Welcome to Indian Creek Village.
At nine o'clock sharp on Wednesday, February 24, Norman Braman strolled into Indian Creek Village's teensy town hall to address his esteemed council. In an unprompted, five-minute soliloquy, the millionaire auto salesman paid homage to the ultra-exclusive isle on which he had settled eighteen months ago. The crown jewel of the Atlantic, he insisted. Breathtakingly scenic, quiet, and best of all, protected by a truly exemplary police department.
Braman was a newcomer, of course, but he no doubt had a point. Their splendid kingdom, just west of Surfside, sparkled this morning. The rolling green of the golf course, the five varieties of palm trees, the verdant lawns A all sipped at the winter sun like an impeccably prepared cocktail. Beyond the sturdy bulkhead, the emerald wavelets of Biscayne Bay kissed at the sky. As Braman spoke, the council, crowded around a table only slightly too large for a four-hand game of bridge, positively beamed. Even the purple bougainvillea, visible across the ninth fairway, seemed to nod agreement in the obedient breeze.
There was this little matter of the attack dogs living next door. But Braman was confident his neighbor, the Saudi prince, would resolve the issue with the council members, who are, after all, residents as well. And in fact, Braman had barely turned to go and already the village attorney had been dispatched to draw up an attack-dog ordinance. So, too, the council members boldly called for stricter enforcement of an ordinance limiting the hours construction labor would be allowed on the island.
If only Braman had stuck around for agenda item number nine, an independent review of Indian Creek's fourteen-man police force.
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The report, freshly inked after six months of investigation, described the department as "out of control," a fiefdom plagued by cronyism and corruption, ruled by an incompetent chief and a devious sergeant, both of whom faced possible criminal charges.
Council members had scarcely browsed part one of the 38-page overview, and already they knew it spelled trouble for their boys in blue, long the object of civic pride in an otherwise reclusive 31-home enclave. Worse still, the report meant scandal. Had they not paid millions of dollars to avoid just such headaches? Impertinent reporters, germ-breeding microphones, and those nasty, blinding flashbulbs. The council was not pleased.
"The village is going to be agog over this thing, so let's get to it," said councilman Ken Fisher, a computer magnate.
"Yes, when are we going to meet?" demanded Anne McDougal, a magazine editor who had married the owner of Culligan Water Conditioning, Inc. "The report certainly does make for some interesting reading."
This prickly comment she aimed at Donald LeBrun, the village's jittery, red-faced manager. LeBrun had ordered the review, yet for months dismissed it as the byproduct of disgruntled employees. Though half his officers now talked of suing the village, though a stream of state and federal agencies had initiated probes of the department, though the FBI had arrested one of his sergeants on a narcotics charge, LeBrun still valiantly refused to concede that something had gone wrong on his watch as manager. "Let's not rush this thing," he sputtered at last.
Sensing an opening, the chief of police rose to defend himself. A young man with designer spectacles and mousse-stiffened hair, he was immediately shouted down.
"I say we meet in two days," cried McDougal, who was eager to take action on the report's numerous recommendations.
"Ohhh, now, there's an awful lot of work to be done here," LeBrun said, dread-hesitant.
"We've waited six months," McDougal pressed.
"I don't care," LeBrun shot back. The gold pen in his right hand quivered, and his face, now crimson, assumed the cast of a courtier slipping, irretrievably, out of royal favor.
"Listen, nobody's attacking you, Don," said Mayor Kenneth Bagwell, the Texas oilman. "Let's slow down here. We don't want to leave ourselves open to litigation."
On this, at least, they could all agree.
After a bit more wrangling, they set a date to reconvene, and the meeting dispersed. One by one the elegant cars parked outside village hall glided off, until only the mayor and LeBrun remained. Together they walked across the street to the driveway of Bagwell's mansion, where the pair huddled to discuss their dilemma in blissful ignorance of Florida's Sunshine Law.
The man who sparked the dilemma, meanwhile, was working the loneliest police post in Dade County. For seven months Officer Ronny Kay has been under orders from the Village of Indian Creek to remain in his North Miami Beach home. His shift: nine to five weekdays. His lone duty: to call the station three times a day. Punishment for leaving his post: termination.
"I was going nuts for the first few months," says Kay, a 54-year-old former New York City cop. "Then I started fixing up the place to keep busy. Officially I'm on administrative leave. What it boils down to is house arrest." Paid house arrest. Kay earns $12.86 an hour, double time for holidays. He says he's requested a shift change A one that would allow him to go to the bank, for instance, or to get his muffler fixed A but has been turned down. So he pads around his home these days, looking for things to fix.
That's been the routine since Kay visited LeBrun, back in July of last year, to complain about Police Chief Rudy Piedra. Kay had been delegated by a group of younger officers to speak with the village manager. He presented LeBrun with a satchel of papers A personal notes, copies of the police logbook, memos, invoices A that documented the chief's alleged misdeeds.
It was not the first time the department's integrity had been questioned. Indeed, within the broader police community, Indian Creek officers have long been considered "butlers with badges," serving at the beck and call of the residents whose hefty property taxes pay their salaries. The cops' primary function is to keep undesirables off the 300-acre island. Three officers work a shift, one at the entry bridge, another cruising the village's single street, and the third circling the island in a boat. With no real police work to be done, and minimal financial benefits, few talented police cadets apply with Indian Creek.
State authorities nearly decertified the department during the mid-Eighties for administration violations that included failing to re-train officers. One of Lebrun's first moves as village manager was the recruitment, in 1989, of Lewis Mertz, a retired captain from Coral Gables, to whip the place into shape. Mertz stayed all of six months before taking a position in Key West. Unable to attract a more qualified candidate for the chief's job, LeBrun promoted Rudy Piedra, a 27-year-old sergeant who had never worked at another department.
Initially Piedra showed signs of promise. But he soon began to stock the department with friends, most of them, like him, young Latins. "I'd come to him with an application on someone who was clearly unqualified and he'd say, 'This guy's okay. I know him,'" recalls Robert Seitz, an officer who conducted background checks for Piedra before being fired in 1990. "He told me point-blank that he wouldn't hire black or female officers."
In 1991, for example, Piedra hired Jose Martinez, an applicant who had admitted to using drugs, flunked a polygraph, and been deemed "marginal" by a psychological profiling firm. He then allowed Martinez to work as a full-time officer while still a trainee.
Piedra was generous and personable to those he trusted, most notably Sgt. Alfredo Cerda, with whom he had played baseball at Miami Lakes High School. Despite a background that included two misdemeanor arrests, the hot-tempered Cerda A who would come to be known as "the terminator" by his subordinates A soon became Piedra's major-domo.
As the chief and Cerda settled into their roles, abuses of power became more blatant and more frequent. Even friends took note. A few of the more idealistic officers also took offense. "He just didn't care about good police work, about protecting the residents," says Camilo Hernandez, a high school pal whom Piedra recruited to join the department in the summer of 1990. "He had the feeling no one could touch him."
Hernandez, who still works in Indian Creek, says the chief would routinely deploy on-duty officers to play softball with him, Hernandez included. Other cops would brag about on-duty fishing expeditions. Piedra himself could occasionally be seen enjoying a round of golf at the island's exclusive country club. And his favoritism grew more pronounced. Certain cops would call in sick, or report late to work repeatedly, with no punishment. Others, such as Ronny Kay, whom Piedra perceived as a threat, would be reprimanded for seemingly picayune violations, such as failing to report a broken chair.
Officers were forbidden from issuing traffic tickets to residents, and eventually the chief took their ticket books altogether. Piedra's cronies also earned big money as off-duty security guards for Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz A despite a village ordinance forbidding the practice. Hernandez says Sergeant Cerda even tried to bribe him to keep him quiet about the work. Worried that he would be implicated in the misconduct, Hernandez began documenting what he saw.
Morale dipped as 1991 turned to 1992, and the cramped police station attached to the island's guardhouse fell into such disrepair that disgusted patrolmen calledin officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Admin-istration, who found numerous violations.
The low point came in May of last year, when Martinez started a shoving match with a fellow officer, Lewis Mertz, Jr., son of the former chief. Mertz was suspended without pay and eventually resigned. Martinez, a trainee, received no punishment. "We could see that anyone who didn't fall in with the chief was going to get it," Hernandez says.
In early July, half a dozen officers held a hurried meeting during a shift change and elected Kay to visit the village manager. LeBrun urged Kay to present him any evidence of wrongdoing. The two men sifted through documents for four hours on July 7, and LeBrun vowed to look into the allegations. A few days later the manager took action A he turned over the material to Chief Piedra.
"The chief went nuts," Kay recalls. "He called all the guys in one by one and threatened to fire them. We had figured LeBrun was going to conduct his own investigation, not report back to the chief."
Eventually LeBrun did solicit an independent review, on the advice of his labor attorney. In doing so, he characterized disgruntled subordinates as the department's major problem. The investigative team, headed by North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger, quickly realized how divided the police force had become. Berger was told about Kay's disruptive role, as well as Cerda's aggressive nature, and Berger recommended that Kay be placed on administrative leave to avoid a potential donnybrook.
Two months later Cerda reportedly provoked a fight with one of Kay's comrades, a beefy martial-arts expert named Rudy Vidal. The scrap grew so violent that the chief radioed for emergency assistance.
"Boys will be boys," LeBrun chirped to reporters, anxious to downplay the fracas.
The chief immediately banished Vidal from the island, and two weeks later fired him. Cerda, who filed criminal charges against Vidal for battery, ostensibly was suspended as well, and forbidden from dressing in his police uniform. But he was back in uniform the next week, standing beside the chief at the graduation of police academy cadet Jose Martinez.
Had she known what lay in store, Marylou Woods says she never would have agreed to delve into Indian Creek Village. But Woods, a lieutenant with the Miami Police Department, figured helping Berger compile his review would take a month, tops. "We were asked to make some adminstrative suggestions," she says. "Basic stuff like where the fire extinguishers should be placed."
It was immediately apparent that fire extinguisher placement was not the foremost issue in Indian Creek. "Once we got in there, it became obvious the chief was the problem, not disgruntled officers," Woods says. "I looked over LeBrun's notes and I thought, This guy has buffaloed me. I remember telling Berger, 'Hey, I think we've been led in the wrong direction here.'"
Kay and his allies felt the same way. Skeptical of LeBrun's desire to clean up the corruption, a few were even accusing the village manager of complicity with the chief. Rather than wait for Berger's "administrative" review, they took their case to a number of outside agencies: the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Dade State Attorney's Office.
On July 27, 1992, Kay and three other officers met with George Alonso, an investigator for the State Attorney's Office. While Kay's meeting with LeBrun had centered on Piedra's supposed incompetence, he presented to Alonso documents suggesting that the chief was guilty of tax evasion and insurance fraud. That evidence included an invoice showing that the chief helped Cerda avoid paying sales tax on more than $500 worth of home-security equipment by shopping for the merchandise in uniform and using the city's tax-exempt identification number. The officers alleged that the chief had also sold his cellular phone to an acquintance, then reported it stolen 90 minutes later. The FBI also seemed intrigued by the officers' testimony, though for reasons that would only later become clear.
This left Chief Berger and Lieutenant Woods in what amounted to an investigative logjam, third in a line of agencies probing the department. Rather than jeopardize potential criminal cases, they bided their time. In October the FBI arrested Francisco Fuentes, a patrolman with the department, for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Piedra had hired Fuentes a year earlier A despite a background of traffic violations that included suspensions of his driving privileges A and put him in charge of applicant background investigations. Ronny Kay claims he and another officer both warned Piedra that Fuentes was allegedly involved with drugs, but to no avail. Only after the stunning arrest of Fuentes, who is scheduled to stand trial April 19, did Berger's team begin working in earnest.
By this time the department had become a veritable battleground. The chief lashed out at his enemies for their role in the perceived mutiny, filling their personal files with reprimands. The disgruntled officers countered by sending a letter to village council members, likening the chief to Fidel Castro and requesting an audience with the council. (They were denied.) One anonymous jokester posted a cartoon on the station bulletin board announcing Manuel Noriega and deposed Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates as Piedra's potential successors.
Camilo Hernandez says he grew worried about his physical well-being in August, after Cerda assigned him to work marine patrol under a broiling sun, without food or water for seven hours. The next day Hernandez was diagnosed as suffering from heat exhaustion. The day after that he retained an attorney.
By December Hernandez was the only member of Kay's clique still in uniform. Rudy Vidal had been fired, Kay assigned to his house, and Richard Manser, a fourth complainant, had been suspended for sleeping on duty A an allegation detailed by the chief in a five-page memo.
At an evidentiary hearing held before LeBrun in late January, Manser denied any misconduct and argued that the chief had fabricated the claim in retaliation. Piedra's statement did little to discredit this impression. He steadfastly refused to provide his testimony under oath, and contradicted his own written account of the incident several times. He neglected to mention, for instance, that his friend Cerda had been with him when they allegedly spotted Manser asleep.
Most embarrassing of all, Piedra, who also accused Manser of speeding, was asked if he knew the speed limit on the island's one road. His response: "I would have to go back to look at the memorandums."
The rancor carried over to the lawyers in the room A village labor attorney James Crossland and Manser's counsel, Greg Ross A who often sounded ready to come to blows. "This is not some chickenshit criminal law proceeding!" Crossland bellowed at one point.
On February 2, 1993, LeBrun terminated Manser.
Three weeks later Chief Berger and Lieutenant Woods released their report. LeBrun, who had incessantly whined about the months spent preparing "that damn stupid little report," as he called it, could not have been pleased to read the final product. After reviewing hundreds of documents, and taking a dozen sworn statements, Berger backed everything Ronny Kay had told LeBrun six months earlier. And he urged the immediate dismissal of Piedra and Cerda.
Of the 70 administrative violations Berger enumerated, a few proved especially mortifying.
On November 15, 1992, Officer Miguel Mata showed up for work intoxicated. The chief spoke with Mata on the phone, gave him approval to remain at the station, and ordered another on-duty officer to care for his drunken colleague, who later vomited. But in his sworn statement to Berger, Piedra denied speaking to Mata. The chief was apparently unaware the conversation had been tape-recorded on a police line and that Berger had already heard the tape.
Piedra testified to Berger that he was unaware his men worked off-duty as security guards for the Saudi prince, though in at least two memos he acknowledged the practice. Based on interviews with former and current officers, the report noted that Sergeant Cerda "worked as coordinator for that employment and received untaxed, unreported cash income."
The chief admitted to hiding some pages of the police logbook, "to protect the city."
Jose Martinez, the chief's pal, admitted under oath that he once abandoned his post, then lied to cover up his actions. (As a result of Berger's report, LeBrun fired Martinez. Mata is still on active duty.)
The investigators also concluded that the chief had helped Cerda avoid paying taxes on his home-alarm equipment, and sold his cellular phone, then reported it stolen. Their report also implied that Piedra might be involved in far more serious insurance fraud. The chief, they discovered, had a history of submitting big-ticket burglary reports from his boat and residence, including a 1991 incident which claimed losses of more than $18,000, $2800 of that in cash. When asked under oath if he had filed any burglary reports, Piedra responded, "No. I can tell you I feel this is irrelevant." The report went on to state ominously: "Piedra lives in a home assessed in 1991 at $494,724, with [annual] taxes of $12,786.95. His annual salary at Indian Creek Village Police Department is under $40,000."
The accusations went on and on. "The more we looked, the deeper we got sucked in," says investigator Marylou Woods. "These guys are just a disgrace to any police uniform. And remember, this was just an administrative review. We didn't even push the criminal stuff."
Piedra and Cerda continue to deny all wrongdoing. They insist the report is the result of biased investigators and false statements. More recently they have taken to accusing Berger, a chief widely respected for his integrity, of a conflict of interest. The conflict: an old girlfriend of Ronny Kay works as a dispatcher for the North Miami Beach Police Department.
On a final, curious, note, since the release of the report last month, the mayor and city manager of North Miami Beach have both begun receiving anonymous letters and phone calls alleging that, among other sins, Chief Berger is involved in an extramarital affair with Woods. "These are guys that apparently stop at nothing," laughs Woods. "It's really kind of pathetic. God only knows why they're still working."
God, of course, and the village manager, who receives $41,000 A plus a $1200 car allowance and insurance A to oversee Indian Creek.
The police department, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of LeBrun's $1.1 million annual budget, easily ranks as his largest responsibility. It might seem odd, then, that LeBrun commemorated the release of Berger's report by taking a week's vacation. And odder still that LeBrun returned in early March proclaiming that he had not yet finished reading the report.
But then, LeBrun is not without his quirks. Prone to mumbling nonsequiturs, the career bureaucrat has been known to present honored guests of his village with palm tree seedlings.
LeBrun, a native of Canada with a ninth-grade formal education, learned his trade in Coral Gables, where he spent 27 years. He started in 1960 as a deputy tax collector and worked his way up to city manager, only to resign in 1987 under a cloud of controversy. In May of that year, commissioners presented LeBrun with a lengthy list of grievances, and placed him on probation. Six months later he bid his $75,000 salary a teary farewell. "The city is poised on the brink of a major evolution. We need someone intellectually able to cope with that," Mayor George Corrigan observed at the time.
LeBrun did not leave the City Beautiful empty-handed. He was granted a pension of about $50,000 per year. Apparently unable to quench his thirst for municipal administration, he arrived in Indian Creek Village a year later.
Once again under fire, LeBrun's principal response to the investigative report has been to ply a kind of half-hearted damage control. "I wouldn't say our police department is out of control," he remarks. "There are areas of concern that need to be looked at, yes. But I'm not going to take every line of that report as gospel."
Ronny Kay can tell you that. The same week the report was released, he received a letter from the village manager accusing him of "disrupting the efficient operation of the police department" and "filing false allegations with the State Attorney's Office against Chief Piedra and myself." The letter also announced a hearing date, at which time LeBrun would decide whether to fire Kay for these transgressions. The manager has taken no action against Cerda or Piedra, noting that he will wait until the council meets again, on March 22.
LeBrun's actions have left North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger bemused. "I'm sure this is very embarrassing for the village," he says, "but the responsibility to take action falls to the manager. And let me tell you something: I didn't just walk in there and drop that report on his desk. I had many discussions with LeBrun throughout this investigation. I kept him abreast of the entire thing from day one. Unfortunately, sometimes people don't want to hear the truth."
In that, LeBrun is hardly alone.
Aside from a flash of discord at the last council meeting, there has been no voice of outrage in Indian Creek. To be sure, the report A or rumors about it A have made the rounds. But most villagers, whose contact with police officers consists of passing them at the gate and slipping them holiday bonuses, have remained mum. Better to limit the fallout. If nobody is talking about it, it's not a scandal.
Indeed, that might serve as a fitting epitaph for a community long accustomed to squirreling away its secrets.
There is the much-whispered-about story, for example, of a former police chief called Captain Pat. An unusually robust woman with a yen for deep-sea fishing, Pat was the daughter of a typical Indian Creek couple. Mother drove around the island in a golf cart, head wrapped in a black scarf. Father made millions.
Upon the death of her parents, Pat reportedly headed off somewhere A the speculation was Morocco A and returned to the island as a man. He supposedly spent the rest of his days on the island, a Hemingwayesque figure in a sailor's cap who, like the grizzled author, would eventually put a bullet through his head.
Whether this story is true or a product of the island's notorious rumor mill is not clear. But transsexual or no, Captain Pat was one heck of a cop, say those who remember him. "He used to roar all over the island in this big white Cadillac," recalls Jan Cowles, who built a home on the island in 1953. "If someone was speeding, he'd just pull them over and sort of tell them, 'Now, you know, we really don't do things like that around here, do we?' And he'd get them to the point where it was all very friendly and relaxed."
Cowles, heiress to the Look magazine fortune, remembers the village as a "a little bit of heaven" back then, a casual neighborhood where the aroma of a cookout signaled dusk, and no one bothered to lock doors or windows. She sees the current obsession with security A the fingerprint checks run on domestic help, the proposals to issue identity cards to servants A as a product of the age. "Too many people with too many guns," she sighs. Times change, even on Indian Creek.
"The style of the houses has changed, too," says Cowles. "We built comfortable, well-designed homes. Now you've got people coming in to capitalize on what was once upon a time a very quiet, refined place. Frankly, I don't know what Indian Creek is today."
Like other early settlers, Cowles clucks at the recent influx of highrollers, with their nouveau riche designs, though she admits selling her home to one of them. (German playboy Thomas Kramer paid $3.75 million this past April for her Bahamian mansion, and promptly razed the place.) "I suppose I'm the last of the Old Guard to leave," she says wistfully from her temporary home in New York City.
Her son Charlie, a New York art dealer, has also noticed the shift in attitude. "You'd think that place would be paradise. But everyone has their own idea of how to run the world now. They all want to march down to the little village hall and have their say. Everyone wants a different style streetlight, and the whole point is we don't need any streetlights!
"People fix on this stuff because they don't have anything else to do," he confides. "I remember a big controversy several years ago over who was going to be mayor, and it all came down to which way the [live-in] domestics were going to vote. They brought in a monitor all the way from Tallahassee to make sure all the servants were U.S. citizens. I myself walked in there to vote and they tried to disqualify me. They actually had copies of my voting record from New York sitting there."
Anne McDougal, who was elected to the council last year by a one-vote margin, agrees with Cowles. "Because we're such a tiny island, everything tends to get magnified out of proportion."
The current police fiasco is a good example, she says. In fact, she can't imagine why a reporter would want to squander his time on such a trifle. Her fellow residents apparently agree. Mayor Ken Bagwell declined to comment on the matter. So too Maria Floyd, wife of golfer Raymond Floyd and something of a civic activist on the island.
The underlying problem in Indian Creek, as Berger's report stresses, is that residents don't really need a full police force. Because of a mutual-aid clause, officers from Metro-Dade and nearby Surfside can respond to the few calls that do occur on the island. The village crime rate is officially zero, and nearly all the significant crimes perpetrated have been "inside jobs," thefts committed by house servants or other help.
More to the point, according to many current and former officers, residents don't really want a police force. They want uniformed men who can assure them of security and privacy, while at the same time overlooking any misdemeanor they may commit. "In a way, Piedra is the perfect chief for that department, because he's a puppet," says one officer who quit the department but still fears reprisals. "Here's a guy who reprimands his own officers for enforcing the law. Who takes away ticket books. Who probably couldn't even fill out an arrest form. That's exactly what that village wants."
Berger's report recommends that villagers hire a private security firm to man the bridge. That's not likely to happen. "They want their little man in the blue uniform and hat who will wave at them," notes investigator Woods. "And they've got the money to pay for it.
"The real danger," Woods adds, "is that you're giving that little man in the blue uniform arrest power and a gun."
Tromping across the empty lot opposite the Indian Creek Village Hall A a lot that will soon be transformed into a Parisian garden by French millionaires A attorney James Crossland did not look happy. A gentleman of bearlike shape and temperament, Crossland was made especially grumpy on this otherwise sunny morning by the two figures he was now approaching, a reporter and photographer, who had shown up for Ronny Kay's March 4 evidentiary hearing. "This is a purely administrative matter. You're not allowed in," Crossland snapped, and stalked off.
The lawyer's discomfort with the press was understandable. He was the fellow, after all, who had recommended to the city that Bill Berger investigate the department. As labor attorney it was now his role to defend the village from the battery of civil suits likely to be filed in the wake of Berger's scathing report. As part and parcel of that duty, it was his job to defend Chief Piedra. And no amount of legal obfuscation could obscure the moral compromise of such a role.
Inside the village hall, the tape-recorded proceedings turned predictably juvenile, with Crossland at one point mocking Kay's attorney, Greg Ross, mimicking his Brooklyn accent.
Time and again Crossland tried to establish that the documents Kay had gathered about the chief were improperly obtained. But his inquisition took on a hollow tone, given that the village manager himself admitted asking Kay to do so.
After an hour, Crossland ran out of questions. Kay turned to LeBrun. "This could have been resolved," he said, sounding genuinely hurt. "It didn't have to get to the point where it's costing a fortune for all sides. Do you think a job like mine, for $26,000 or $27,000 a year, is worth this? Do you realize I've been sitting home for the last eight months as a prisoner in my own home? It's not worth it."
Kay, dressed in his outdated leisure suit, then left the room, climbed into his truck, and drove off the island. (Two weeks later, he would be allowed to return to work, joining Piedra and Cerda, who remain on duty.)
Crossland and LeBrun barricaded themselves inside the tiny Village Hall to mull their next move, locking out the beautiful sun, the green green grass, the marvelous homes, and those citizens who might have hoped to enter the village's only public building.
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