Cries of "Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay!" bellowed from tuxedoed revelers crammed inside a replica of Henry Flagler's luxurious Royal Palm Hotel. Jazz music wafted from one stage, Latin music from a second, rock from a third. Partiers stuffed with cote de boeuf bourguignon slammed champagne while they admired the turn-of-the-century costumes worn by their fellow celebrants. One woman dressed as Miami matriarch Julia Tuttle. A gentleman paraded around as railroad baron Flagler. Lots of men wore funny-looking bowler hats.
By the end of the night, as all of the 1040 people lucky enough to attend the Miami Centennial Ball grabbed their souvenirs and headed for their antique cars or authentic horse-drawn carriages, they gushed at the sheer spectacle of Miami's 100th birthday celebration. "It was a great party," declared Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw. "It was the first of these kinds of parties where people were saying they wanted to be there rather than they had to be there."
It was also yet another creative use of taxpayer money.
City of Miami officials spent 4500 public dollars on tickets to the birthday gala, held February 24 under an elaborately decorated tent pitched in a parking lot across from downtown's Dupont Plaza Hotel. The city purchased three tables of ten seats each, at a cost of $1500 per table, with the 30 tickets being distributed among all five city commissioners, the city manager, all six assistant city managers, and three other staffers -- plus a guest for each. Not one of those officials was asked to repay the city for the privilege of attending the sold-out party.
For many city staffers, the free tickets were no big deal. What's wrong with spending a measly $4500 so that a select group of municipal employees might attend a dazzling birthday party honoring the very city for which they work? The city supports Centennial '96 (the nonprofit group organizing the year-long celebration) in many ways -- free office space, computers, telephones, postage and more. Commissioner J.L. Plummer is a co-chairman of the organizing committee.
But this party was different, explains Amy Deutch, executive director of Centennial '96 and a city employee. A charity fundraiser for the restoration of Overtown's historic Lyric Theater and other local landmarks, it created unusually strong demand for the limited number of tickets. In fact, so many people were eager to pay (more than 1000 would-be partiers were turned away) that organizers upped ticket prices from an initial $150 to an eventual $1000 apiece. The combination of charity and fierce demand also forced the organizers to crack down on freeloaders. "A lot of people in this town are used to getting things for free," says Deutch. "We went out of our way to make sure no one got in for free."
Indeed, other public officials at the gala paid their own way. All ten seats at Sen. Bob Graham's $2500 table were purchased by the senator's Graham Companies. Coral Gables City Manager Jack Eads did not dip into his city's coffers for ticket money. Neither did West Miami Mayor Rebeca Sosa. Her impoverished city, she says, cannot afford to misspend even one cent. "The city [of West Miami] does not pay for things like that," she notes. "We are a very poor city. We even pay from our pockets for most things because the city doesn't have the money." (Sosa attended as a guest of her daughter's godfather, whom she says does not work for the City of Miami.)
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Miami City Commissioners Plummer, Willy Gort, and Mayor Steve Clark attended the ball. Commissioner Miller Dawkins did not, though he would not say what he did with his tickets. City Manager Cesar Odio couldn't make it because he was preoccupied with that day's Brothers to the Rescue crisis. Commissioner Joe Carollo attended the party, and like his commission peers, did not pay for his tickets. He assumed that the city had received free tickets in the first place. "It concerns me in that it was our event," he says. "Why should we have to pay for our own event?"
Chief Warshaw, a guest of the city, admits he was unsure of the rules governing the acceptance of his gift. "I thought about it when the tickets were offered to me," he recalls. "When I go to banquets around the city, I always pay for my guests. That is the policy citywide, I think. I guess [accepting a free ticket to the ball] is not playing by or is manipulating the rules, but the way I saw it, it was the city's centennial. A lot of money was raised by the people who work for the city. And it is a rarity that the city would buy anything [for the staff] that includes spouses and guests."
Although Warshaw sat for free at one of the city's tables, he also purchased a police department table with money specifically set aside to celebrate the centennial. Five top police officials attended the ball for free, but at Warshaw's insistence (and unlike Warshaw himself), the police officials had to pay $200 each to bring their spouses.
City officials were not alone in their freeloading. Five members of the city's International Trade Board attended the ball for free (with their spouses) at a table bought with trade board money. County commissioners Maurice Ferre and Betty Ferguson also attended for free, at a table purchased with public money by County Manager Armando Vidal. Joining Vidal and the commissioners were five assistant county managers. "Generally at these kinds of things you want your public officials to be in attendance," offers Alyce Robertson, the county's liaison to Centennial '96. "I actually think this was one of the things where I was glad that they were in attendance. This was really a magic night in Miami. There was a real sense of community that is hard to feel the rest of the year.