Shadow Dwellers

Last week Katy Sorenson waited patiently for her item on the commission agenda to be called: a report from County Manager Steve Shiver on the future of Homestead Air Force Base. A commissioner for the past seven years, Sorenson is the board's leading critic of Miami-Dade's effort to put a commercial airport on the base.

In January the Air Force sided with Sorenson and every major environmental group in the nation by deciding the base was the wrong site for an airport owing to its proximity to the Everglades and Biscayne National Park. But Sorenson's opponents on the commission refuse to accept the Air Force's decision, and Mayor Alex Penelas has been pushing hard for the Bush administration to reverse it.

Sorenson realized the bulk of the county's lobbying campaign is being done in secret, often through private meetings with key leaders in Congress and the White House. In May Sorenson told Shiver she wanted to know about any meetings or discussions he had and see any memos, e-mails, or letters he possessed regarding the base. By keeping a close eye on Shiver, Sorenson hoped she could learn what really was going on.

The only flaw in her plan is that it requires Shiver to be both honest and candid about what he is doing. Honesty and candor are not among the county manager's strengths. And nobody realizes that better than Sorenson.

Last week she had a chance to test him.

On Monday, June 3, President George W. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, came to South Florida to visit the Everglades. The trip was part of the president's public-relations campaign to improve his image regarding environmental issues. Sorenson attended a giant photo op, hoping to talk to the president for a few minutes about Homestead. Sure enough, she did, and she urged him not to reverse the Air Force decision. After chatting for several minutes, the president even gave her one of his famous nicknames. He called her "the Commish."

Sorenson also was able to talk to the governor. Then she met with David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. While they talked, Struhs told Sorenson her county manager had just sent him an urgent e-mail demanding that Struhs help set up a meeting between Shiver and the president during Bush's visit to South Florida. Sorenson tucked away that piece of information to use at the next day's commission meeting.

A little after 8:00 p.m. on June 4, Sorenson's item came up on the agenda. "Mr. Manager, on May 27 I asked you for weekly reports," she began. "I have yet to get one [addressing] your involvement [in the lobbying effort on Homestead], including calls, e-mails, and any written correspondence.... My first report ... would have been due last Thursday."

Shiver shrugged. He said he was going to Washington later in the week but that he hadn't done anything regarding Homestead. "I have had no other discussions at this point," he said, adding he would check to see if anyone on his staff had anything to report.

"I'm interested in your personal involvement," Sorenson said.

"Absolutely," Shiver interrupted.

"And I asked for calls, e-mails, and correspondence," she continued. "You're telling me you have done nothing."

"E-mails and correspondence," Shiver repeated to himself. "I've been so tied up with the budget, I have not. I can't recall off-hand any conversations I have had regarding the Homestead Air Force Base."

"That's interesting," Sorenson responded. "I had a conversation with Secretary Struhs yesterday. Do you know him?"

"Secretary Struhs?"

"Right. David Struhs. He's the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection."

"Oh yes, yes," Shiver said.

"And he told me about an e-mail you sent requesting a meeting with the president regarding Homestead Air Force Base. Do you remember doing that?"

"Actually that was some time ago," Shiver replied. "That was some time ago. I don't know the exact date. I will try to get that for you tomorrow. I will get that for you tomorrow the date that that was sent."

Sorenson then reminded Shiver that she still wanted weekly reports on his activity.

"Absolutely, absolutely," Shiver promised.

As the commission moved on to the next agenda item, Shiver popped up from his seat and walked around the dais to where Sorenson was sitting. Pulling her aside, Shiver told her he forgot to mention that he actually did meet with the president and the governor about Homestead the day before. He explained it had just slipped his mind.

Sorenson was incredulous. She told Shiver that it wasn't good enough for him to whisper it in her ear, that she wanted him to put it on the record, in the open for everyone to hear, and that if he had anything else to report, he had better do so now. Shiver agreed and skulked back to his chair.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede