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Jun 25th
The Mayor’s Goodbye PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
June 2019

Smith Joseph leaves with a mixed legacy and lessons

FPix_MarkSell_6-19or North Miami’s departing mayor, Smith Joseph, May was a valediction, if not quite a victory lap.

The month, Haitian Heritage Month, opened with flair just outside the must-see Street Art of Port-Au-Prince exhibit, running through August 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. There were costumed Toussaint L’Ouverture soldiers, pulsing congas, dancing girls in swirling scarlet and emerald skirts surrounding the mayor’s family on a navy blue couch carried from the museum by four city employees, with VIP seats and bottled water reserved for the mayor’s party only.

Then on May 7, council and school representatives lifted shovels for a premature ceremonial groundbreaking of Cagni Park at 135th Street. Finally, on May 15, the mayor gave his final reading to schoolchildren at the North Miami library and reflected a bit on his legacy after four and a half years.

The voters -- 19 percent of them, down from 26 percent in Joseph’s first, failed 2013 race -- have spoken. On May 14, they elected Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime to replace term-limited Joseph with 52 percent of the vote. Incumbent District 1 Councilman Scott Galvin won with 65 percent, incumbent District 4 Councilman Alex Desulme with 66 percent, and Vanessa Joseph as probable final elected city clerk with 67 percent. All are to serve four years. In short, four of five council members, including incumbent Carol Keys, will remain on the dais for the next two years.

There is just one runoff June 4: the special election to replace Bien-Aime in District 3, as city clerk Michael Etienne battles personnel board chair Mary Estime Irvin over two unexpired years.

Wolves are pacing near the door and may soon howl. Shortly before the election, the city quietly released its unaudited Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). The city is in the hole -- badly -- with a $9.7 million deficit as of September 30, 2018. Current trends show that number getting much worse.

It appears to vindicate assistant budget director Terry Henley, fired last September after blowing the whistle on the budget. He is still appealing that firing.

All is not doom -- quite. Taxable values are up nine percent. Solé Mia is online. Imagine if, between now and budget time, Solé Mia’s developers exercise their option to buy 20 acres of land outright for $8 million as stipulated in the city-developer contract (plus another $2.5 million or so for another five acres they might want to buy). Or suppose that the city gets reimbursed $3.7 million in Hurricane Irma expenses, as anticipated. While that surely helps, the city is running on fumes.

Smith Joseph’s legacy, if mixed, has good sides. When elected in November 2014, after the conviction and imprisonment of Mayor Lucie Tondreau for mortgage fraud, the council and city were still reeling from the turbulent 2009-13 tenure of Mayor Andre Pierre. Councilman Galvin had worn a wire for authorities trying to get the goods on Pierre and corruption. Corruption revelations and sackings at the Community Redevelopment Agency in mid-2014 didn’t help, and regular temper tantrums on the council dais, some with racial overtones, were still recent.

While Joseph was sometimes called imperious, his proudest legacy rings true.

“There is nothing I value more than that we have pretty much gotten to the point where people on the dais can get along and learn to respect each other,” he tells the BT. “There is less animosity now. There used to be a lack of respect among the council members. That doesn’t mean we have to change our beliefs.”

Yet the city remains riven along ethnic and economic lines. In the more affluent (and whiter) eastern Keystone and Sans Souci portions of District 1, Anglo, gay Scott Galvin, who reaches out to other ethnic groups, got 93 percent of the vote. In District 1 precincts west of Biscayne Boulevard, Vanessa Pierre beat Galvin, sometimes by 65-35 margins.

Also in areas east of the Boulevard, residents voted well over 50 percent for Mac-Kinley Lauriston, a Haitian American who ran a focused, issues-oriented, fiscally hawkish campaign. The dogged mayoral candidate Hector Medina went door-to-door and got more than 20 percent of the vote on the east side, acing out Bien-Aime, who placed a distant third with barely 16 percent of the vote. Bien-Aime’s strong performance in central and western precincts spared him a runoff.

Andre Pierre has not gone away, lending his political might to Bien-Aime’s successful campaign.

Lauriston, however, with 28 percent of the vote, says he is not finished. Lauriston gave a gracious concession, emphasized his continuing concerns about the city, and invited his supporters to band together in a reform effort that could prove constructive in the months and years just ahead.

During Joseph’s mayoralty, Solé Mia broke ground and came to life. The CRA, under city manager Larry Spring and executive director Rasha Soray-Cameau, overcame scandal and got an extension until 2044. Joseph convened a quarterly mayor’s business forum at Florida International University. Cagni Park was belatedly set into motion, despite real or imagined feuds with the county. True groundbreaking is a good year away, as prospective architects and designers have yet to submit qualifications.

Joseph’s signal failure: the $120-million bond issue that was defeated 72-28 in May 2018. That loss stings, but the city must fix its fiscal house before returning to the bond market.

Still, Joseph is resilient. Before 40 fourth- and fifth-graders at the library, he led a group reading of the 1964 Ezra Jack Keats preschool classic Whistle for Willie, about Peter, who longs to whistle for his dog, and tries and tries and tries again until the he’s finally able to whistle.

The self-made Joseph had gritted his way through early life after leaving Haiti at age 18. He pushed himself through community college, university, pharmacy, and medical degrees, building a practice, taking a 2013 mayoral beating by Tondreau in which he raised and spent over $212,000, and winning 2014 and 2015 campaigns for which he raised and spent nearly $350,000.

“You have to try for something good to happen,” Joseph, age 57, told the students, most of them Haitian American. “You keep trying, keep trying, keep trying until you make it. If it’s something you really want, don’t let somebody tell you you can’t do it.”

Then remembering the library setting, he shouted: “When you read, you get knowledge! You get power! You get respect! You get money!”

What would Smith Joseph of 2019 tell the man who entered office in 2014?

Turning reflective, even wistful, he tells the BT: “I’d tell myself, you need to be a little more open and listen to what others have to say.”

 

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