Recall Carlos Alvarez

Hunched under an umbrella in a driving downpour in Little Havana, Jose Avalos's eyes flash with rage. The retired electrical contractor with a short gray beard jabs his finger into the wet air and talks about Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, a man he voted for just two years ago.

"Besides Castro, he's the biggest letdown I've ever had in my life," Avalos says. "Actually, Castro and him are pretty much even, to tell you the truth."

Avalos's caustic words are echoed by a long, soaked line behind him. Dozens await their turn to sign a petition funded by billionaire car dealer Norman Braman to recall Alvarez from office.

In just three weeks, more than 50,000 people all over Miami-Dade County have signed onto Braman's simple message: By drafting a budget that increases property taxes and gives raises to county workers during a recession, the mayor has proven himself unfit for office.

"I feel the mayor is an honest individual. I don't think he's corrupt," Braman says in his office above a Biscayne Boulevard auto dealership. "But he's caused some severe and maybe irreparable damage to this community."

Commentators have tied Braman's effort to the national fury against incumbents. Just a week before national elections, recall petitions are circulating in California, Nebraska, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

But the truth is, the anger behind the Miami recall is local. It's not just a vendetta by Braman, as Alvarez recently alleged.

Miamians shouldn't take it anymore. They should recall Carlos Alvarez.

If you haven't yet signed the petition, here are four reasons you should:

1. Underhanded Staff Raises

In February 2009, during the painful aftermath of Florida's exploded real estate bubble, Alvarez tried to reassure Miami. Although "tough times" were ahead, he promised, "We're all in this together."

Then, only three weeks later, he secretly gave at least 10 percent raises to 12 of his closest staffers. The plainspoken, gaunt-figured career cop had vast budget powers thanks to a vote in 2007, when he'd persuaded 57 percent of the electorate to anoint him "strong mayor."

He presented his chief of staff, Denis Morales, with an 11 percent hike to more than $206,000 per year. His director of policy earned a 15 percent raise to $109,879. Spokeswoman Vicki Mallette saw her annual pay rise by half to $124,999. Alvarez also handed out 5 percent raises to 36 police commanders.

(In a seedy subplot, Morales was secretly spending months at a time moonlighting as a security consultant in Panama while on paid, taxpayer-funded leave. Alvarez eventually demoted him.)

Then the mayor lied about it. When Commissioner Sally Heyman asked him whether he'd given any staff raises that year, Alvarez provided data showing he hadn't.

Alvarez now justifies the move by saying his staff had been reduced by 14 positions and $3.6 million, leaving more work for everyone. The police commanders, meanwhile, were making less than those they supervised. And he points out he backdated the raises to the previous year, so he didn't technically give pay increases that calendar year.

Sounds like Bill Clinton and "that woman." Hey, didn't he get recalled? Or impeached?

2. Those Sweet Beemers

Alvarez has worked hard to sell voters on his blue-collar appeal. But beneath that beat-cop demeanor lurks a man who loves his well-crafted German wheels.

Since taking office, he has used his $800-a-month car allowance to lease some pretty sweet BMWs. In 2008, your taxes paid a local dealer half of $41,522 to set the mayor up with a 650i coupe. In May — right around the time Miami-Dade's unemployment hit 13 percent — he bid on a new 500i Gran Turismo, which retails for about $60,000 a year.

Alvarez explains he pays the difference between his allowance and the luxury ride's lofty price tags and adds he recently trimmed the allowance by 25 percent. "The car allowance wasn't created, enhanced, or tailored for me. All I have done is reduce it," he says. "Real savings trump symbolism."

Savings? Then why not cut the car allowance altogether, plus the $814,000 "office budgets" that each of the 13 commissioners get to spend as they please? Hell, we have a '94 Saturn out back that still runs OK. What say, Carlitos? Want to take the wheel?

3. Bend Over ­— It's the Marlins

In March 2009, the day before a final vote on a new Florida Marlins ballpark, Alvarez scoffed at a simple request from Commissioner Carlos Gimenez: Why can't we look at the Marlins books first?

"It's a Major League franchise," Alvarez said, dismissing the commissioner's complaint. "These are legitimate people."

Alvarez won, and the Marlins got their ballpark — a true sweetheart deal — without a public vote.' Local taxes will pay for 70 percent of the $515 million project. (Compare that to baseball-mad St. Louis, which footed just 12 percent of the new Busch Stadium, or New York's voters, who picked up 27 percent of Citi Field's $600 million budget.) By the time the bonds, largely funded by hotel fees, are paid, taxpayers will eat $2.4 billion.

Worse, the Marlins lied their pants off. This past August, someone leaked the team's classified financials to Deadspin.com. They showed that the mayor's friends in teal made a $49 million profit in the past two years.

Alvarez defends the deal, noting the team is on the hook for $120 million up front and $93 million in rent. "We are not building a stadium for the Marlins. We are building a stadium for the enjoyment of Miami-Dade County residents," he says.

But that leaves a fundamental question unanswered: Did the mayor help the Marlins screw us? Or was he just too incompetent to stop them?

4. Raises, Part Deux

You'd think a mayor who already survived one recall over his first raise-related scandal (a citizen-funded petition that fell short earlier this year) might have learned his lesson.

But faced with an even steeper budget deficit than in 2009 — a $444 million gap — Alvarez made the logical choice facing any good CEO: Raises for everyone! The budget he delivered to the county commission last month included 3 to 5 percent bumps for almost all of the nearly 28,000 folks lucky enough to work for the county. (Cops get a 13 percent raise.)

Sure, there were sacrifices too — about 300 layoffs and several hundred other jobs lost through attrition.

But those raises will total $132 million this year.

Homeowners — just short of half of them — will pay higher taxes.

The mayor points out that overall, the county will still take in $50 million less than last year. Unions also agreed to save $90 million by paying more toward their health care. And heck, he says, he's not even really guilty: He proposed the raises, but the commissioners approved them.

"We want to ensure that we do not unfairly place the entire burden of this recession on either taxpayers who fund our services or the residents who depend upon them to survive," he says.

But Alvarez spent three years and $5 million in tax dollars to win the title of "strong mayor." It's time for him to man up.

So can the recall effort fly? Unlike the 2006 attempt to remove Commissioner Natacha Seijas, which failed, this one has a strong focus. Perhaps it's more like the 1972 push, the last successful one, when voters removed Commissioners Robert Hardy Matheson, Alex Gordon, Earl J. Carroll, and Ben Shepard after they refused to build a promised public hospital.

First Braman needs a little more than 50,000 signatures by December 5. Thanks to onerous new rules passed by the commission (rules so strict a federal judge said they are unconstitutional, before a higher court tossed out his decision on a technicality), Braman plans to gather up to 90,000 just to be safe.

If he succeeds, the earliest a public vote could happen is probably next spring — by which time Alvarez will have only a little more than a year left in office. Why bother?

"Because the system is rigged," Braman says, "and this is the only way to spark a change... People feel empowered by the recall. They're ready to stop complaining and to do something."

Alvarez questions Braman's motives, saying the recall is personal, sour grapes from Braman's failed legal fight against the Marlins stadium. "[He] suffered a very expensive and public defeat," Alvarez says. "Billionaires are used to getting their way."

The truth is that none of this would matter much without people like Tony Palazzo. The walrus-mustached Miami lifer recently signed up to oust his mayor. "We paid for a stadium we didn't need; we give raises to officials who don't need them," he says, shaking his head. "I don't think Braman has any personal reason to wage this fight. He's just as fed up with these guys as I am."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink