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Oct 17th
Free-for-all in North Miami Beach PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
October 2018

Election pileup concludes a year of chaos

INMB_1n a contest for the most confusing election in Miami-Dade County, North Miami Beach deserves the blue ribbon.

This year’s November 6 free-for-all municipal election boasts 16 candidates vying for six spots on the seven-member at-large commission.

Just two of the candidates -- Commissioners Anthony “Tony” DeFilippo and Barbara Kramer -- are elected incumbents. Two other incumbents, Fortuna Smukler and Ingrid Forbes, were appointed within the past five months. Voter registration deadline is October 9, and early voting starts October 22.

This scramble caps a year of cockeyed events (see “City in Chaos,” August 2018). George Vallejo, the popular mayor who ran unopposed in 2015, suddenly resigned April 10 after pleading guilty to two campaign finance misdemeanor charges over filing a false report on at least $5000 to shell corporations. He had also acknowledged in depositions that his wife was quietly employed by the Dezer family developers and paid through a shell corporation while he was voting on Dezer-related issues.

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Vallejo was sentenced to 90 days’ house arrest and 18 months’ probation. From his social media posts updating voters on city affairs, he may be waiting in the wings for a political comeback once his exile from public life ends in October 2019.

Commissioner Frantz Pierre, who’d been cited in May for “appalling” ethics violations by the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, lost his seat July 26 after getting arrested for bribery and money laundering for allegedly shaking down Dean Tyler, the owner of Dean’s Gold strip club. The alleged deal: $20,000 to Pierre in exchange for a vote to extend the club’s liquor hours to 6:00 a.m.

In April, Commissioner Marlen Martell quit after she was hired as city manager of the equally chaotic North Bay Village, only to get sacked after 105 days with a $127,000 severance.

For more than a month, the North Miami Beach City Council lacked a quorum.

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City manager Ana Garcia and city attorney José Smith were forced out after an acrimonious commission meeting in late June, over the objections of many residents and some tearful employees who praised Garcia’s sometimes controversial “tough-love” management style.

Little wonder, then, that the loudest cries in this crowded field are for honest, responsive government and accountability.

Yet this is a city of paradoxes. The five years of Vallejo and Garcia have bequeathed the city a solid professional staff; a healthy balance sheet with $25 million in operating reserves; a tax base of $2.9 billion, up 17.6 percent in the last year; and a falling property tax rate of $6.30 per $1000 assessed valuation.

At the same time, many residents and some candidates attack the city as a place for sale to the highest bidder, a culture of payoffs and corruption, and a future of choking traffic. Pro-development candidates argue that a higher tax base means lower taxes and better services.

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No candidate forums are scheduled as of deadline, and voters may need to Google the names and check out campaign treasurers’ reports on citynmb.com to learn more about the candidates, who’s backing whom, and to check for neighborhood candidate forums.

The city’s endorsement of high-rise construction is not universally embraced, but developments are set for the next five years, barring a real estate meltdown, as new zoning baked into the city’s code in 2015 takes rapid effect.Some readers are turning to blogger and former North Miami Beach activist Stephanie Kienzle -- a Vallejo friend and ally -- of the peppery voteropinion.com blog.

The twin Marina Palms 24-story towers at Biscayne and 172nd Street opened last year, and the twin 32-story Harbour condo towers are almost ready for occupancy, just south of East Greynolds Park and north of 163rd Street.

At the old Kmart tract on the southeast corner of 167th Street and NE 8th Avenue, a Lowe’s anchor is going up, buttressed by a new Publix and Marshalls. The vast 2.5-million-square-foot New North Town Center was approved in July. It will be a mixed-use, Midtown-style “micro-city” with 1650 units, 435,000 square feet of office and retail, a 175-room hotel, and a school, all on a triangular 18-acre brownfield site across from TECO Peoples Gas at 15530 W. Dixie Hwy.

NMB_5In addition, plans are on the books for the massive Uptown Biscayne project north of 163rd Street and, further down the road, a Dezer group mixed-use development on the site of Intracoastal Mall near the entrance to Eastern Shores, where many commissioners live.

“The city recognizes that development pressure has increased all over the county,” says Justin Proffitt, city planning and zoning manager.

“If we’re going to have development in the city, let’s do it the smarter way, rather than in a manner that increases traffic and suburbanization,” says Richard Lorber, director of community development.

More high-end building augurs demographic change for a diverse city with a median household income of $38,000, a poverty rate of 22 percent, and a population that is 43 percent black, 36 percent Hispanic, 19 percent non-Hispanic white, and 3 percent Asian.

Against that backdrop, here’s the lineup, with candidates in the seven groups that appear on the ballot. 

Group 1: Mayor

Although North Miami Beach has a weak mayor/strong manager government, the mayor can exert power to set agendas. The three candidates for this open seat are Group 2’s incumbent Commissioner Anthony “Tony” DeFilippo, union steward Robert Dempster, and former mayor Raymond Marin. Longtime commissioner Beth Siegel, appointed mayor last May to replace Vallejo, has withdrawn from the race.

DeFilippo, a commissioner since 2011 and third-generation North Miami resident, has the strongest war chest, reporting more than $58,000 in contributions with $34,000 in expenses. He has received plenty of $1000 contributions from developers, law firms, and Waste Management, which picks up the city’s trash, and CH2M Hill, which has managed the water utility since last year, in addition to smaller contributions from residents.

Developers and utilities have placed their bets on other candidates, too, including appointed incumbent Commissioner Fortuna Smukler in Group 4; elected incumbent Commissioner Barbara Kramer in Group 6; and candidate Michael Joseph, an attorney in his third race for commission, in Group 7. 

DeFilippo is an ally of Vallejo and Garcia, who actually donated $250 to DeFilippo’s campaign. Under the Vallejo-Garcia regime, the city devised and implemented a strategic plan, revamped zoning to allow more high-density commercial development along the FEC-Biscayne and 163rd Street corridors, stabilized the city’s finances, privatized trash pickup, and outsourced management of the city’s water utility over strong objections from unions.

DeFilippo is running on a mutually endorsing “ticket” with these commission candidates: Uleta Park activist Ketley Joachim in Group 2, who actually received a $1000 contribution from DeFilippo, Dianne Raulson in Group 4, and Alter Gambarte in Group 5. Their signs are often clumped together. 

DeFilippo and Joachim, who has received substantial contributions from the Haitian-American community, each bought $1000 of airtime in late July on Creole radio (North Miami Beach is roughly 22 percent Haitian American), effectively buying sponsorship/endorsements from producer/hosts who control the content, and beating other candidates to the punch.

Other candidates called foul after discovering this common business model for ethnic radio. (Many Spanish-language South Florida AM stations have operated under similar models, particularly in previous decades.)

Dempster, union steward with the Communications Workers of America, is campaigning on a progressive platform in this nonpartisan election. A longtime activist and member of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee and People’s Progressive Caucus, he helped lead bitter union opposition to the 2017 privatization of management of the city’s water utility, which serves 200,000 people in five municipalities.

Returning utility management to public ownership -- an expensive proposition, as other municipalities are discovering -- is not on his platform.

Dempster’s campaign emphasizes improving public safety, promoting green space and conservation, developing a Chinatown along the 163rd-167th Street corridor, and restoring “integrity to the City of North Miami Beach’s City Commission.” He reports $8649 in contributions, none of it from developers or utilities doing business with the city. 

Marin, mayor from 2005-2009, pledges to return to a time when the city was “respected, productive, and an innovative leader for others,” lowering taxes, “controlling our own facilities, not outsourcing them,” and “hiring city residents for city businesses.” An accountant, he reported more than $23,250 in contributions, roughly $6000 of which is his own money, and substantial contributions from attorneys and retail interests, with no contributions from developers or utilities.

Marin is running alongside attorney and former Commissioner David Templer, a personal injury attorney who’s running a particularly fiery campaign in Group 5, and former Commissioner Jay Chernoff, a real estate agent running in Group 2. Both served with Marin.

Group 2: Commissioner

In this wide-open race, Ketley Joachim and Jay Chernoff are squared off against Paule Villard, a retired City of Miami police sergeant and 30-year resident. Villard reported $25,852 in contributions, more than $22,000 of which she loaned to her own campaign. Chernoff reported $3050 in contributions to Joachim’s more than $20,000.

Group 4: Commissioner

Fortuna Smukler, appointed to the council in May 2018, is up against Dianne Raulson, a development director and government public relations consultant. Smukler, who started the Eastern Shores Crime Watch program, has a long record on committees and boards in the city, and is an ally of incumbent Commissioner Barbara Kramer. Raulson reported $6700 in contributions to Smukler’s $22,714.

Group 5: Commissioner

This vacant slot is the free-for-all among free-for-alls, with four candidates vying for the seat left open in July by Frantz Pierre: life insurance agent McKenzie Fleurimond, construction permit consultant Alter Gambarte, schoolteacher Margaret “Margie” Love, running for her fourth time on a campaign for accountability and honest government, and David Templer of the particularly fiery anti-corruption campaign, posting on Facebook about “zoning for sale,” “variances for sale,” and e-mails about opponents. The seat has been occupied since August by Planning and Zoning Chairman Evan S. Piper, who is not running.

Gambarte is running on a smart-growth platform similar to DeFilippo’s, and received $200 from ousted city manager Ana Garcia. Fleurimond reported $450 in contributions, Gambarte $5750, Love $3420, and Templer $9508.

Group 6: Commissioner

Barbara Kramer, commissioner since 2009 and owner of Ford Window Treatments, is the only elected incumbent other than DeFilippo among the 16 candidates. Her challenger is Henry Dube, a real estate agent based in Sunny Isles Beach. Kramer reported contributions of $20,865, including $2000 from super-lobbyist Ron Book, to Dube’s $3800 in contributions. A former opponent of high-rise development, Kramer has come around to seeing its merits -- developers are among her contributors -- although she still can push back.

“I was against Marina Palms,” she says. “Then I saw what it takes to turn a city around, and building exploded again. If your area code is 305 and you’re not joining in, you’re just going to sink. You’ll have to develop. But we can’t have complete gentrification, either. People cannot afford to move into the places we’re building.”

Group 7: Commissioner

Incumbent Ingrid Forbes, a food scientist and civic leader appointed to the council in June, faces a challenge from civil rights, immigration, and land use attorney Michael Joseph, an active community board member running for the third time. Forbes reported $6005 in contributions. Joseph has accumulated the second-largest war chest among all the candidates, with $37,059 in contributions, much from developers, law firms, utilities, and business entities registered at his law firm’s address.

Joseph’s platform stresses improved social services, expanded trolley service, improved community policing, and -- for all commissioners, committee members, and staff -- mandated ethics training.

 

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