Bad vs. Worse

Sometime after 3:00 p.m. this past October 27, Miami City Manager Joe Arriola ministered to Hurricane Wilma-weary residents at the Orange Bowl. He also relayed a message to citizens in District Five, which includes much of Overtown and Liberty City.

A vote for Richard Dunn II will get nothing done.

"I'm telling people Dunn is the wrong person," Arriola says. "Nothing will happen in District Five if he is elected because he has zero support from the city manager, zero support from the mayor, and zero support from the majority of the city commissioners."

Miami's primary election, which had been scheduled for this week but was delayed until November 15 owing to Hurricane Wilma, is a largely drab affair. Mayor Manny Diaz and Commissioner Joe Sanchez have only token opposition, for instance. But the District Five race to fill the seat vacated after the stunning suicide of Arthur Teele is a serious test of Diaz's power.

During Teele's final days on the city commission — before being suspended in August 2004 — he was the lone voice on the dais against an ambitious condo-retail project, known as Crosswinds, in Overtown. Teele viewed it as a "land grab" to gentrify the neighborhood, one of the nation's poorest.

Dunn, a close friend of Teele's, has made opposition to Crosswinds the lynchpin of his campaign. A popular black minister who served on the city commission in 1996, he has the most recognizable name in a field of nine candidates that includes Jeffrey Allen, who was appointed after Teele's suspension. "Black folk are tired of the mayor, the manager, the uncontrolled development, and their general lack of concern for poor people," Dunn rhapsodizes.

One only need scour the campaign finance reports of Basil Binns II, Michelle Spence-Jones, and Willie Williams — three other District Five hopefuls — to realize they are relying on campaign contributors and political operatives aligned with Arriola, Diaz, and City Commissioner Johnny Winton, Dunn contends. Indeed the reports show money from publicist Seth Gordon, Barbara Carey-Shuler, and Charles Dusseau, all close allies of city hall's top clique.

"All of them are tied to city hall," says Dunn, who has the support of several city unions. "These candidates are imposters and carpetbaggers created by Arriola, Manny Diaz, and Johnny Winton. I'm the people's choice." (Diaz and Winton could not be reached for comment.)

Back at the Orange Bowl, however, Arriola ripped into Dunn's credentials. He reasoned that District Five voters should know better than to choose a man who was busted for petty theft in 1998 and who nine years earlier was forced to resign as assistant pastor of Drake Memorial Baptist Church after admitting he had used church funds to pay personal bills. "Why would anyone elect a man who's been arrested for stealing and who was taking money from his own church?" Arriola questions.

The city manager also criticized Dunn's stewardship of the Word of Life Community Development Corporation, a defunct religious nonprofit organization that received federal grants through the city's community development department between 1998 and 2003. Word of Life was awarded $1.1 million in federal block grants to build houses, renovate store faades, and administer a tutoring program.

Arriola gave New Times records showing that, in fiscal year 1999, Word of Life spent $207,804 from two grants to pay for staff salaries and operating expenses in connection with the development of six affordable houses in District Five. In the end, the CDC built only two houses.

During fiscal year 2002, the city budgeted $335,000 for Word of Life so the organization could repair and repaint storefronts and historic buildings in District Five. The CDC used $159,604 to pay for staff salaries and operating expenses.

In 2003 auditors concluded the nonprofit was spending most of the funds on salaries and operating expenses, so further grants were denied. "Between management and operational costs, he produced nothing," Arriola scoffs. "You should see the two houses now. They are completely trashed."

Defending the CDC's performance, Dunn contends, "Word of Life was the first and only church organization to build detached homes in District Five. It cost us $200,000 to build those properties, and we didn't make any money off either one." The reverend says the nonprofit did not build the rest of the houses because it sold the land and the new owners included a stipulation that prevented more projects.

Dunn — who has twice filed for personal bankruptcy, most recently in 2004 — also rattled off a list of fifteen District Five business structures the CDC improved. "Along the way, we made mistakes that I'm not proud of," Dunn concedes. "But we produced results."

In 2004 Dunn dissolved the Word of Life Church and its CDC after a court awarded the family of Antonio, Ernest, and Tonjanika Johnson a $5.8 million judgment. The three drowned during a Word of Life picnic at Oleta State Park near the Intracoastal Waterway. "That'll put anybody out of business," Dunn laments. He has since established a new church and CDC in Miami Gardens called Cathedral of Hope.

Diaz, says Dunn, led the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first property the CDC completed. And Word of Life's problems didn't prevent the mayor from asking Dunn to say an invocation prayer before Diaz's state of the city address in 2002 and 2003. Also in 2003, Diaz presented Dunn with a certificate commending the reverend and the CDC for their work helping the people of District Five. "Isn't that amazing?" Dunn remarks. "The mayor even recognized us as the top CDC in the city."

Dunn also responds that Arriola has financial management issues. A recent city audit criticized the manager's administration for distributing $39 million in no-bid capital improvement contracts to vendors represented by Arriola and Diaz's lobbyist friend Steve Marin. "Who is he to speak about me when he gave away no-bid, free-for-all contracts to his friends and cronies?" Dunn says. "Arriola and the mayor are political gangsters. Johnny Winton too."