In recent years, the Miami Design Preservation League has become one of the loudest voices against harmful development across the county. It has battled gentrification in Little Havana, the trend of McMansions replacing historic homes, and a plan to turn the Miami Beach Community Church courtyard into a retail store. In doing so, the scrappy nonprofit has repeatedly come up against the county's biggest developers and lobbyists.
Now the organization's fate hangs in the balance as one of the region's most powerful political consultants attempts a hostile takeover. Hours before the organization's board election came to a close Monday night, Randy Hilliard — who calls himself the "Prince of Darkness" — submitted nearly 100 new member applications with $50 dues in cash clipped to each one, according to the league's executive director, Daniel Ciraldo. Hilliard also provided proxy votes with the applications. Because the nonprofit had only 250 members, the surge in new voters could swing the result.
"The fact that anybody could show up with $50 bills all of a sudden and decide the election is scary," says Ciraldo, who filmed the activity and posted it on Facebook. "We obviously speak out about development in the city... It could be a strategy to quiet us down."
Ciraldo says the saga began in April, when Hilliard tried to snag a seat on the 19-member board via its nominating committee. The board rejected his application. Hilliard then found a rule in the bylaws showing a member could get on the ballot by having ten other members sign a petition on his or her behalf. Soon after, a new slate of candidates emerged via petition, including Hilliard.
In the weeks leading up to the June election, the new slate and its supporters began circulating emails smearing the preservation league. One that was particularly critical of Ciraldo was sent by someone named Jose Viernes, an alias that Hilliard has used previously. (Ciraldo says he had prior dealings with Hilliard during a campaign in 2015.)
Asked Tuesday if he wrote the email, Hilliard declined to comment but said, "Everything in the email was true." He denied pinning cash to new member applications despite clear video evidence to the contrary.
"The video doesn't show anything," he said.
Hilliard added that he was proud of initiating "the most successful membership drive that organization has ever seen." He told New Times the new members were "a lot of different people that I know or people who believe in the work that I do... It's no small accomplishment to get people to join an organization and give you a proxy."
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As of late Tuesday, Ciraldo said the votes were still being tallied by an independent auditor. Originally, the results were supposed to come back within 48 hours, but the influx of new members leaves questions about the election's validity.
"I'm very worried these are not even real people," Ciraldo says. "Obviously, we can't accept the results if these extra 95 ballots are added."
If the takeover is successful, Ciraldo says, the future of the organization — and of historic preservation in Miami — is at risk.
"Maybe they'd decide they'd rather just go back to only giving walking tours and not doing any advocacy, not being involved in the legislative process," he says. "We can't sit by and let this small group of disgruntled people take over for their own personal gain and ego. It's not right. It's absurd."