Dressed in a fire-engine-red short-sleeve button-down shirt and matching slacks, George Symonette leans back in the barber chair where he has clipped hair for more than a decade. The 65-year-old's face tightens and his words come fast as he discusses city Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents Coconut Grove and many of Miami's wealthy bayfront communities.
"He doesn't want to make himself known to the real people, and he's trying to get all the black businesses out," says the goateed Symonette, who runs one of the few shops left on once-bustling Grand Avenue. "Around here, Sarnoff means 'signed off.'"
Whispers have circulated at city hall in recent weeks that the commissioner is contemplating a run for mayor in 2009, when Manny Diaz will have to step down. If Sarnoff is to achieve his goal, it's clear he must win back African-American voters like Symonette and others in the West Grove, where 80 percent of the population is black, mostly of West Indian origin, and 26 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level.
Sarnoff's credibility with the community took a major hit after he publicly disclosed a memo detailing an alleged conversation he had last May 8 with former City Manager Joe Arriola. Sarnoff wrote that Arriola told him that to win Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones's vote on two controversial condo projects, the developers had to hire two of her friends.
Arriola claims the conversation never happened. Spence-Jones, the city's only black commissioner, denies any wrongdoing. And well-known black leaders, including Liberty City activist Billy Hardemon and former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, have called the Anglo commish a "liar" and a "racist."
Perhaps as a way to establish a connection with the black community, Sarnoff unveiled on February 13 a three-point plan to ban assault rifles in the city. During a press conference, he was flanked by Miami Police Chief John Timoney, several deputy chiefs, and the wife and parents of Det. James Walker, a black officer killed by an assault-rifle-wielding perpetrator this past January 8.
As TV news cameras from seven local stations filmed, Sarnoff said Miami is under seige by gang members carrying machine guns and assault rifles. "Our police are outgunned and outmanned," he said. "These weapons are designed to kill with lethal force."
After the press conference, he refused to comment about his political future.
One person Sarnoff is unlikely to win over is Walter Parlins III, owner of Rustic Treasures, an African-themed coffee bar at 3670 Grand Ave., across the street from Symonette's shop. He says the commissioner — a lawyer whose practice is located in his house on nearby Shipping Avenue — hasn't helped black areas. "He's not making a strong effort to help sustain the businesses," Parlins says. "This man should be held accountable to this community."
The heavy-set, 42-year-old Archbishop Curley Notre Dame High School graduate operates Rustic Treasures with his 47-year-old wife Bonna. The two Grovites are also on the board of directors for the Coconut Grove Village West Island District Merchants Association. "Unlike Commissioner Sarnoff, I don't have the luxury of running a law firm from my house," Parlins says. "I have a grassroots business that is struggling to get people through the door."
It was at a 2006 candidates forum that Parlins first met Sarnoff, who was running against incumbent Linda Haskins. "He kept painting himself as this David versus Goliath," Parlins says. The next day, he invited Sarnoff for tea at his shop. "I wanted to brainstorm with him — you know, get inside his head.
"We made an appointment for him to come [to Rustic Treasures]," Parlins says. "He never showed up."
Then, a month after Sarnoff defeated Haskins on November 21, 2006, the merchant association held its Christmas party at Basil's in the Grove, a Caribbean restaurant at 3301 Grand Ave. "We invited Sarnoff and his staff," says Parlins, adding that only Yvonne McDonald, Sarnoff's sole black aide, showed up. "By 11:30 p.m., we knew he wasn't coming."
Basil's owner, Samir Nadkarni, a tall man with a bushy black beard who also lives in the Grove, confirms Parlins's account. He points out that Sarnoff spends a lot of time at trendy Green Street Café in the heart of the Grove's business district, but rarely visits predominantly black areas nearby. "He is not as available as I thought he would be," Nadkarni says. "He won't come here, yet he says he is a man of the people."
Nadkarni criticizes the commissioner for not cracking down on slumlords and crime. "My place has been broken into three times in the last six months," he says. "All Sarnoff has given me is lip service."
Timothy Williams, owner of Smokey's Fish Market at 3646 Grand Ave., says he hasn't met the commissioner. "He's never been in here," he says. "And I've been here four years."
Avoiding the Grove's black businesses is just one example of Sarnoff's insensitivity, Parlins claims. He cites a commission meeting this past September 11 as another instance. Bonna Parlins attended the hearing to find out why their coffee bar failed to receive a $10,000 grant from a $370,000 community development fund set aside for small businesses in the commissioner's district.
At the time, Rustic Treasures had hit rock bottom, the Parlinses admit. Four months earlier, the couple had been evicted from a location at 3700 Grand Ave. The owner of that property is Andy Parrish, a real estate investor who gave $250 to Sarnoff's 2006 political campaign.
Parrish says he notified Sarnoff he would go after the grant money if it was awarded to the Parlinses. "It was my fault they didn't get the grant," he says. "They promised they would leave without forcing me to get a lawyer and evict them. That didn't happen. So there was a lot of animosity."
The property owner has since forgiven the Parlinses' debt because of Bonna. "She works very hard," Parrish says. "But her husband wants to blame everyone for their problems."
During the hearing, Spence-Jones asked the city's interim community development director, Hector Mirable, if she could give Rustic Treasures the money from her district's community development funds. "I know they're doing wonderful work in the West Grove," she said.
That set off Sarnoff. He warned Spence-Jones that Parrish had won a judgment against Rustic Treasures, and that the grant money "would be subject to a right of seizure by the court" to pay back rent. "The landlord ... is well-known to this commission," Sarnoff said. "[He] gave her quite a bit of free rent, and then she overstayed her welcome. She had to be evicted."
Bonna Parlins says Sarnoff humiliated her and that Rustic Treasures did not owe Parrish any money. "Instead of sending out an aide to talk to me, he put out our dirty laundry in public," she says. "He was being very arrogant."
Sarnoff claims Spence-Jones had no business meddling in his district's affairs. "The West Grove is my issue and my problem," he says. As far as Rustic Treasures, Sarnoff explains, he didn't think it was appropriate to help a failing venture. "I'm very different from the way Spence-Jones operates."
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Walter Parlins says he wasn't looking for a handout. "If there are grants out there to help businesses like ours, then why wouldn't we take advantage of them?" he contends. "It is the American way."
Rustic Treasures has struggled because there is no foot traffic on Grand Avenue, Parlins says. "We've got crack dealers and drug addicts out here. People don't want to come inside your business with that stuff going on out here."
Bonna Parlins says Sarnoff doesn't appreciate the work she and her husband have put into their business. "I don't really want a beef with Sarnoff," she explains. "I only want him to respect people like us who are trying their hardest and who take pride in their shop."
Responds Sarnoff: "The West Grove is comfortable with my representation." And he accuses his detractors of unfairly playing the race card. "If you use [the claim of racism] like a disposable baggie, it becomes like the boy who cried wolf," he says. "It dilutes the purpose."