More than a year after Mayor Francis Suarez presented an oversized, million-dollar check to the Black-led nonprofit Circle of Brotherhood, the City of Miami has reneged on the contribution.
Suarez presented the check to the Circle of Brotherhood at an October 2021 ceremony, praising the organization for its work setting up programs for youth development, crime prevention, and economic sustainability in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The heavily promoted event was held before the funding was formally approved by the city commission.
When push came to shove last night, Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla voted against the funding, causing it to fall short of the four votes needed to pass.
The contribution would have been paid out from a $137 million package the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provided stimulus to communities to address the economic impacts of the pandemic.
"That's a million dollars in federal money that will not go to primarily Black and brown neighborhoods for wellness and violence prevention," says Lyle Muhammad, executive director of the Circle of Brotherhood.
As first reported by New Times, the city commission repeatedly held up the money promised to the Circle of Brotherhood, deferring the item since its introduction early last year and declining to vote on it until yesterday.
Facing scrutiny from commissioners Diaz de La Portilla and Joe Carollo about the Circle of Brotherhood's finances and infrastructure, Muhammad noted that since its inception nearly ten years ago, the group has been awarded millions in federal, county, and city funding. He added that the organization received funding from the city's anti-poverty initiative and is slated to receive grants from the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and the Department of Justice for programs to address gun violence.
"I didn't know we had to divest our financial portfolio," Muhammad said at the January 26 commission meeting.
Carollo asked Muhammad if the organization has the resources and programs in place to warrant the million-dollar contribution since the money would be provided as reimbursement for existing expenditures.
"I find that question pretty insulting because we have more than sufficient amount of funds in our bank account right now to cover any reimbursement that we possibly can get from the city," Muhammad responded.
Both Muhammad and Leroy Jones, the head organizer for the Circle of Brotherhood, noted that while the commission has been quick to approve ARPA funding to other community organizations, it incessantly delayed following through on the million-dollar pledge to the Circle of Brotherhood. Earlier in the day, the commission had swiftly approved an ARPA allocation to a different organization.
"Nobody that has gotten this money... went through this," Jones said before the commission.
Jones, chairwoman Christine King, commissioner Manolo Reyes, and a city budget employee reassured the rest of the commission that approval of the item did not mean the organization would be immediately awarded the funds. The nonprofit would still have needed to submit documentation for review and work out a contract with the city.
"Regardless how much money the contract is, if we can't spend the money, then we cannot access it and the money goes back to the city, so nothing is lost. Or if we do something that is not accepted under the contract, we do not get reimbursed," Jones asserted.
Despite calling the allocation concerning, Carollo approved it, voting "a very unhappy yes." He said he voted for approval out of respect for the chairwoman.
"This is something I would normally vote no for because I just see red flags everywhere," Carollo claimed. "The city does not have the personnel to go through so many accounts that they have to supervise and look at, and frankly, a lot of our personnel do not have the stomach to do what is right when they see things that are wrong."
Diaz de la Portilla did not budge even after the chairwoman asked him if he would like to change his vote.
The measure could have passed with a four-fifths vote, but only four commissioners were present on account of District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell's stepping down last month.
Muhammad tells New Times the questioning over the allocation of the money felt "completely staged."
"When this issue first came up, we asked every single commissioner if they had any issues or concerns and all were quiet as a church mouse until today," Muhammad says.
Circle of Brotherhood leaders have suggested that the city commission over-scrutinized them because they have been outspoken critics of the commission's takeover of the majority-Black board of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust. Jones and other members of the organization participated in a vocal protest of the takeover at city hall this past October.
"It is obvious in the city of Miami that when Black men stand up with respect and dignity and defend their right to do work in their community, some people have a problem with that," Muhammad tells New Times.
Mayor Suarez was not in attendance at the meeting to speak on the funding he promised. His options are now limited with regard to following through on the pledge.
Muhammad says that although he doesn't blame Suarez for the withholding of the money, "the ball is in his court." He believes the mayor was "sincere about what he proffered" and "did not expect opposition from the commission."
"If we have a mayor of integrity and respect, he should take a stand on that issue," Muhammad adds. "Our work and reputation speak for themselves."