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Written by Mark Sell - BT Contributor   
May 2012

North Miami City Hall’s Roman carnival rolls on

Pix_for_Mark_Sell_5-12White teeth gleaming, North Miami Councilman Scott Galvin flashed a predatory smile at the April 10 council meeting and asked Mayor Andre Pierre why he suddenly wanted to vote on negotiations with developer Michael Swerdlow to buy Biscayne Landing. It wasn’t even on the agenda.

Pierre paused. And paused. The assembled crowd started tittering. Then Hizzoner finally answered: “You don’t have to ask me that question, and I don’t have to answer that question.”

After a few more awkward pauses, Galvin looked at the audience and said: “It can only get crazier at this city hall, eh?”

“It’s circus time!” shouted a jester in the audience.

Just another evening in Caligula’s court, this time with a half-billion-dollar development on the line. The media, of course, have been stepping right up to feast on this Roman carnival. With action taking place in so many rings, where to begin?

Fetch your popcorn and peanuts. Here’s a rundown of recent developments.

Small businesses are bashed by the trash deal. The noncompete WastePro contract lowers sanitation rates for residents, at least for the time being, but with no guarantees. It screws businesses that use their own garbage contractors while trying to make payroll and deal with skyrocketing insurance. By privatizing waste pickup, the city gets $900,000, drives out competition, and makes WastePro richer. Businesses and independent haulers only get poorer -- and madder than hell.

“My rate’s going to go from $421 to $1380,” says Debbie Graves, who runs Jimmy’s Place restaurant on NE 125th Street and has to give up her private hauler for WastePro. “Someone came in one day and said, ‘We’re your new sanitation company.’ I said, ‘You seem like a nice kid, but I really must ask you to leave my restaurant.’ We didn’t even get the courtesy of a notice. This is communistic.”

Then there’s the water. Water utility rates are moving from the straight 5000 gallons to quarterly bills based on usage. The more you use, the higher your rate per gallon. Coin laundries that cater to the apartments near W. Dixie Highway and NE 6th Avenue could see their rates triple. That $2.50 coin load may turn into a $7.50 load, a nasty surprise for struggling families.

Confused residents, including the city leadership of neighboring Biscayne Park, which gets its water from North Miami, packed the council chambers on March 27 and April 13, complaining of rates that suddenly will go up 50 percent or more. (Low-volume water-users actually get a break.) A little advance notice would have helped. The people at the meeting walked away better informed, but no less confused.

Swerdlow’s back on, and alone -- for now. The Swerdlow deal was exhumed 3-2 from the near-dead under the watchful eye of lobbyist Ron Book, who has built a terrific career playing Chinese checkers with himself, representing both North Miami and Swerdlow. He ducked away with Pierre from pesky WPLG reporter Bob Norman’s attempted ambush interview on the garbage deal March 27, then sat in the audience with Swerdlow, who has a ten-year plan to develop big-box stores, a movie theater, assisted-living facilities, and maybe condos and hotels on the 184-acre Biscayne Landing site.

Others prospective developers are in the wings. City manager Stephen Johnson says Taubco, the folks who brought you Biscayne Commons, made an offer to the city of $14 million to carve out nine acres or so at the southeast corner of 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

Johnson also told the council that the owner of the Lamborghini dealership across the street made an offer of about $13.5 million to build a four-story showroom on the corner. Councilman Jean Marcellus, normally the quiet one at the council meeting, says this bidding only proves how right he was all along in stonewalling Swerdlow.

Amnesty! Mayor Pierre, on March 27, decided it would be a neat idea for the financially strapped city to waive occupational license fees for businesses that hadn’t paid them for years, and the council went for it 3-2. Businesses that had paid those fees said they were getting the shaft, and lawyer and ex-mayoral candidate Carol Keys hand-delivered a request to the city to release the records naming those businesses. She has yet to hear back as of this April 13 writing.

Privatizing building inspectors. As midnight struck on April 11, the city council voted 3-2 to privatize building permitting and inspecting. The city in October rejected MT Causeway, a service that charged $150,000 a year. Instead the city voted to hire C.A.P. Government, a municipal building-inspection and code-enforcement outsourcing company based in Doral, which will split fees 50-50 with the city.

There’s lots of bread in this. Permitting fees for the Oaks Towers at Biscayne Landing came to $2.7 million. Picture Swerdlow’s $500 million project and you start to see real money to be had from new construction. Carol Keys, still resolutely awake, was again on the case, pointing out the huge implications and questioning the deal. What will the city sell next at the bazaar? Code enforcement, maybe?

Now he tells us. New North Miami city attorney Regine Monestime brought in Joseph Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, on April 16 to teach council and staff Ethics 101. Of five council members, only Mayor Andre Pierre and Marie Erlange Steril asked questions. Pierre, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer, asked if it was unethical to represent clients “wrongfully accused” by the North Miami Police Department. Of course it’s a conflict, Centorino exclaimed, especially “if you’re going to be cross-examining your own police.”

Free soccer for all? Pierre and his “nonprofit” North Miami Taxpayers’ Soccer Club have dodged $29,000 in unpaid fees for regular Friday night pickup games at Ronald Book (he’s everywhere) Stadium on 151st Street near Mourning High. City manager Johnson told the Herald that he was “looking into” the city’s fee policy.

Jumping Josaphat! As in Joe Celestin. A general contractor and self-described civil engineer, the personable and connected ex-North Miami mayor, makes $300,000 a year on the city’s tab to supervise the Biscayne Landing project as he plays with the North Miami Taxpayers’ Soccer Club. North Miami has been very good to him. The council voted April 10 to name the new clubhouse in Claude Pepper Park the Josaphat Celestin Community Center.

That’s it for our show tonight. No time for the mayor’s 43 police badges, the $100,000 Porsche that fell from the sky, the foreclosure on his house, the $8200 taxpayer-funded wiring of his office when he rightly suspected the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was tailing him, or …

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle: How’s that public corruption unit doing?


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