|A City Divided|
|Written by Mark Sell -- BT Contributor|
Now that a majority of the North Miami City Council has turned over,will anything else change?
If there was any doubt before, the June 4 runoff election proved that North Miami politics has jumped the shark. The city is profoundly and antagonistically divided, east versus west, white versus black. And the mayoral contest has all but cemented a Haitian-American majority on the council for a long time to come.
With a record 7293 votes cast in the mayoral contest, Lucie Tondreau trounced a former mayor, Kevin Burns, by a margin of roughly 56-44 percent, receiving more than 4062 votes. Yet the turnout was so great that Burns, with more than 3200 votes, actually did better than ex-Mayor Andre Pierre when he won in 2011.
Heavy turnout on the east side could not stop the “I Love Lucie” train, which turned into a two-and-a-half hour celebration/coronation/swearing-in June 11 at North Miami Senior High School. Even if one were to presume the usual voter fraud, absentee-ballot chicanery, and paying people to vote, it’s still quite likely, perhaps certain, that Tondreau would have won.
Within a week of the celebration, Burns, represented by powerhouse attorney Joseph Klock, filed a lawsuit to remove Tondreau, challenging the validity of her residency in the Sunkist Grove neighborhood. While Tondreau’s victory in the election is, at this writing, at the court’s mercy, her status does not change the underlying dynamic at work.
Councilwoman Carol Keys was sworn in from District 2, replacing Michael Blynn; and Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime was sworn in from District 3, replacing Jean Marcellus. Both Keys and, particularly, Bien-Aime signaled in their acceptance speeches independence and freedom from any party line, lobbyists, or special interests, which could make council votes tough to handicap.
There is a good chance both will join Councilman Scott Galvin in asking sharp questions about how the city spends its money, and that Bien-Aime, trained as an accountant, could prove a powerful council member and swing vote.
Pierre, never one to go quietly, turned the swearing-in into a Lucie Tondreau pep rally, at which perhaps 1500 people, overwhelmingly Haitian American, packed into the school auditorium. Musical groups and Caribbean-American media were in full attendance.
In essence, Pierre sang “My Way” for roughly two hours, talking about all the things he did right over the past four years, and leading call-and-response cheers of “I love Lucie! I adore Lucie! We love Lucie!” Pierre’s wife, Bernadette, gave Tondreau a rousing introduction, citing her long history as an organizer and activist in the Haitian community.
Pastor Gregory Toussaint of the Tabernacle of Glory sealed any doubt of the sea change in his pointed final benediction, in English and Kreyol, before the new city council’s first routine meeting. He compared the plight of the Haitians to that of the Jews in the Babylonian captivity:
“When they got there, the Lord said, in the Book of Jeremiah, get married, marry your children, build houses, plant vineyards. In other words, God was telling them to organize themselves.
“So let’s continue to organize ourselves; let’s continue to work together. The United States of America does not encourage division, but it sure encourages representation. And the best people to represent you are those who have come from your womb. And we have seen proof of that tonight. Let’s continue to work in that tradition. It will be great for our children, and great for our children’s children.”
Early in the proceedings, former Mayor Frank Wolland, a longtime friend of Tondreau’s who supported her campaign and is widely mentioned as the next city attorney, walked onto the stage, waved at the audience, and then repaired to the side, beaming like a backstage father throughout the event.
At one point, Pierre awarded the key to the city to a man who has done much to keep Pierre and others out of jail amid various investigations: ace white-collar criminal-defense lawyer Benedict Kuehne, who has known Pierre since his law school days at the University of Miami, where Kuehne was an adjunct professor.
From the stage, there was much talk of healing divisions and unifying the city. One particularly passionate speaker on the subject was Mayor’s Task Force co-chair Rabbi Jory Lang of Temple Beth Moshe.
While there is little question that healing is sorely needed, the fight is not about to stop. Precinct analysis confirms sharp division.
The 25.74 percent voter turnout marked a historic high. Burns overwhelmingly took the three precincts east of Biscayne Boulevard -- which boasted the city’s highest turnout -- by 95 percent, 94 percent, and 84 percent. Nearly half of all voters cast ballots in Precinct 147, representing southern Keystone Point.
Yet this strong, even overwhelming, turnout from an area representing roughly 30 percent of North Miami’s population and 70 percent of its tax base could not stem the Tondreau tide.
While Burns performed strongly in the areas east of W. Highway, around downtown and Johnson and Wales University, Tondreau easily trumped him everywhere else, often by a 75-25 or even an 80-20 margin. In Precinct 138, west of NE 6th Avenue, she got 90 percent of the vote. Haitian radio certainly helped, and she thanked radio hosts in her acceptance.
For all the poetry and ecstasy of the swearing-in, actual governance will quickly turn prosaic: raising money for services, spending it wisely, and accounting for it clearly.
Sidewalks, streetlights, and pavement in many parts of the city are nonexistent or crumbling, many households are sorely pressed -- with unemployment at 10.3 percent as of this past March -- and many city-run side streets are prone to severe flooding, as June’s 15-inch downpour proved.
Under Pierre’s watch, the crime rate dropped, water bills stayed low, and Michael Swerdlow and the Biscayne Landing developers gave the city $20 million, pushing the budget into a surplus.
At the same time, the city has acquired a reputation for corruption and cronyism, not helped by Pierre’s high-handed manner from the dais, opaque dealings in the background, multiple investigations, and no-bid contracts passed at midnight, with little notice at city council meetings.
If it is vital to get beyond demagoguery and rhetoric, here are two modest suggestions: 1) Before the September budget hearings, conduct an independent forensic audit of the city’s finances, so everyone knows how much money there is and for what purposes it is allocated; 2) institute a uniform, independent standard for requests for qualifications and requests for proposals for all city contracts.
The City of Miramar, which recently completed a waste-disposal contract with a rigorous process that survived a court challenge, could provide a good example.
If sunshine is the best disinfectant, let the cleansing and healing begin.
Volume 14, Issue 3, May 2016
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