Urban Oasis
Jonathan Postal

Urban Oasis

No one passes through Biscayne Park on their way to another destination. Shaped like an isosceles triangle, the placid village just north of Miami Shores is hemmed in by the Biscayne Canal on the west and FEC railroad tracks on the east. It can be hard to find even if you're looking for it. Most people don't. But for the few outsiders who do wander into the tiny municipality, city fathers have posted a welcome sign on the main drag, Griffing Boulevard. It reads: "Don't even think about speeding."

The sign is funny, sort of, until you see the kids playing alongside the road, and the adults out for a stroll, and the families gathered in one of seventeen city parks. When you see all that, then you realize a car going 50, or even 40, miles per hour would be dramatically out of place under the leafy bowers of Biscayne Park. Or until you see the police cars parked on corners and realize that being out of place could earn you a quick ticket.

The Village of Biscayne Park has been incorporated since 1933. North Miami and Miami Shores have grown up around it, but urban development never managed to invade the Park, as the place is known to residents. With the exception of an Episcopal church, a recreation center, and the 1934 log-cabin building that houses municipal offices and the police department, the village is entirely residential, filled with midsize homes built in various styles. Grand old trees shade sizable yards, and the broad grassy medians are lined with oaks. Over the years, the town has taken on the somnolent character of a well-lived-in home. Even the sunshine seems drowsy as it wafts down through the fronds and branches of the Park's ubiquitous green canopy.

Some 3500 people live here, about the same as the number of students enrolled at North Miami Senior High School. Most of the residents are Anglo or Hispanic, and most households are comfortably middle- and upper-middle-class.

Park inhabitants take pride in their village, and most precede any statement about the place with a declaration of residence, as in: "I've lived in the Park for 35 years and I've never seen it so good/bad/indifferent." People here also keep a close eye on their elected officials (four village commissioners and a mayor), and word of any perceived malfeasance travels fast. Never was this more in evidence than last year, when a group of residents began to question the incumbent commission and mayor. The rumor mill kicked into gear and in an election this past December, the mayor and two commissioners were ousted.

Roy McDade, a Park resident of 30 years, got things rolling in late summer of 2003 with the creation of the Village of Biscayne Park Homeowners Committee. McDade, an intense, 59-year-old mortgage broker, has drawn a laserlike bead on the Park's diminutive government (35 full-time employees and roughly 25 part-timers). In McDade's opinion, village officials are irresponsible, maybe incompetent, and maybe worse.

Prior to the December election, McDade and the other Homeowners Committee organizers passed out flyers detailing their gripes with the village commission. They pointed to increased government budgets, and what they believed was a lack of fiscal responsibility and general unresponsiveness to the public. An estimated 150 people showed up for their first Homeowners Committee meeting.

The committee decided to back a slate of three candidates to challenge commission incumbents. Their platform: change in the village's government generally, and specifically, removal of two village officials -- police Chief Ronald Gotlin and code-enforcement officer Sira Ramos. The committee also created a Website (www.bphomeowners.com) where village residents could kvetch on message boards. Before long the site was filled with contradictory complaints about the police department (either too much police presence or too little) and a flood of critical comments about Ramos.

Apparently some residents felt that Ramos was selective in the way she enforced city codes. Others said she had a bad attitude and was combative with residents. Gotlin, a square-jawed, twenty-year veteran of Biscayne Park's police force, was on the receiving end of the committee's criticism because, according to McDade, the police were deficient in making their presence felt in the community. (The department employs ten full-time officers and another twenty-two part-time support personnel.) McDade also criticizes Gotlin's $72,000 salary.

Gotlin says he's familiar with political skirmishing but doesn't know how he ended up being a target of what he calls a personal smear campaign. He says he was the subject of several McDade tirades at commission meetings, especially after an incident in 2000 when McDade allegedly pulled out a handgun as a neighbor's Rottweiler ran toward him, his wife, and their two dogs. No charges were filed, but Chief Gotlin warned McDade not to display his weapon "in the absence of a credible threat." Otherwise he'd be charged with reckless display of a firearm. McDade claims he never had a gun and that his motivation for advocating change in Biscayne Park, including Chief Gotlin's termination, has everything to do with the good of the community and nothing to do with personal vendettas.

Park resident Steve Bernard (fifteen years) may be neutral in the battle between McDade and Gotlin, but he understands how something like that could erupt. "I think it's such a small town that when any issue comes up, people get really excited about it," he says. "And say what you will about the Homeowners Committee -- I don't agree with a lot of what they say -- but they've really gotten people involved."

Involved enough that all three committee-backed candidates -- Ron Coyle, Ted Walker, and John Hornbuckle -- won seats on the village commission. The newly reconstituted body then voted in Walker as mayor. (Largely a ceremonial position, the mayor has no special powers. Biscayne Park operates without a city manager; each commissioner administers a different area of government.) A resounding triumph for the Homeowners Committee? Not exactly. Four short months after the election, many residents have done an about-face. Now there is talk in the Park about removing Walker and Hornbuckle from office. Their misdeed? They agreed to let Chief Gotlin, who tendered his resignation in January, stay on until a replacement is hired. And they've decided to investigate complaints against code-enforcement officer Ramos instead of summarily firing her. Walker calls it due process. Others call it betrayal.

"I worked vigorously to elect Ted Walker, and he said [replacing Gotlin] was his first priority," complains Homeowners Committee member Joann Parker (45 years). "Somehow, after he got elected, he wound up on the chief's side. I think he'll let the chief stay as long as the chief wants to stay."

Mayor Walker, who produces fireworks shows for a living, is like Biscayne Park's welcome sign -- funny in a homespun kind of way, but with an undercurrent of dead-serious protectiveness when it comes to the community. His Southern drawl, a product of his Old Miami roots, lends him a patina of folksy wisdom. "I had talked a little bit about building bus shelters for the kids who have to wait for school buses," he says by way of illustrating how politics works in the Park. "I thought it would be nice for them to have a little shelter to wait in, and also if people were taking walks during the day and it got too hot, maybe they could kind of sit down and rest in the shelters too. Well, word got out that the mayor wants to run all kinds of big, smoky Metro buses right through Biscayne Park. Now, I did say the word 'bus.' Anyway, that's how rumors get around. You might be able to figure out the truth if you could figure out the one word that's true in the rumor."

Walker has become Gotlin's unlikely ally, and today lauds the police department. He says his view of the chief began to change as he got to know him better. Lately he's had to defend Gotlin against hearsay regarding a more recent incident involving Roy McDade. Last month village police arrested McDade and charged him with aggravated battery, two counts of resisting an officer with violence, and two counts of battery on a police officer -- all felonies. McDade refuses to discuss the pending case, but the rumor mill has the chief harassing him for his political opposition. Police records, though, support the chief's side of the story.

Summoned to McDade's house after his wife called 911, officers encountered a nasty scene. Both McDades were cut and bruised. They blamed each other. As police tried to question them, Roy angrily ordered them off his property before punching and shoving them, according to police reports.

Mayor Walker says there's no truth to the scuttlebutt that Gotlin sent his officers after McDade or anyone else. "Targeting of anybody is out of the question," Walker insists.

For his part, Gotlin says he offered his resignation in January in order to preempt what he assumed was the inevitable. The three new commissioners had vowed to fire him, so he decided he'd rather go out on his own terms. But now, with two of those three commissioners seeing things differently, Gotlin wishes he hadn't been so hasty. He'd like to stick around. "I've had opportunities to work in other places and I've never thought of anywhere other than Biscayne Park," he says. "It's my second home. I probably know half the residents by their first name. "


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