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Feb 24th
Meet the New Boss PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
February 2020

Alex Diaz de la Portilla has taken Miami City Hall by storm -- storm as in natural disaster

MCityHall_1iami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla has ideas. He wants to streamline, maybe abolish, Miami’s Downtown Development Authority. He wants to consolidate two of the city’s community redevelopment areas under one new community redevelopment agency (CRA) and add within the new area the predominately working-class neighborhood of Allapattah. And he wants to tap into the property taxes collected in District 2, which covers some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the City of Miami and is represented by Commissioner Ken Russell.

“Russell’s district is the money district, where all the money is, and all the poorer districts in Miami don’t benefit from that. They need to,” says Diaz de la Portilla, who represents District 1, which includes Allapattah.

Diaz de la Portilla has been a Miami city commissioner for less than three months. But he’s already pushed through legislation stripping Russell of his chairmanship of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency and his chairmanship of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

In the process, Diaz de la Portilla himself became chairman of the Omni CRA, vice chair of the Southeast Overtown Park West CRA, and the city’s representative to the Miami-Dade Tourism Development Council. District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes was named chair of the DDA, and District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo was made vice chair of the Omni CRA.

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And Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator with two brothers who also did stints as legislators, may not be finished. During a recent DDA executive board meeting, Commissioner Reyes explained to members that Diaz de la Portilla wants to become vice chair of that organization as well. “He wants to be on all the boards,” said Reyes. “He wants to learn how they operate.”

The two CRAs and the DDA control millions of dollars in property taxes. The DDA, which levies an additional 47-cent tax per $1000 of assessed value on properties located within a two-square-mile area, has $7.7 million in assets, and collected $8.8 million in revenue in 2019. The Omni CRA, which includes the shuttered Omni Mall (now owned by the Genting Group) and parts of Edgewater and Overtown, has a $54 million budget. The Southeast Overtown Park West CRA, with a $66.3 million budget, includes the rapidly developing Miami Worldcenter sector and the three-million-square-foot Virgin MiamiCentral train complex.

But not a single CRA is located in District 1 or in Reyes’ District 4 -- at least not yet. The Southeast Overtown Park West CRA falls mainly within District 5, represented by Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who still chairs that agency. The Omni CRA and the DDA are mostly located in Russell’s District 2.

Russell claims his loss of influence at city hall stems from his refusal to back the firing of city manager Emilio Gonzalez, following allegations levied by Carollo that city staff covered up an illegal backyard deck at Gonzalez’s home.

CityHall_3“It’s not lost on me that had I voted to fire the city manager on these fraudulent charges against him, then I would have retained my chairmanships,” Russell says.

During the January 23 city commission meeting, Russell denounced the new appointments as a “candy grab” that comes after a piñata is smashed. He then urged cooperation: “I hope the dust settles because I look forward to working with all of you, but I got to tell you, the bridges are burning right now.”

Diaz de la Portilla replied that it was Russell who launched a power play first when he raised or donated $270,000 to one of Diaz de la Portilla’s opponents in the District 1 election this past November -- Eleazar Melendez, Russell’s former chief of staff (and onetime BT contributor). Diaz de la Portilla claimed it was an attempt by Russell to hold two seats instead of one. The commissioner also told Russell that his “holier-than-thou” attitude irritated him. “This is the way it is. Grow up!” he said. “Put your pants on and deal with it.”

But didn’t Carollo campaign for you in your District 1 campaign?

“He did, and I helped him out with his [campaign],” Diaz de la Portilla tells the BT, referring to Carollo’s 2017 election to the District 3 seat, which includes Little Havana. “Yes, we’re allies. I’m allies with Reyes, too. I have a good relationship with [District 5 City Commissioner Keon] Hardemon....I knew Keon since he was very young, and I know his uncle and family.”

CityHall_4Maintaining the cooperation of at least two other commissioners, and Mayor Francis Suarez, who has veto power, will be critical if Diaz de la Portilla intends to consolidate the two CRAs into one entity and, perhaps, be named its chair. “But again, that’s a discussion with the other commissioners,” he says.

At the very least, he’s interested in including part or all of Allapattah in the Omni CRA. A sprawling five-square-mile area just west of Wynwood, Allapattah is a mostly Hispanic working-class neighborhood where the median household income is $22,000. (See “Old Neighborhood, New Look,” May 2019, for more on Allapattah.)

The property taxes collected within the Omni CRA, where new high-rise residential buildings are springing up, could help alleviate the poverty in Allapattah, he maintains. Under state law, local governments can create community redevelopment agencies within designated areas. Projects are then funded by “tax increment financing” within those areas, which means that increases over a preset property tax rate -- increases that would normally go to city and county coffers -- would flow instead to the CRA.

“The reason for the CRAs is to get the affluent areas to help the poorer areas,” Diaz de la Portilla says.

CityHall_5Which was the intent of Commissioner Russell’s plan to connect the Omni CRA to the West Grove, a predominately African-American area where residents are being threatened with displacement by developers. That plan stalled after opposition from Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes Omni.

Diaz de la Portilla says the Omni-West Grove plan likely won’t happen. “They’re not contiguous,” he says, adding he’ll try to work with Russell on finding another solution. (Russell says he’s going to push for the West Grove to get its own CRA district.)

He also hopes to obtain more of District 2’s property taxes for the rest of the city by slashing administrative costs, and employees, within the CRAs and the DDA. “They got a little bit too big for their britches, and we have to make them smaller to make them more accountable,” he says.

He tells the BT he can help fulfill the needs of the residents and businesses there more efficiently than Russell can. “I think there’s a disconnect between what residents want and what Ken Russell thinks they want,” he says. “I think I’ll do a better job across the board for the City of Miami. Ken Russell got elected in 2015 with no experience. He has no political relationships. I was a state senator for ten years, a state representative for six. I’ve been in politics for 25 years. So I have a lot of relationships.”

His rapidly growing influence at city hall coincides with increased tensions there, fanned mainly by Carollo, who was first elected to the city commission in 1979 and was twice mayor in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Carollo has a contentious relationship with the Suarez family, particularly Xavier Suarez, father of the current mayor. Xavier Suarez was elected mayor for a second time in 1997 but ousted after a judge found credible evidence of absentee ballot fraud, enabling Carollo to regain the seat in 1998. (Xavier Suarez himself was not implicated and is now a county commissioner.)

More recently, Carollo is an opponent of city manager Emilio Gonzalez, accusing him of being lazy and of doing Francis Suarez’s bidding, enabling the mayor to become a “backdoor” strong mayor. (In November 2018, voters rejected a referendum, pushed by Suarez, to create a “strong” mayor form of government that would have enabled him to directly hire and fire staff.) It’s an accusation that Mayor Suarez repeatedly denies.

“[Carollo] tries to eliminate people he thinks are standing in his way so he can try and dominate and rule in the way he has always done in his career -- which is a very toxic way,” Suarez says. “And frankly, it’s going to lead to disastrous results for the city.”

On December 12, Carollo won support from Diaz de la Portilla and Reyes to terminate city manager Gonzalez. But the city charter requires four votes, not three, to fire the manager. Russell, an ally of Mayor Suarez and a supporter of Gonzalez, opposed the move. Commissioner Hardemon, recently named as chairman of the city commission by Mayor Suarez, also voted against Gonzalez’s termination.

One result of the deadlock was the sudden adjournment of the January 9 commission meeting over a disagreement on the order of the agenda. A flu-stricken Hardemon, who arrived late, had tried to alter the order of the agenda to first allow a report on the Super Bowl and a “personal appearance” from the manager, likely to address Carollo’s allegations. Rather than let that happen, Diaz de la Portilla made a motion to end the meeting, which was approved 3-to-2.

Following that aborted meeting, Emilio Gonzalez announced his intention to resign effective February 10, citing the poor health of his wife. Deputy city manager Joe Napoli stated his own intention to leave on February 13 to take a city manager job with Cooper City.

Soon after, a recall effort against Carollo was launched, led by five residents of Brickell and The Roads, including Brickell Homeowners Association president Ernesto Cuesta, Miami Neighborhoods United past president Grace Solares, and former District 3 commission contender Alfie Leon. That recall effort is being assisted by Juan Cuba, former executive director of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, whom Carollo dismisses as “some guy from Coral Gables.”

Meanwhile, in the wake of Miami’s contentious politics, the DDA is without a permanent leader. Among the items that were to be discussed at the January 9 meeting was confirming the hire of former Miami Beach City Commissioner John Elizabeth Aleman as executive director. When that meeting didn’t happen, Aleman resigned as acting director, citing a lack of clarity “around the terms of my employment and the nature of the position moving forward,” according to her letter to the board.

Deputy director Christina Crespi was named acting executive director; but Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, managing partner of Cervera Real Estate and a member of the DDA’s board of directors, says the DDA will now have to relaunch a search.

“I think we were collateral damage,” Lamadrid says.

Diaz de la Portilla, however, feels that the DDA needs an overhaul -- or perhaps even a disbandment. He questions why the DDA decided to continue paying the past director, Alyce Robertson, her annual $198,000 salary as a consultant. “We call that in Spanish a botella,” he says. “A botella is when someone has a government job and they don’t do anything.”

Most of all, he didn’t appreciate the DDA board consulting with attorneys on how to assert its autonomy from the city, nor did he like public comments from Aleman and Lamadrid suggesting that Miami City Hall is dysfunctional.

“There are some issues of arrogance that concern me,” Diaz de la Portilla says, noting that the city commission could disband the DDA by ordinance if it wants to. “I will recommend to them that they don’t challenge this commission because it isn’t going to end well for them,” he adds.

Lamadrid points out that most people attending public meetings couldn’t care less about the friction engulfing city hall. “[Diaz de la Portilla] needs to be aware that 90 percent of that audience are there for one reason,” she says, “and the rest of dealings and politics are not why they’re there.”

Reyes mentioned nothing about dissolving the DDA during its January 24 board meeting. Instead he reminisced about what downtown was like when he arrived from Cuba in 1959, and told the board of his desire to make permitting faster for small businesses, and to solve downtown’s homelessness problem.

Reyes assured the DDA board that the city is running fine. “There are some personal vendettas going on, which I won’t participate in,” the new chairman told board members, adding that his vote to terminate Gonzalez as city manager was based on his performance.

Reyes also expressed his desire to have an additional Miami city commissioner on the DDA board. But would he support a future bid by Diaz de la Portilla to become a vice chair of the DDA?

“The vice chair idea, it will be presented, and like any other idea, it has to be analyzed. I have nobody in particular in mind,” Reyes replies, adding: “He has some ideas, and we have some ideas.”

 

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