|Written by Jack King, BT Contributor|
Miami District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell inherits a pile of political baggage
Some six months ago, Coconut Grove resident Ken Russell leaped onto the Miami political stage and took District 2 voters by storm, winning election to the city commission. It was a resounding statement by the electorate, showing in no uncertain terms that residents were not too pleased with outgoing Commissioner Marc Sarnoff -- and they certainly did not want his wife following in his footsteps.
Sarnoff had started out in fine fashion as a civic activist, but succumbed to political power and easy money.
Now, six months after the election, I thought it was time to speak with Russell and see how things are going. Turns out, there’s a hell of a lot going on in District 2, much of it unfinished business inherited from Sarnoff, and in some cases, from previous commissioners long before Sarnoff.
About 15 years ago, Flagstone Properties won the right to develop a swath of Watson Island, planning a mega-yacht marina, hotel, and shopping center. The property sat dormant until last year, when Flagstone finally finished the marina. They have a lightly financed plan for the upland, but no ground has been broken. Right now, the property looks more like a landfill than anything else.
I went out there a few days ago to shoot some photos and was amazed at the volume of traffic in the area, mostly caused by the intense flow of trucks carrying freight containers to and from the port via the new tunnel. How they are going to get vehicles to the planned 221,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, along with two hotels on a one-lane road is beyond me. This is one of many projects Russell inherited that are in the pipeline.
Most of the projects and issues centered in Coconut Grove are already under way, but there have been some loopholes. One of them is lot-splitting to build multiple homes on a single parcel. He’s working on that one, much to the appreciation of Grove residents. We’ll see what happens.
During our conversation, Russell commented on another odd situation that also happened before he got to Dinner Key. The city commission voted to give a 70-year lease (70 years!) to a business group that is using half the Glass House in Peacock Park for a restaurant and wine bar. Okay, you say, not a bad idea for a little-used building. However, nobody seemed to notice that Peacock Park is waterfront property owned by the city, meaning that any lease to a private party must be approved by voters in a citywide referendum. It’s the law. Once again, the city charter takes a backseat to politics.
Russell said this to me with a wry grin on his face, noting that nothing really can be done about it now.
Several weeks ago, Upper Eastside activist Elvis Cruz was cited for planting a coconut palm on public property near his Morningside home. Seems like some city employees decided that coconut palms are dangerous and shouldn’t be planted on city property. Russell and I discussed the situation for a few minutes, and in between some catty jokes about governmental overreach, Russell noted that one of the largest local purchasers of coconut palms is the City of Miami itself. Look through the parks and green spaces around town and you’ll they are filled with coconut palms.
I asked Russell what he was going to do about that. Once again he just smiled, and I got the feeling he believed Cruz could handle it himself. Knowing Elvis as long as I have, I fully agree.
We also discussed the size, shape, and color of the city commission districts. When the courts forced the city to draw new commission districts in the 1980s, they did it both by population and by ethnicity. Up to that time, the commissioners and the mayor (who sat on the commission) were elected citywide. If you look at a map of the current districts, you’ll wonder what they were smoking when they came up with district boundaries. Something has to be done.
One last story from Russell. A few weeks ago at a commission meeting, Commissioner Keon Hardemon launched into a tirade about a woman who was fired by the city manager, Daniel Alfonso. She worked as director of the Little Haiti Cultural Center. Hardemon was outraged that the manager had not consulted him before terminating her.
Hardemon, doing his finest Kabuki theater dance, went on for several minutes before making a motion to fire the manager.
Everyone thought it was an impulsive move, but then Commissioners Frank Carollo and Frances Suarez voted with him. Normally three votes is a majority, but in this case it would have taken four votes. The move failed, and the first thing Hardemon then did was to get up and hug the city manager.
Weird? Yes, but that’s politics in Miami.
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