Heller Returns?

It takes a lot to make some people in North Bay Village hide their faces and hang their heads in shame. Consider the recent sightings of former Police Chief Irving Heller at city hall. Earlier this year, Heller resigned when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating allegations that the career policeman had authored pornographic cartoons depicting city activist Fane Lozman performing sexual acts on men and then sent Lozman the dirty material anonymously via the U.S. Postal Service.

In April, the FDLE investigation found sufficient evidence to show that Heller authored the letters, but investigators concluded no crime had been committed. Yet, the crotchety pornographic illustrator made his presence known during the recent election when he helped representatives from the Police Benevolent Association campaign for three winning candidates, including Mayor Joe Geller. During the November 8 swearing-in ceremony at City Hall, Heller stood next to union president John Rivera and vice president Steadman Stahl. Heller's re-emergence has fueled speculation among residents that the former police chief may be angling for the city manager's job. "At the ceremony, they were gloating because all their guys got in," grouses Gabrielle Nash-Tessler, a local resident who supports current city manager James Vardalis.

After all, there is no love lost between Heller, the PBA, and Vardalis. For months, the police union has been at odds with Vardalis regarding negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Heller doesn't get along with Vardalis because the city manager ratted him out to FDLE and managed to get his best friend, former mayor Alan Dorne, kicked out of office. Dorne was arrested in April on charges that he and other commissioners conspired in secret to get rid of Vardalis, a violation of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law prohibiting elected officials from discussing public business in private. Following his arrest, Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Dorne from his mayoral post.

But the election of three PBA-backed candidates, two of whom have expressed their displeasure with Vardalis's managerial style, has the city manager contemplating his future in North Bay Village. Although he scored a victory when the commission voted three to two to reject his resignation letter on November 16, Vardalis has indicated he may quit before the holidays. "Geller has repeatedly told me that it is not going to work out between the two of us and that I should resign," a battle-weary Vardalis said. "It's like Heller and Dorne never left the room."

Reached at his private law office, Geller vehemently denied pushing Vardalis toward the door. Geller insists he only advised Vardalis that he would support giving the city manager a nine-month severance package should he resign. "I've never indicated to him or anyone else that I wanted to fire the city manager," Geller said. "But I did let Vardalis know I had some concerns about the direction the city is headed in."

Geller also downplayed the possibility Heller may return to North Bay Village as the city's top administrator. "He would need to answer a lot of questions related to the incident surrounding his departure," Geller said. "I don't anticipate that happening."

Heller did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.