning change. The commission, citing the rights of residents who live in the building, twice refused. A different commission might yield a different verdict, one in the developer's favor. As far as Al Coletta is concerned, says Isicoff, this election is about Al Coletta.
Not so, counters Coletta. The root of the city's problems, he maintains, is that developers -- other developers, richer developers -- get everything they want from the current commission. If the building and zoning board doesn't do what the developers want, they can go to the commission and jam it through, he contends. Dugger agrees, citing the commission's recent approval of a $50 million condominium project on Harbor Island, directly across from the yacht and tennis club. The plans were incomplete, complains Dugger. There were no drainage plans, no provisions for lighting. The commission approved the plans anyway.
The Team would change all that, promises Coletta. We want to see this kept as a village, with responsible building, keeping to the codes. I want to see our causeway look like Bal Harbour, says the developer, evoking the manicured medians and palm-lined streets of that upscale and meticulously managed enclave.
North Bay Village and its causeway, though, have a rich history all their own, one that continues to shape the city's Zeitgeist. In the Sixties the town was South Florida's little New York. Its main drag featured an assortment of clubs and restaurants, including the landmark The Place for Steak, which has since closed. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (who himself owned a restaurant on the causeway) were a regular part of the city's tourist season. So were members of some of the nation's most distinguished crime families.
On Halloween night in 1967, a connected thug named Thomas Altamura -- the Enforcer to his business associates and police -- stood in the foyer at The Place for the Steak waiting for his usual table. Anthony Big Tony Esperti, a member of a rival organization, walked into the restaurant and canceled Mr. Altamura's plans for the evening. Actually he canceled Mr. Altamura. With a bullet to the head. Newspapers speculated the incident had something to do with dividing up the action in North Bay Village.
The mob eventually left town, but the ethnic rifts, turf wars, and palace intrigue that defined those days endure in the city's political scene. Recent elections have produced some curious and disturbing episodes. In 1992 Albert Sakharoff, an insurance agent, was forced to withdraw from the mayor's race owing to anonymous threats of violence, leaving incumbent Mayor Paul Vogel free to run unopposed for the fourth consecutive time. (Vogel finally stepped down in 1998, when term limits were instituted.)
In this year's election, anonymous threats have been replaced by anonymous mailings. Early in September residents of the town received a letter in the mail warning potential voters of a situation on [sic] our upcoming election. The letter, which read like a ransom note hastily assembled by a dyslexic, accused Coletta of wanting to open not just a nightclub but a striper [sic] nightclub on our peaceful city. It also charged the developer with using the recently formed Latin League of North Bay Village to achieve his evil purposes. The letter closed with the ominous-sounding question: Who is this man, Mr. Coletta? It was signed Roman Perdomo.
A few weeks later, a second letter circulated, calling Coletta the extortionist of North Bay Village. It too was signed Roman Perdomo.
What's so anonymous about two signed letters? The fact there doesn't appear to be any such person as Roman Perdomo. At least not in North Bay Village, despite the inclusive references to our city and our election. And not anywhere else for that matter. Coletta went looking for him. Roman Perdomo? I found one in South Beach. I rang the bell, and this little old fuckin' guy comes out, he laughs. He didn't know anything about anything.
Nevertheless the letters have had an impact. Armand Abecassis, a candidate in the Treasure Island commission race, left The Team after being named in the letter under the category of Coletta puppets.
As for the charge Coletta is using the Latin League? The developer does have an appreciation for the role ethnic politics have historically played in North Bay Village, in particular the advantage once enjoyed by Jewish candidates. I used to tell people: You got a cat named Cohen? Leave him home, and I'll get him elected.' Coletta, though, says those days are over.
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Last year he and Rachel Dugger -- candidate Bob Dugger's Cuban-born wife -- founded the Latin League, a grassroots organization ostensibly designed to encourage Hispanic participation in community affairs by increasing the number of Hispanics on citizen advisory boards and in local civic organizations. Coletta and Dugger deny that the league has anything to do with the upcoming election or with Bob Dugger's candidacy.
What the Latin League is doing is joining the city together, emphasizes Rachel Dugger, who characterizes ethnic relations in North Bay Village as strained. Before moving to North Bay Village, I lived in Kendall and never thought of myself as a Latin, she explains. Here they put you on the defensive. The league has sponsored social events and a voter-registration drive targeted at the city's Hispanic residents, who now make up an estimated 50 to 66 percent of North Bay Village's population and account for a third of its voters.
Eric Isicoff, who claims he's been publicly (and wrongly) labeled by the group as anti-Hispanic, says Rachel Dugger's official line regarding the Latin League's mission is nothing but a smoke screen. She's decided to get involved in a political action committee to further her and her husband's political interests, he asserts. The Latin League exists to get the Hispanic vote riled up.
Gabrielle Nash-Tessler, a perennial candidate in North Bay Village elections over the past decade (she's running again this year), is inclined to agree. With everyone. Politics in North Bay Village aren't dirty, she says in her squeaky French accent. They're filthy. Nevertheless Nash-Tessler remains optimistic about the city's future. This election, she volunteers with appropriate civic pride, is the most democratic election North Bay Village has ever had.