Since his election on November 21, 2006, Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has cast himself as the do-gooder reformer on the commission dais.
He sponsored legislation that requires outgoing city commissioners to seek approval from their colleagues when doling out last minute bonuses to their staff. He also authored the city’s disclosure law, which requires people who are paid by city vendors or developers to disclose that fact when they appear before the city commission. Then there is the memo he authored last year detailing a conversation with former City Manager Joe Arriola, alleging Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones ordered the developer of the controversial Mercy Hospital condo project to hire two of her close friends in exchange for her vote.
But Sarnoff may want to keep closer tabs on the questionable dealings of some of his closest supporters. Consider the actions of the commissioner’s Senior Staff Liaison Ryan Alexander, who circumvented the city’s procurement rules by hiring his own company to install a fence at a Coconut Grove park.
A Grove resident, Alexander is one of Sarnoff’s closest allies, having known the commissioner since the Nineties, when the pair founded the Center Grove Neighborhood Association. In 2006 and last year, Alexander gave $1500 to his friend’s political campaigns. He is also the owner of Berimbau Investments, which last July put up a wrought-iron black fence with gates at a small city-owned park between Margaret Street and Oak Avenue in Coconut Grove.
According to an invoice – written on Berimbau Investments letterhead – Alexander submitted to the city’s Park and Recreation Department this past November, the commissioner’s aide sought payment for $14,500. In order to get paid, Alexander also provided two quotes for $26,536 and $24,638 from Bachiller Iron Works, a Miami-based fence installation company. He obtained the quotes on October 15 and 25 of last year – almost four months after he had already completed the job.
During a recent interview, Sarnoff said Alexander, who is not authorized to make purchases on behalf of the city’s park and recreation department, made a mistake and will not be getting paid for the fence.
“Ryan is a get-things-done-kind-of-guy,” Sarnoff said. “He took it upon himself to do a project that I wanted to get done.”
Sarnoff said he did not know Alexander decided to put up the fence without going through the proper channels. “He went too far too fast,” Sarnoff admitted. “He expended his own money and unfortunately he won’t be compensated for it.”
Alexander insists he did nothing wrong. "This issue was languishing on the city's desk for two years," he said. "At the time I was not very familiar with the city's procurement process. Now I am."
This is not the first time Sarnoff has had a conflict of interest problem in his office. This past September 11, he gave the Coconut Grove Urban Empowerment Corporation a $167,000 grant from his commission district’s community development funds. At the time, the nonprofit agency listed Sarnoff’s Coconut Grove Community Liaison Yvonne McDonald as its president. McDonald contributed $100 to Sarnoff’s reelection campaign and served with him on the Coconut Grove Village Council.
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This past January 10, the city commission rescinded the $167,000 allocation to Urban Empowerment because McDonald’s involvement with the group violated conflict of interest rules established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided the funding. “When I made the allocation I was not aware that there was a conflict,” Sarnoff explained.
Then there is Sarnoff’s campaign manager Wilbur Jackson, who is employed as a Miami firefighter and as the executive assistant to the president of Miami Association of Firefighters. Apparently, Jackson found enough free time from his two demanding jobs to run Sarnoff’s campaign from April 10, 2007, the day Sarnoff qualified, to election day this past November 6.
According to state incorporation records, Jackson formed Southeast Political & Campaign Consulting Inc. on February 26, 2007. Sarnoff’s reelection campaign paid Jackson’s company $271,873.76 to do everything from producing television commercials to mailing out campaign literature to election day logistics. The amount paid to Southeast Political is $91,787 more than the entire amount Sarnoff spent in his first run for commissioner in 2006, when he faced an incumbent who raised twice as much money as he did. Last year, Sarnoff only faced marginal opposition from a socialist candidate and a communist contender.
So did Jackson obtain permission from City Manager Pete Hernandez to have outside employment doing political activities? Jackson did not return a phone call seeking comment. According to Sarnoff: “As far as I know yes he did.” Francisco Alvarado