|Aventura, City of Pettiness|
|Written by Jay Beskin -- BT Contributor|
No slight too small to redraft the past
Anthony Lewis passed away several months ago. He was one of America’s foremost writers on the First Amendment. This is what he had to say about the right to free speech:
“Ours is the most outspoken society on earth. Americans are freer to think what we will and say what we think than any other people, and freer today than in the past. We can bare the secrets of government and the secrets of the bedroom. We can denounce our rulers, and each other, with little fear of the consequences. There is almost no chance that a court will stop us from publishing what we wish: in print, on the air, or on the Web. Hateful and shocking expression, political or artistic, is almost all free to enter the marketplace of ideas.”
Expression is almost all free to enter the marketplace of ideas -- everywhere that is, except in Aventura.
A number of years ago, then Commissioner Arthur Berger suggested that the city create an archive of documents and photos chronicling the history of Aventura. City manager Eric Soroka wasn’t keen on the idea because it would divert personnel from addressing more pressing management issues, and Berger’s idea was never adopted by the city commission.
Unlike governments in surrounding municipalities, ours has never had much interest in creating the sense of communal pride that can be bolstered by shared history. After all, Aventura was only the second community in Miami-Dade County whose residents revolted against county oppression and took control of their destiny. That fact alone should impart civic pride in all of us. Numerous unincorporated areas followed our example.
So in December 2008, when Soroka and Mayor Susan Gottlieb decided to commission a book on Aventura’s history, it seemed quite possible that our government was coming around. They chose Seth Bramson to write the book.
Bramson, who teaches Florida history at Florida International University and Barry University, is known for his well-regarded histories of the Florida East Coast Railway and of South Florida cities, such as Miami Beach, Hallandale Beach, and the Curtiss-Bright cities of Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa-locka. He received recognition from the leaders of the City of Miami for chronicling that city. On behalf of Aventura, Soroka and Gottlieb committed to underwrite the publication of 500 books.
After Bramson submitted his draft to Soroka and Gottlieb, they invited him to what he thought would be a routine meeting to discuss it. At that meeting, according to Bramson, Soroka and Gottlieb blindsided him.
They had essentially rewritten his book, deleting chapters and pictures, and eviscerating the substance of his work. Never before had leaders of a city profiled in one of Bramson’s books censored its contents.
Soroka and Gottlieb conditioned the city’s underwriting commitment to Bramson’s agreement to their changes. Bramson refused, and the city withdrew its commitment. Subsequently, Bramson obtained an identical underwriting commitment for the book from the Lebowitz family of Pittsburgh, members of which were among the original partners in Turnberry.
No member of the Lebowitz family sought editorial changes to the manuscript. That book was ready to go to press when a major event occurred.
The former principal of Aventura’s city-owned charter school (Aventura City of Excellence School, or ACES), Katherine Murphy, had sued the city and Soroka for wrongful termination and harassment. On November 2, 2012, a Miami-Dade jury found for Murphy and awarded her $155,737,000, one of the largest judgments ever rendered against a municipality and its chief officer.
Bramson believed it was important that the book take notice of this episode and added a chapter detailing the events. He was scrupulous in his accounting of the lawsuit, citing original and secondary sources, and noting that the trial judge in the case had quickly overturned the jury’s verdict in its entirety. He also wrote that Murphy had appealed the judge’s decision, and that the appeal would be pending at the time of publication. He made no editorial comments about the merits of the case.
Bramson is an engaging man whose work has brought him friendships throughout South Florida. So he thought little of disclosing the new chapter to Elaine Adler, president of the Aventura Marketing Council and unofficial official doyenne of all things communal and charitable in our city. Adler, ever protective of Soroka, beseeched Bramson not to publish the new chapter. And then the proverbial stuff hit the fan.
This past August our city attorney (who is employs Soroka’s son) used the taxpayers’ dime to write a letter to Bramson’s publisher. The letter stated that “the City has not authorized Mr. Bramson to write a history of the city or to use photos, papers, or other property of the city in the proposed book.”
The city attorney’s letter is disingenuous. Since when does the subject of a book have to authorize its publication? If that were the case, the publication of many nonfiction books, including biographies, would essentially cease.
Under what statute or theory does a city have exclusive ownership of photos and papers in its possession? What happened to the public records laws under which anyone has the right to review and copy municipal papers and records?
Despite the ludicrousness of the letter, it had the desired chilling effect. Bramson’s publisher, not wishing to face a lawsuit, bailed. The City of Excellence, many of whose residents descend from the People of the Book, may have no book.
While Opa-locka, Hialeah, Surfside, El Portal, North Miami, and most other municipalities in Miami-Dade have a historical chronicle, Aventura may have none.
Some months ago I wrote a column about the Murphy lawsuit. To say that it pleased no city officials, including the manager, would be an understatement. They would lie to keep our residents in the dark about this episode.
Shortly after the column appeared, the Aventura Cultural Arts Center abruptly ended its advertising relationship with Biscayne Times, which was providing ads at cost.
When our publisher asked arts center management for an explanation, they were evasive. But we all know why. We are no longer the City of Excellence. We have become the City of Pettiness.
Apparently in our city, the reputation of a manager trumps the First Amendment. The role of the city attorney has morphed into representation of the manager, not the city itself. Or just maybe the manager has become the city.
I hope that Bramson finds a publisher for his book. Even if one has little interest in the history of Aventura, we should all buy the book because we have an interest in upholding the right to free speech.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible