Political Slime in Surfside

Like a deranged tooth fairy, someone has been passing out flyers to citizens in the tiny city of Surfside at night. They're not car wash promotions or lawn service ads, but copies of motions in an ongoing paternity suit that a woman named Ioulia Babourkina filed against Surfside mayoral candidate Charles Burkett a year ago.

They are signs of just how lowdown politics has become as this wealthy town of 4500 souls just north of Miami Beach prepares for the March 21 mayoral and commission elections.

Two years ago, the Sun-Sentinel and other papers heralded Surfside citizens and then-Mayor Paul Novack as enlightened practitioners of progressive politics. In March 2004, shortly before stepping down after a twelve-year tenure, Novack endorsed, and voters approved, a charter amendment requiring a citywide vote on all large-scale development. "Novack ... is widely respected for sticking to his views on growth and respecting the wishes of voters," gushed the Sentinel March 29, 2004.

Now Surfside politics have devolved into an ugly mess, with candidates and their surrogates slinging personal allegations involving illegitimate children and pornography. Added to that mess are subpoenas for at least two federal investigations into Novack and the Novack-endorsed slate of candidates elected in 2004, which, according to whom you talk to, may or may not be ongoing. Then there are the campaign finance violations that have haunted almost every candidate on both sides of the town's growing political divide.

On one side of the chasm: a group of politicians assembled and endorsed by Novack that includes outgoing Mayor Tim Will; Commissioner Orestes Jimenez, who is running for re-election; and mayoral candidate Commissioner Frank MacBride.

The other side includes millionaire businessman and mayoral candidate Charles Burkett; attorney and commission candidate Howard Weinberg; and the Surfside Citizens Coalition, a nonprofit watchdog group that some accuse of being a thinly veiled front interested in the ouster of any candidate with ties to Novack or Will.

Coalition executive director Barbara McLaughlin started the coalition in 2004, when she was angered by a town ordinance prohibiting the feeding of stray cats on the beach. "The larger issue was the way city hall treated citizens," she insists. "They were like, öTake it or leave it; this is how it's going to be.' After we started our Website and newsletter, the mayor and commissioners would get really abusive to us at public meetings, and that just solidified our feeling that something was really wrong here."

McLaughlin insists the coalition abides by all the rules that govern nonprofits. "We don't endorse candidates; we're not involved in campaigns," she says. "We just keep putting issues out there." Nevertheless, in conversation she continually refers to Burkett, Weinberg, and others as "our guys" and "our gang."

The coalition (along with Burkett and Weinberg) takes a position on a number of the issues that concern small municipal governments: It wants to curb excessive litigation, allow voters to decide whether to build a new community center, and implement a new landscaping code, among other things.

But the personal keeps overwhelming the political. In 2004, when Burkett, a slim, self-possessed 45-year-old, first ran for mayor, his opponents went to great lengths to label him a developer. As Burkett campaigned door-to-door, Novack drove in front of him, his SUV adorned with a placard bearing the words "Developer Approaching."

Burkett, who lost that election to Will by 22 votes, buys properties (mostly in Miami Beach) and refurbishes them for resale. (He also manages properties and investments he inherited as part of two large family trusts.) The candidate says he's no developer, pointing out that his political platform includes even stricter curbs on development than are already in place in Surfside.

Burkett's enemies are quick to mention he was fined $6000 by the Florida Elections Commission in 2004 for twelve violations, all concerning improperly reporting use of a credit card for copying campaign literature.

The coalition's McLaughlin responds by pointing out that after an investigation, the elections commission charged the entire Novack-endorsed slate with campaign violations. The charges, also having to do with the 2004 election, concern misreported in-kind donations. MacBride and Jimenez, the mayoral and commission candidates, were accused of ten violations each. Commissioner Steven Levine, also running this year, was charged with four breaches of election law. Each charge carries a maximum fine of $5000.

This time around, all the candidates say they're doing everything right.

Burkett says he has faith that voters will look past personal attacks. And he might be right. The behavior of Mayor Will and one of his friends at a March 7 debate at The Shul on Collins Avenue and 95th Street may actually have helped Burkett, judging by the crowd's reaction.

After a series of predictable speeches by the candidates (Jimenez and MacBride didn't show up), a moderator allowed the audience to ask questions. The first to receive a microphone was Bernardo Benes, a retired banker and prominent Cuban exile.

Benes, who is a supporter of Will, Novack, and MacBride, proceeded to blast Burkett for having an illegitimate child. Benes yelled about the paternity suit until a rabbi intervened. The mayoral candidate replied that the suit was a "difficult family matter," but Benes kept bantering until the crowd of 50 began to hiss.

Burkett responded coolly, but Benes wouldn't stop talking; after his microphone was turned off, he started yelling, "Pornographer!" at Weinberg, an attorney who has represented a company involved in Internet pornography. Then three rabbis surrounded the Cuban exile and escorted him from The Shul. Throughout the entire escapade, Mayor Will sat beside Benes, laughing. He left the meeting with Benes.

Will, who decided he didn't want the hassle that comes with the virtually unpaid job anymore, is a surprisingly candid politician. He's also excitable, especially when it comes to the subject of Burkett and Weinberg. "Maybe it sounds paranoid, but I took it upon myself to find out why a guy like Charles Burkett would take it upon himself to take a dollar-a-year job where you get more calls from people about dogs shitting on the beach than anything else," says the 57-year-old schoolteacher. After digging through public records, he became convinced that Burkett wants to enhance the value of properties owned by one of his trusts in the Surfside Business District. (Will is not clear about exactly why that is a nefarious undertaking.) Burkett points out that his family sold the property in question twenty years ago.

An unsubtle paranoia creeps into the language used by both sides. McLaughlin says of Novack that he "calls all the shots in this town and he always will." She also says that Will is "deranged." One candidate, who would only say so on condition of anonymity, called Novack "a mastermind" and "an evil genius."

On the other side, Benes says exactly the same thing of Burkett: "The man is a mastermind, but he's bad. The only thing I can't figure out is why he's doing this."

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Forrest Norman
Contact: Forrest Norman