Government

Before Condo Collapse, Surfside's Government Was Prone to Petty Squabbles and Political Drama

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett and Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer have been engaged in a bitter rivalry that began well before the Champlain Towers collapse.
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett and Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer have been engaged in a bitter rivalry that began well before the Champlain Towers collapse. Photos via Town of Surfside
click to enlarge Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett and Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer have been engaged in a bitter rivalry that began well before the Champlain Towers collapse. - PHOTOS VIA TOWN OF SURFSIDE
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett and Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer have been engaged in a bitter rivalry that began well before the Champlain Towers collapse.
Photos via Town of Surfside
The Champlain Towers South condo collapse thrust the sleepy town of Surfside into the national spotlight as a community and municipal government united by tragedy. But before national media descended on the small seaside town (population 5,725) and gave its politicians a broader platform, Surfside's government was awash in political drama and constant skirmishes between the mayor and commissioners.

Since his election last year, Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett, 60, has traded blows with town commissioners on Facebook, in person, on his personal blog, and in the town's government newspaper, often bashing his fellow leaders' comments at town meetings and arguing that it is he who has Surfside's better interests in mind.

In one post from his personal blog, TeamSurfside.com, Burkett, who previously served two terms as mayor from 2006-10, accused Vice Mayor Tina Paul of attempting to bring "cancel culture" to Surfside after she suggested reducing the page count of the town newspaper by removing the pages containing messages from elected officials.

In another blog post from last October, the mayor bashed commissioner Eliana Salzhauer for commenting in support of a move to reduce the budget for the town's police department, which Burkett referred to as an effort to "defund the police."


Burkett began the post with a video showing body-camera footage of a man tased by police and shot to death after charging an officer with a knife. He posted the clip to his personal YouTube channel, titling it, "THIS IS WHY DEFUNDING THE POLICE IS NOT AN OPTION," and pasted Salzhauer's comments in support of the funding change in the description field underneath the video.

Before he was elected to the mayor's seat last March, Burkett used his blog to criticize the incumbent, Daniel Dietch, his opponent in the 2020 election.

Commissioners often fire back when Burkett aims his invective their way, sometimes with words and sometimes with...nonverbal messages.

Last June, Salzhauer threw up both middle fingers at Burkett after he muted her during a Zoom commission meeting amid a discussion about anti-hate legislation.

The town commission was discussing a resolution to condemn discrimination against Asian and Jewish people during the pandemic. Burkett took issue with the language of the resolution, arguing that it should include Evangelical Christians as targets of hate speech and criticizing Salzhauer's comments that the discussion on the item had turned into "a joke." When Salzhauer tried to speak up during the mayor's comments, he muted her, prompting her to flip him the double eagle.

"He deserved the finger. He deserved two fingers. He tried to give me the naughty chair for a good year," Salzhauer tells New Times.

In the town newspaper, where the majority of page space is used to update residents on town events and initiatives, "messages from elected officials" spread is rife with jibes from the mayor to commissioners and vice versa.

"...I've encountered resistance, some of it political, some not. Much of it comes in the form of inuendo [sic], evidence-free allegations or just garden-variety rudeness and ridicule," Burkett wrote in the June 2021 issue of the Town of Surfside Gazette. "Now, those same political chickens are clucking loudly. Why? Because they've done remarkably little."

In the same issue, Vice Mayor Paul accused Burkett of misrepresenting the truth and presenting false narratives.

"While our nation is recovering from a hostile political environment, Surfside was lead [sic] in the opposite direction due to a lack of decent leadership by our current Mayor," Paul wrote.

A month earlier, Salzhauer used her Gazette real estate to criticize Burkett for limiting comment time for residents at commission meetings to one minute.

"Never in a decade has any Mayor put such Draconian limits on RESIDENTS' Free Speech and encroached on their legal RIGHT to be heard and participate in Surfside's political process. He decries "Cancel Culture" while he cancels YOU."

The only one of the town's four commissioners who does not use the Gazette to sound off, Charles Kesl, tells New Times that he chose to stop writing in the Gazette in March because he found it more productive to conduct office hours rather than write a column.

"I find it more helpful for residents to stop by and talk about their concerns. I'm very independent and choose to rise above the fray," Kesl says.

The rivalry between Burkett and Salzhauer has extended beyond the confines of Surfside's town hall and social-media pages. Just last week, the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission, which receives complaints of misconduct by elected officials, heard a complaint from Burkett against Salzhauer for her comments on the Nextdoor App about his column in the Gazette.

In a Nextdoor thread, Surfside resident Robert Lisman was complaining about one of Burkett's entries in the Gazette, claiming that the mayor engages in misrepresentation by taking credit for legislation passed by the full commission. Salzhauer commented on Lisman's thread that Burkett's column was prone to include lies about the goings-on at town hall.

"The Mayor's monthly Gazette column has always been a work of self-serving fiction. His liberties with the truth are why he is no longer the sole voice on the cover and why there is now a disclaimer at the bottom," the commissioner opined.

Burkett filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission on May 18, arguing that Salzhauer made a "knowingly false statement" as a public official, allegedly in violation of the Truth in Government section of Miami-Dade County's Citizens' Bill of Rights.

On July 14, the Ethics Commission voted unanimously to dismiss Burkett's complaint because it lacked legal sufficiency — general counsel for the commission wrote in a legal memorandum that Salzhauer's comments were protected by the First Amendment and that her comment on Nextdoor was made in her capacity as a resident, not in her role as a public official. (A copy of the legal memorandum is attached at the end of this article.)

Burkett tells New Times he respects the commission's decision and that he just wanted to share with them what Salzhauer is saying about him in public.

Salzhauer herself has contacted the ethics commission about Burkett's behavior.

Last October, when Burkett wrote the blog post about Salzhauer wanting to "defund the police," she copied the commission on an email complaining that Burkett had posted the commentary on his official mayoral Facebook page, saying that it caused her and her family to fear for their safety. (She did not file a formal complaint.)

After the June 24 Champlain Towers South collapse, the community has united in a spirit of healing and mutual support. But while the town's elected officials express hope that the camaraderie in the face of tragedy will mute the squabbling, animosity still runs deep.

"I'm not quite sure anything will change with respect to the other commissioners or myself, because we're there to do a job, and I think we do it professionally," Burkett says. Then he adds, "However, when Ms. Salzhauer is involved, the proceedings tend to devolve into a more chaotic situation."

The feeling, evidently, is mutual.

"I don't want this to be about personalities now because we’re all united," Salzhauer tells New Times. "But it’s all about ego for him."
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos