According to Basabe, the hourlong meeting was convened with a group of developers associated with high-profile projects on Miami Beach — including Sunset Harbour and Española Way — to ask for their contributions to reimagine the South Beach Entertainment District.
Basabe recorded audio of the meeting and edited it down to the roughly nine minutes when Gelber and Levine were speaking. He says he didn't want to implicate other members on the call. (Basabe was running for the Group 2 seat on the November 2 ballot against candidate Mark Samuelian but was disqualified in late September owing to his voter-registration address. He intends to run again in 2023.)
"As it turns out, a lot of the current mayor‘s financial supporters who were very vocal about the importance of getting behind the right commissioner candidates to push forth an agenda, their agenda for the re-development of the entertainment district," Basabe tells New Times. "They literally were discussing how to use the current chaos and turn it into an opportunity."
New Times obtained a copy of the audio, which is embedded at the end of this article.
"What bothered me the most about this call is the mayor is so adamant at commission meetings to remind everyone sitting up there, city manager included, that there are things that should only be discussed when there's public access," Basabe says. "And this was a private meeting."
Gelber has publicly stated that he wants to see Ocean Drive transformed into an art deco cultural district — a point he reiterated at a special session of the city commission convened in late August to address the future of the entertainment district in the wake of the broad-daylight murder of a 21-year-old tourist, who was shot to death seemingly at random. The killing was the latest of several murders in South Beach over the past year, including 24-year-old Christine Englehardt and 27-year-old Suwaye Amadou — that have rattled residents and business owners alike.
“I appreciate that I am the mayor of a hospitality town. But I won’t pretend that all is just fine in South Beach,” Gelber said, according to RE Miami Beach, a real estate blog. “We have a problem in what is known as our entertainment district and unless we recognize it, there can be no will or path to properly address it."
On the recording, Levine encouraged contributions to a PAC that would support future commission candidates who would pledge to greenlight Ocean Drive projects supported by Gelber and his administration.
"We need to utilize whatever influence we have to push those six commissioners to follow the vision and the agenda of the mayor and the manager to make the city safer," Levine says on the recording. "In other words, nothing can happen unless we exercise our power with those elected officials to have them to move forward."
On the recording, Gelber also explicitly offered the institutional support of his office to bypass his own commission in order to push through projects that don't have their support.
"I'm prepared to do whatever we need to do and support any idea even if it's not particularly popular," Gelber says on the recording. "I will push to put it on the ballot or you can put it on the ballot...you know, forcefully without commission approval.”
In a statement prepared for New Times, Gelber acknowledged that the meeting took place and stood by his comments.
"There is nothing new or secretive about my desire to put my solutions on the ballot for voter approval if my colleagues don’t want to support them," he said. "My 12 point plan literally references putting these items on the ballot if they are not supported by the Commission. I have said the time has come to reimagine Ocean Drive into an Arts Deco District and I have communicated that openly with the community for nearly a year."
In an interview with New Times on Monday evening, Levine says he presided over the meeting and had invited Gelber to speak, adding that there was "no real agenda or action plan."
“We invited a ton of people to come give us their thoughts on Zoom, and it was open to anyone and everyone,” he says. “It was no secret, that’s for sure.”
The former mayor contends that no new PACs have been formed following the meeting.
“The gist was basically, how can we as residents — assuming that there is a lack of will on the commission — how can we take this directly to the people of Miami Beach?” Levine says. "And that’s what I call direct democracy.”
New Times has reached out to Miami Beach spokesperson Melissa Berthier and city manager Alina Hudak. We will update this post as events warrant.