Homestead's Dirt

On a steamy June evening, as the sun set on acres of avocado trees surrounding Tomas Mestre's $1.8 million hacienda-style home, the outdoor patio swelled with well-heeled visitors. In this rural section of South Miami-Dade known as the Redland, they mingled by the tiled pool, nibbled on paella, and listened to the band while uniformed waiters offered chilled cocktails to stave off the heat. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas co-hosted the soirée. Powerful lobbyists such as Rodney Barreto attended. But the real star that night was the mayor of Homestead, Steve Shiver.

Mestre was hosting the June 10 party as a fundraiser for Shiver's November election. Shiver estimates he raised about $25,000 that night, nearly $10,000 more than he raised during his entire 1997 election campaign. Obviously this small-city mayor, who works days as a real estate agent, latched on to the right kind of friends to help his political career. But at what price?

Even as Mestre toasted Shiver's future success, one of Mestre's companies was poised to win part of a lucrative city contract, pending a vote by the city council, including the mayor. The company, Resource Reclamation Services, Inc., (RRS) is a subcontractor in ATC Associates, Inc.'s bid to clean up and develop the site of an old landfill. The estimated three-million to five-million-dollar clean-up phase of the project would rely on state and federal grants, and would cost city residents nothing.

"I did not attend the party," says Eddie Berrones, a first-term city councilman. "At that point I knew we were in contract negotiations with ATC. To me it didn't seem ethical."

Councilman Steve Bateman, who concedes he is considering running for mayor against Shiver, is less circumspect. "It stinks," he blurts. "I think the mayor made a very bad decision."

Shiver denies there was any conflict of interest in having the fundraiser at Mestre's house before voting on the contract. The City Attorney's Office agrees with him. "It's absolutely a joke," Shiver says about the criticism. "I'm astounded at some of the politics being played here." Shiver emphasizes that Mestre's company is a subcontractor with "a fraction of the business" in the project. He adds that he paid for the food and booze, and Mestre only allowed his house to be the site of the party. The trucking magnate himself did not contribute to the campaign, nor did anyone from Mestre's company. That would be a conflict. Which begs the question: If they were concerned about the appearance of impropriety, why have the event at Mestre's at all?

The answer of course is money. Shiver needs it to stay in office. Mestre has access to it through his connections to lawyers, lobbyists, and business people in Miami. Meanwhile Mestre's motivations are less clear. He referred most questions to his spokeswoman Joanna Wragg, who dismissed the notion her boss was trying to influence the public's business. Wragg says someone from Penelas's camp asked to use Mestre's house for the event because it was big and nearby. Plus her boss is civic-minded, she says, and politics is only one of his many community activities: He's hosted fundraisers at the house for the Boys and Girls Club, the Dade Community Foundation, and the Miami Symphony Orchestra.

The dump clean-up deal is not the only dirt-related business dominating Homestead politics this election year. And, again, Shiver and his political pals are in the thick of it. To the east of the old dump, the city's attempt to dig a lake on its own swampy property has ignited not only a contentious lawsuit, but a petition drive that will mean a referendum on blasting within the coming months. Spearheading these attacks on the city is fill provider Florida Rock & Sand, whose president contends that the lake-excavation deal breaks the city's own rules for fair competition and squeezes him out of several lucrative city jobs. The recipient of the lake deal? The Redland Co., which is not only one of Shiver's major campaign donors but, like Mestre, also a member of team ATC.

The 33-year-old Roy Stephen Shiver was born and bred into South Miami-Dade's folksy political establishment. He is the son of R.S. Shiver, a fixture on the city commission of Florida City for three decades. The son showed his political pedigree early on: In 1984 classmates picked him as Homestead High School's student council president.

Since first being elected to the Homestead city council in 1993, Shiver has garnered a reputation as a savvy businessman both in city hall and out. "I'm pro-development if it means the creation of jobs. I want what's best for this community," he says. In 1993, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the county, Shiver was a budding real estate appraiser. He listed his sole source of income as "Appraisal & Real Estate Economics Associates, Inc., real estate consultant." As assets he listed his $40,000 home plus three rental properties. By 1997, when retiring mayor Tad DeMilly anointed Shiver his successor in an uncontested election, the rising politician's business interests had expanded. Last year Shiver listed as income sources his real estate appraising company, a Century 21 franchise, and a general contracting firm. His rental properties now include four buildings and one four-unit complex on SW 148th Place.

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Ted B. Kissell
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Tristram Korten
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