The Commish

With Chairman Art Teele temporarily out of the chambers, Alex Penelas was running the October 20 county commission meeting, and doing his best to keep the agenda moving. "There are some items here that perhaps we can dispense with rather quickly," he told his colleagues. Turning to Commissioner Javier Souto, he noted a resolution the commissioner sponsored allocating $5000 from the county's contingency fund to the Miami Coral Park Senior High School marching band so they could travel to Atlanta for a competition. The matter was so routine that Penelas immediately asked, "All those in favor indicate by saying aye."

As commissioners began automatically declaring their support, one voice interrupted: "Discussion, Mr. Chairman? Discussion?" Startled, Penelas turned to his newest colleague. "I'm sorry, Commissioner Sorenson," he said, and allowed her to speak.

Katy Sorenson had been sworn into office only 48 hours earlier and had surprised many on the dais by giving the most thoughtful inauguration speech of the day, eloquently calling for a return to the simple tenets of integrity in government and the desire to restore public confidence in an institution that seemed to have lost its way. Now, at her second commission meeting, she seemed ready to act on her promise. "Mr. Chairman," she began, "I have a real problem with the contingency fund being used in this way." She explained that by its very nature a contingency fund should only be used for emergencies and therefore she would oppose the motion.

"Okay," Penelas replied without elaboration. By now Teele had walked back into the room and, reading the tension, privately asked Commissioner Maurice Ferre what was being debated. "It's $5000 for some marching band," Ferre explained in a hushed tone.

All eyes now turned to Souto. As the sponsor of the measure it would be up to him to defend it. Clearly flustered, and with aides scurrying about handing him notes, Souto shook his head. In the two years since the commission had been expanded to thirteen members, dipping into the contingency fund for pet projects had become a routine affair. No commissioner ever vigorously challenged another's right to do so; it was a matter of courtesy. But more than courtesy, it was also a matter of political savvy. Commissioners who supported Souto's request today could expect his support in the future when it was their turn to draw money from the fund. After a long pause, Souto explained that the band needed to leave in the next few days and there wasn't time to find money from another source. "It's $5000," he said dismissively.

Ferre, a likely contender in the Metro mayor's race next year, then announced he would not support Souto's request. Like Sorenson, he, too, was troubled by the unfettered raids on the contingency fund. A few minutes later Penelas, another mayoral hopeful, added, "I want to associate myself with the comments of Commissioner Sorenson. I probably have been one of the greatest spenders from the contingency fund, but I really do think it is about time [the practice stopped]."

As Penelas spoke, Ferre mockingly called out, "Here we go. Reform! Reform!" Undeterred, Penelas continued. Looking directly at Sorenson, he said, "I'm glad you brought it up. It was a great way of starting commissioner, and I congratulate you on that."

Still at a loss to understand that the tide was quickly turning against him, Souto again attempted to defend the expenditure. "This is one of our top bands," he insisted. Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla came to Souto's rescue by offering a solution. Diaz de la Portilla offered to donate $2500 from his office budget if Souto would do the same. Souto agreed and the matter was resolved. But then Teele, while complimenting Sorenson, pointed out that two days earlier she had voted to spend $30,000 from the contingency fund for an event called Art Deco Carnival. During the rush of her first day in office, she had voted for the measure without realizing the money was coming from the contingency fund, she later explained. Taking up Teele's challenge, though, she moved to reconsider the Art Deco vote, which prompted a new round of recriminations.

Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who had sponsored the Art Deco expenditure, became visibly upset when he was called on to speak. "You really don't want to hear what I have to say," he fumed. Looking at Sorenson, Kaplan issued a warning to her and the other commissioners. "I would implore that she withdraw her motion in the spirit of collegiality and let's get on with business," he declared, "because if we are going to start doing this, I see no end to it. We're going down a very, very slippery slope and we're doing it very quickly." Kaplan's message was clear: Repeal his funds and he'd move to repeal other's, as well.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede