Public Park As Political Feud

Sixty-nine-year-old Francisco Hernandez is taking his daily walk in the early-morning stillness of Amelia Earhart Park, just outside Hialeah. He passes vultures perched, fat and lazy, on picnic tables. He proceeds toward the southwest end of the 515-acre expanse where, for the past four weeks, workers have been laboring for sixteen hours per day, pouring asphalt and moving dirt on a tract of land approximately the size of six football fields. During the two years Hernandez has walked Amelia Earhart, he has never witnessed such a construction frenzy.

Hernandez, a tall, thin man in ill-fitting gym clothes, bemoans the loss of a stand of pine trees that county parks employees removed prior to construction. And he is worried that county contractor H&R Paving will deplete all available funds before installing the long-awaited ball fields.

But Hernandez is mistaken about the workers' mission. He is surprised to learn that H&R is actually paving the way for the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce's Spring Festival. Beginning February 19 about 300,000 people are expected here over ten days for rides, musical events, and arepas. With the same stoicism often found among Hialeah's citizenry, he approves of the festival -- as long as it doesn't interfere with his morning constitutional.

Major changes are generally made to county parks only after months of community meetings and coordination among county departments. The intent, planners say, is to allow the public to determine a park's character. "It's a long-term process," affirms Paul Carey, Miami-Dade parks department supervisor. "You try to get consensus."

Amelia Earhart neighbors like Hernandez, along with county officials, have long agreed that building outdoor playing fields is their first priority. So why have the construction crews been working late into the night beneath generator-powered lights to build something that looks like a parking lot? Because in Hialeah politics is another word for vendetta, and public works means political football.

The Hialeah Chamber of Commerce Spring Festival began sixteen years ago as the brainchild of Herman Echevarria, former city councilman and failed mayoral candidate. He wanted to bring a large-scale event like the Calle Ocho festival or the county youth fair to Miami-Dade's second-largest city; until this year it was held at the Hialeah race track.

Then in January 1998, Hialeah councilman Julio Robaina, in a move seemingly targeting the chamber's ten-day event, proposed an ordinance limiting all festivals to five days or less. Mayor Raul Martinez supported it. Critics charged the mayor was punishing Echevarria, who ran against Martinez in 1997. Robaina insists he was just responding to complaints from residents. The council passed the measure four to three.

Festival organizers then scrambled for a new home and stumbled upon the perfect place: Amelia Earhart, a large space on the border of crowded Hialeah, just outside Martinez's control. "It's got all the ingredients," enthuses Echevarria. "That's why the chamber pursued that route."

Best of all, county commissioner Natacha Millan, a former Hialeah councilwoman, backed the project. Perhaps not coincidentally, Millan also supported Echevarria against Martinez. "Natacha is doing it for Herman. That's her buddy," says an irate Martinez. "These people are very brazen, but they get away with it." (The Hialeah mayor is distinctly brazen himself, some would say. He recently convinced the city council to approve $714,368 in back pay for the three and a half years he was suspended from office while under federal indictment for charges including extortion and racketeering. Prosecutors gave up on the case after a hung jury in 1996.)

Fortunately for festival organizers, the location was designated a "special events area" on the park's master plan. Park planners had envisioned a community-centerlike building and perhaps a small amphitheater on an existing slope. Millan and Echevarria believed the designation was sufficiently flexible to include a festival. They enlisted William Cutie, director of the Miami-Dade County parks and recreation department, to secure the site.

Sylvia Unzueta, a top parks department official who is described by many as a Millan partisan, joined Cutie in trying to hustle the project through the system. "It is a valuable piece of prime real estate in a community that is densely populated, and we welcome the transformation," Unzueta says. She insists that the paved ellipse and dirt parking lot being built for the festival will be easily adaptable to another use.

On December 8 Unzueta requested the park project be added to the agenda of the Safe Neighborhood Parks Citizens' Oversight Committee, which allocates millions of dollars in bond money for park improvements. The committee refused to immediately loosen its purse strings and instead counseled the department to submit a formal application. This did not deter Cutie from approaching county manager Merritt Stierheim's office on Christmas Eve. When Stierheim learned the oversight committee had not approved the request, he refused it. The plan hit another snag in January, when Stierheim suspended Cutie for a month over $294,975 in missing mahogany trees.

But then another opportunity arose. On December 9 Millan held a town meeting to decide how to spend Quality Neighborhood Improvement Bond Program (QNIBP) money in her district. Several people spoke in favor of using Amelia Earhart for festivals and exhibitions, Unzueta says. Based on the community support and the special-events designation on the park's master plan, the county manager approved the use of the QNIBP funds for the project on December 28.

Two days later Cutie approved a permit for the Hialeah chamber's use of the park for the festival. In the permit the chamber agreed to rent the park for ten days at a cost of $2000 per day.

Parks officials claimed they could complete the project for $400,000, yet requested a one-million-dollar budget. Sure enough, the county manager's office learned on January 4 that the price had risen to one million dollars.

"The county pays one million dollars and then [the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce] pays $2000 a day," Martinez comments dryly. "That's a hell of a deal."

Martinez is worried the ball fields, amphitheater, and community center will never be built. And he is concerned that, ultimately, the one million dollars will be a subsidy for the Hialeah chamber. Moreover the city and its residents have been left in the dark about festival details such as who will direct traffic, he contends. "I would like to know if this is part of the whole renovation of the park or is it just one single thing -- a parking lot?" he questions.

Unzueta says the parks department is still trying to secure Safe Neighborhood funds to continue work on the special-events area. She dismisses Martinez's concern that the neighbors are in for a surprise when the festival opens. "Every time we rent Amelia Earhart, we don't go out and advise the neighbors," she says. The December 9 town meeting gave residents ample opportunity to participate, she insists.

Some in the parks department believe that Amelia Earhart is not the best place for a festival. "A lot of people were discontented about the decision," says one parks official, who declined to be named.

Problems associated with the festival won't be city hall's concern, adds Martinez. "With the exception of [the county manager], who is a friend of mine, if people call to complain, I'm going to give them the home numbers of the country executives," he warns. "[The public can] call them."

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