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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
April 2020

Tiny Biscayne Park’s brawl may be over, but now comes the bill

BBiscaynePark_1etween October 2019 and February 2020, three of Biscayne Park’s elected officials resigned, including its mayor. The village’s contracted law firm also quit, citing safety to its employees. And the village manager has been fired by a new government that’s questioning everything the previous mayor has done.

Such is the political drama engulfing Biscayne Park, a 410-acre community of 3200 people that’s sandwiched between North Miami and Miami Shores. Because virtually all the property is homestead-exempted residential, Biscayne Park receives very little revenue from commercial property taxes. As a result, the village charges the second-highest millage rate in Miami-Dade County: $9.70 per $1000 of assessed property value.

In the summer of 2018, Biscayne Park made headlines after its former police chief, Raimundo Atesiano, was sent to prison for three years. According to federal prosecutors, prior to his resignation in 2014, Atesiano encouraged his officers to arrest black men who had “somewhat of a record,” as one officer reportedly told internal investigators, so the department could reach a 100-percent clearance rate for burglaries committed in the predominately white municipality. Three officers were also convicted and received one-year sentences.

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More recently, the village garnered attention after its previous mayor, Tracy Truppman, effectively canceled the January 14, 2020, swearing in of two newly elected commissioners by refusing to show up for the ceremony.

Her no-show caused such a ruckus among angry attendees that a Miami Herald article described the event with the headline “Drag the mayor from her house,” a phrase purportedly yelled by an angry resident. (The swearing-in was held two days later.)

Also reported in the Herald was how previous village manager Krishan Manners and village attorney Rebecca Rodriguez took Commissioner Dan Samaria to court while his home was being foreclosed on and he was being treated for colon cancer. The lawsuit claimed that he had to prove he still lived in the village or cede his seat. On January 30, the case was dismissed after a judge ruled that Samaria still lived in his house.

A few days later, on February 4, at 5:00 p.m., Truppman resigned, just two hours before a newly assembled commission was set to appoint a new mayor. Her resignation letter gave no reason, although she stated that she reserved all rights “to institute any and all legal proceedings in any court or competent jurisdiction.” (Truppman didn’t return phone calls and texts from the BT by deadline.)

Back in October 2019, during questioning from investigators with the independent Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics, Truppman said she was trying to “fix” a village that had been mismanaged for years. In response to complaints that she’d exceeded her authority under the village charter, she told investigators that a cabal of former elected officials and neighborhood malcontents tormented her, her allies, and village staff at meetings and online.

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“Trust me when I tell you, six months from now there will be nobody sitting on this [village] commission. Because everybody has had enough, including the mayor,” she declared.

On February 5, the day after Truppman resigned, the Commission on Ethics closed its investigation. Nevertheless, several village residents and newly elected officials tell the BT that she ran local government as her fiefdom and created a rift between village administrators and residents.

“Tracy wanted to be a strong mayor,” says Harvey Bilt, a former Biscayne Park commissioner and one-time ally of Truppman.

Adds former commissioner Fred Jonas, a BT columnist and publisher of Biscayne Park -- A Village Voice blog: “She owned the village. She owned Krishan. And she owned everything else.”

Yet even though Truppman sought control, her critics claim that she accomplished nothing. Commissioner Roxanna Ross says Truppman actually made things worse. “She thinks she knows all the answers,” says Ross, “and that makes it hard to listen to other perspectives.”

But former village manager Manners tells the BT it’s the new commission that’s abusing its power. “This is a political coup,” says Manners, who adds that he’s considering a lawsuit against the village for wrongful termination. “These commissioners have been going after the former mayor for quite some time.”

Vice Mayor Will Tudor, Truppman’s last remaining ally on the commission, believes the strife surrounding village government is being caused by two small groups of residents who don’t like each other.

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“What this village needs are commissioners who are completely independent, who are willing to listen to both sides. But unfortunately, they are not,” Tudor claims.

Janey Anderson, who has lived in Biscayne Park with her husband, former commissioner Bob Anderson, for 42 years, admits there have been sharp disagreements in the past over how the village should be run, but never like this.

“As bad as people thought it was then, we managed to work around it,” says Anderson, a member of the code compliance board until Truppman’s majority opted to replace the citizens committee with a magistrate. “I’ve never seen this kind of negativity and just obstinance.”

Anderson’s husband, a 20-year veteran of the commission, says he actually supported Truppman when she first ran, but soon realized she was an aspiring “dictator” who was enabled by Manners, Rodriguez, and her three “rubber stamps” on the commission: Will Tudor, Betsy Wise, and Jenny Johnson-Sardella. (Wise and Samaria were elected to the commission in November 2018.)

“My personal opinion is that Tracy seemed to be a person who wanted what she wanted, and she would do anything to make that happen,” Anderson adds.

Truppman, Tudor, and Johnson-Sardella were elected in November 2016. A month later, after Mayor David Coviello announced he was leaving Biscayne Park, Truppman was designated the new mayor. In March 2017, just four months after Truppman was elected to the commission, then city manager Sharon Ragoonan resigned. Her departure was a topic of interest for the Commission on Ethics since, as investigator Robert Steinbeck described in his report, “numerous residents accused Truppman of having ‘fired’ Ragoonan” without commission approval. Truppman and her attorneys, Judith Gersten and Ramon Irizarri, insisted that Ragoonan resigned.

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“My guess is that [Ragoonan] spoke to all the commissioners that were involved, and she probably didn’t think she was going to be retained. That is probably why she left,” Truppman told investigators. (Ragoonan confirmed to the commission that she resigned.)

Commissioner Ross is sure Truppman demanded that Ragoonan quit “out of spite.” That’s because Truppman, a former school teacher, had applied for the village manager job. “Sharon beat her out of the job for manager,” Ross says.

Krishan Manners was tapped as Shaaron Ragoonan’s replacement, although his experience in municipal government included just one stint as an assistant to Biscayne Park’s village manager between August 2014 and March 2016. Prior to that, he worked in advertising, marketing, and real estate. In contrast, Ragoonan had held administrative jobs in North Miami, North Miami Beach, Miami Gardens, and Sunny Isles Beach. She is now a North Miami Beach assistant city manager.

Milton Hunter, a 25-year resident and publisher of the Biscayne Parker blog, believes Truppman wanted Manners as village manager because he was inexperienced and easily influenced.

“Sharon was not going to be manipulated by a neophyte [Truppman],” says Hunter. “Truppman basically designed a small group of people to be, in my opinion, malleable. This has been a three-year vanity project of hers.”

Truppman’s critics suspect the previous village attorney, John Herin, suffered the same fate after he left the village’s contracted law firm, GrayRobinson. A discussion of whether to continue using Herin or accept a replacement from GrayRobinson was on the March 2019 agenda. When Truppman couldn’t attend due to a personal issue, Manners had the meeting rescheduled, even though enough commission members were available to establish a quorum, according to an Commission on Ethics report.

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Two months later, Rodriguez was listed as village attorney. (Following Rodriguez’s departure, Herin, now affiliated with Fox Rothschild LLP, returned to Biscayne Park as interim village attorney.)

During the Commission on Ethics interview, both Truppman and her attorney, Gersten, praised Rodriguez’s work. “We actually have an attorney who does her job now,” Truppman said. Added Gersten: “It’s like night and day, it’s like a new dawn, a new world.”

But that expertise came at a price. Typically, the village budgeted $75,000 a year for expenses; additional legal expenditures required commission approval. Rodriguez’s bills exceeded that amount.

When Roxanna Ross, then just a citizen, and Commissioner Samaria questioned the billings, Truppman and the commission simply increased the budget for legal work to $90,000. Based on Rodriguez’s invoices “there were consistently more conversations with the mayor than with the village manager,” Ross tells the BT. “That kind of irked me.”

By October 2019, Truppman’s power base began to crack. On October 16, the same day she was being interviewed by the Commission on Ethics inside the 1930s-era log cabin that serves as Biscayne Park’s village hall, Commissioner Betsy Wise submitted her resignation, though she offered to stay on a little longer to help with a “village branding proposal.”

Wise gave no reason for her resignation, although she later told Biscayne Park police that “she felt her personal life and home privacy were extremely violated” during her time in office. (Wise did not return phone calls from the BT.) Two weeks later, Jenny Johnson-Sardella also resigned, citing the poor health of her father as a reason.

It was around this time that the village started investigating Commissioner Samaria. On January 7, 2020, two outspoken critics of Truppman, MacDonald Kennedy and Virginia O’Halpin, won a special election to fill the seats vacated by Wise and Johnson-Sardella. And two days after that -- prior to Kennedy’s and O’Halpin’s planned swearing-in -- village manager Krishan Manners authorized Rodriguez to take Samaria to court over his residency.

The litigation against Samaria continued, even after Kennedy and O’Halpin were sworn in, until Circuit Court Judge Antonio Arzola declared the suit “premature,” based on evidence that Samaria still lived in his Biscayne Park house.

(Roxanna Ross, who previously served on the commission between 2009 and 2018, filed to run for the commission seat vacated by Truppman. Since no one else filed, Ross was sworn in as a commissioner on March 3.)

Manners acknowledged to the new commission during his March 3 appeal over his suspension that he had authorized the lawsuit without the full permission of the commission. He insisted that, at the time, he wouldn’t have been able to get a quorum since Samaria would have had to recuse himself. Manners also acknowledged that he promptly had the village pay the $10,000 bill submitted by GrayRobinson for taking Samaria to trial.

Aside from suing Samaria, Rodriguez’s last action as village attorney was to cancel Kennedy’s and O’Halpin’s January 14 swearing-in, due to lack of a quorum. She then quickly left the village log cabin, later claiming to Biscayne Park police that she felt threatened by Kennedy, who she said chased to her car, calling her a coward. Rodriguez further added in a January 14 e-mail to Manners that Wise and Johnson-Sardella also felt physically threatened, which is why they resigned and are “now selling their houses to move out of Biscayne Park altogether.”

Contacted by police, both Wise and Johnson-Sardella denied they felt threatened. Kennedy denies to the BT that he ever physically threatened anyone. Rodriguez did not return phone calls and e-mails from the BT.

On March 4, former Miami Lakes attorney Michael Pizzi sent a letter to Biscayne Park Village, advising that Samaria would be suing the village for $1 million. Pizzi insists that Samaria’s real target isn’t Biscayne Park’s current government. “The real culprits are the prior commissioners, the prior law firm, and the prior village manager. He has to name the village as a party because they [the previous officials] acted as the village authority,” explains Pizzi. “They beat up on him when he was going through a difficult time.”

Indeed, Samaria tells the BT that Manners and Rodriguez intimidated two people in the village who were willing to rent him a room. Samaria is also sure it was retaliation because he opposed Truppman’s agenda, questioned legal bills, and called for her demotion to regular commissioner via a vote of no confidence. “If you go against her, she goes after you,” says Samaria, an owner of a pest control company who is now renting an apartment in the village.

Now that Truppman is gone, the village must tackle a multitude of issues. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, there is the pending lawsuit from a sitting commissioner and possible legal action from two former officials. At its next meeting, tentatively scheduled for May 5, the commission will discuss hiring a new, permanent village manager and village attorney. They’ll also discuss the $9474 in legal fees still owed to GrayRobinson.

And they’ll have to figure out how to resolve an ongoing audit by the Civilian Independent Transportation Trust that has already resulted in a freeze on future transportation-related funding from Miami-Dade County’s transit surtax. The CITT audit may also lead to a clawback of $866,606, unless the village can document how previous allocations of surtax transportation money were spent. That’s a significant impact for a village with a budget of $3.9 million.

Also on the agenda: a possible $750,000 reimbursement from FEMA related to the town’s emergency $1 million cleanup after Hurricane Irma.

Virginia O’Halpin, who was affirmed as the village’s new mayor, hopes to rebuild trust between the government and its residents. “It was so hostile, it was them versus us. That’s the wrong attitude. It should be us and us,” she says.

Commissioner MacDonald Kennedy, meanwhile, is eager to move ahead without Truppman on the dais. “Good riddance,” he says. “She is gone, and it’s a better day in Biscayne Park.”

 

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