Government

Historic Takeover: Miami Commissioners Move to Oust Virginia Key Beach Trustees

The City of Miami commission has moved to take further control of the city's historic Black beach on Virginia Key.
The City of Miami commission has moved to take further control of the city's historic Black beach on Virginia Key. Photo courtesy of Virginia Key Beach Park Trust
At a meeting rife with outcry surrounding the embattled Virginia Key, the City of Miami Commission quietly voted to take control of a historic portion of the island.

The commissioners voted unanimously at the September 13 meeting to amend the city code and put themselves in charge of the park trust that operates the historic Virginia Key beach — the first beach that Black Miami-Dade County residents were officially allowed to use during the segregation era.

The ordinance must now go to a second reading in October, but if it passes, the majority Black board of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust will be replaced by the city commission or their appointees.

Commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portilla have claimed that the trust's board mismanaged and misappropriated $300,000 in annual funding they received from the city. As evidence of the alleged malfeasance, the two commissioners point to a draft report from the city's auditor general, a document that is currently being kept out of the public eye.

At a September 10 budget hearing, Carollo resisted when the trust requested additional funding to hire four new staff members to maintain the park and educate visitors on the history of the beach.

"This is one organization that, unlike the Liberty City trust and many others, has not been run properly," Carollo said from the dais at the budget hearing.

Three days later, during the September 13 meeting, Diaz de la Portilla went so far as to say board members "got caught with their hands in the cookie jar."

Commissioner Ken Russell, who reviewed the draft audit report and whose district includes Virginia Key, said that his office found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"I’ve read the draft report, and I saw nothing that points to malfeasance. There's definitely been sloppy note taking and poor accounting, but nothing shows misuse of funds," Russell said during the September 13 meeting.

Reached by New Times via email, city attorney Victoria Méndez says that audit reports are confidential in the draft phase and are not subject to disclosure under Florida's public records law until they are complete. However, she says, commissioners are allowed to discuss a draft before it's public.

The audit of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust began in late 2019 and was put on hold during the pandemic until Virginia Key became a nexus for controversy earlier this year over a plan to relocate homeless people into tiny houses on the island.

Patrick Range, chairman of the trust, publicly opposed the plan, which was backed by Commissioners Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla. Range decried the city commission's failure to consult with the trust about the matter and suggested Virginia Key was not the right location for a homelessness transition center.

Guy Forchion, the trust's executive director, tells New Times that while the trust's board members may have been late to turn in meeting minutes, they have been responsible with their funding.

"We don't mismanage funds. That's all I have to say on that," Forchion tells New Times. "It's an interesting turn of events, and it's clearly connected on some level to other things happening on the island."

During the September 13 meeting, Christine King, the city commission's sole Black member, vied for control over all appointments to the park trust and asked to work with the trust for one year to deal with its financial issues.

"I believe I should have more input because I am the Black commissioner and will be sensitive to our historic Black beach," King said from the dais.

King's bid to take control of the park trust appointments was initially deferred to a meeting later in September, but commissioners brought the ordinance back six hours later and amended it with significant changes. The revamped measure would place the commissioners or their appointees as board members, place King as chairwoman, and give her control over two at-large appointments.

The board's current structure calls for six members appointed by the commission and the mayor and three at-large members internally appointed by the board. Forchion tells New Times there are two vacancies on the board at present, as commissioners Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla have not appointed anyone to the trust.

A major motivator for city leaders to get the trust's finances in order comes in the form of $20.5 million in allocations and bond funding from Miami-Dade County to build a Black history museum and cultural complex at the park. The release of that money has been on hold for nearly 20 years, as the county has said it will only hand over the funding once the city proves it can pay for the operations of the museum.

Forchion tells New Times that he hopes the audit will be complete by October before the second reading of the commission's proposed code change, so that the trust board will have an opportunity to respond to the allegations levied against them.
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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