14 September, 2007

BABYLON CITY: On City of Coral Gables "City Hall Confidential"

by Jorge Reyes

At the base of our constitutional, civil and civic rights is the ability to ask from our public officers the right to speak, the right to ask for a redress of grievances, and the right to make sure, against any other excuse to the contrary, that public business be treated with as much openness, ethics, and transparency.

It seems that's correct in much of our public institutions, except in the municipality of Coral Gables in southern Florida.

Anyone who's been reading some of Miami-Dade County's news, has, I'm sure seen recent articles about Coral Gables, a city known for its unique architectural beauty as much as for its political scandals.

It all started in 2006, with the arrest of an administrative assistant in the city's top-money making department, the Building and Zoning Department.

The arrest itself fueled an untold number of further allegations against the Building and Zoning Department, mainly against its now-terminated Director, Margaret R. Pass.  The arrest also unleashed an equally embarrassing number of  allegations of corruption in other departments and public officers. All these juicy events led to the sponsorship of an online public discussion blog called "City Hall Confidential", hosted by the city's local newspaper the Coral Gables Gazette.   (As of 2010, the Gazette has become a sort of cyber newspaper and City Hall Confidential seems to have been terminated.)

Much has been written in this blog about just about anything and anyone you can think of: from accusations of further fraud, corruption and cover-ups.  In fact, the entries into this blog reads like a sort of cyber-reality soap-opera with lurid story-lines involving sex, lies and, yes, even video-tapes.

All along, not too long, this blog seems to have fueled such public interest that there's even a reported attempt to hack into the server by a yet to be discovered entity which, simultaneously, seems to have made many a people's computers unworkable after they attempted to log onto that web-site. Not without surprise, accusations immediately ran rampant that the perpetrators of this heinous crime was none other than the City's own IT Department in a desperate attempt to find out who was whom posting daily entries in a membership listing of over 200 names, with aliases as interesting as: "Deep Throat," "TheBeautifulCity," "City Hall Spy," "New_Pac," etc.

(Left to right: Mayor Donald D. Slesnick III and City Manager David Brown.)

Even the Mayor of Coral Gables, Donald D. Slesnick III, asked the city attorney, rather unsuccessfully, to draft a resolution preventing any employee from writing or divulging anything of an internal matter publicly. The gag-order didn't go very far, though the attorney dutifully drafted a possible resolution.

Many of the personalities created have taken on particular issues that have emanated as a result of the year-long criminal investigation from the State Attorney Office. Some discuss, at length, issues about the criminal investigation, others just discuss the latest sex escapades of the private lives of the employees.  The honest truth is that no one trusts even the nature of the investigation, which is why whistleblowers are also writing in the blog as a way to keep track of the record at hand. 

I'm not sure what you may think of this, but I've never seen any criminal investigation as wide-ranging and as potentially dangerous to the career of public officials that has also become so embarrassing and which has unleashed a public discussion of this type.

There are extremely funny postings as much as there are postings directed at another one of the many personalities. Sometimes this takes on a hilarious nature, often it raises the vitriol level a bit too high for anyone's comfort. Often, there is detailed information about a particular issue. And, there are even mini-editorials about particular topics unrelated to the criminal investigation.

What started as a simple arrest in 2006, has turned into a domino's theory that seems to be involving just about everyone in the city and accusing everyone as accomplices in some sort of mischief or two, no joking matter. It would behoove anyone reading these entries to at least give them reding because asides from their effect, they seem genuine, often with exact details into the nature of misdeeds. 

I don't know about you, but an issue that seems to have awakened the interest by the citizenry in the affairs of their local government is a good thing. Even when some of the entries are not written with fairness in mind, one can gloss over the insensitive nature of these and realize that all are directed at public officers, despite their rank and file, which, again, is a good thing.  Democracy was not made for political correctness.

Public officers, of all stripes, ought to know that they serve the taxpayers, not the other way around. The truth may hurt, may offend, can often seem to be prompted by disgruntled people and personal issues, but criticism against public officers over their actions remains a stronghold of our democratic principles.

The constitution and everything we stand for as a nation stands on a very simple pact we seem to have forgotten: we the people run the government. Like it or not, this populism is the way it was always meant to be and the way it should remaim.  Otherwise, the day will come when each of us will have to buy into that pre-packaged lie that in order to be one nation we have to share in just one party line, believe in just one God, or even accept the pundits of one administrative body.

Wake up, everyone: chances are that if any public officer (a president, a mayor, a chief of police) tries to silence your point of view either through fear or retaliation, then there's something radically wrong in that side of town. The entire place probably stinks from top to bottom and the smell will probably get worse not better. And, with a misnomer like "the City Beautiful," the ironies are striking.

In all fairness, all the postings in "City Hall Confidential" could be nothing less than just that-- unsubstantiated information created by disgruntled employees. Yet, I have a hard time believing that much of it, even just a little of it, can be just gossip.

Coral Gables City Manager David L. Brown

As of 2008 the City Manager David L. Brown was under criminal investigation after a local newspaper discovered that he had back-dated two receipts, two and one year aparts, in order to fraudently prove that they had been paid. Though he wasn't outright fired since the state attorney office considered this to be a civil matter (to the very public disagreement of the Miami-Dade County Public Corruption Unit), Brown was eventually let go after one of his mistresses, who was also the mayor's own secretary, threatened to go public with a sexual harassment lawsuit against Brown.  The city settled with the alledged mistress.  Brown is now living in North Carolina, rumors say he is getting a divorce, has problems with the IRS, among other things.  Sadly, Brown also took with him in his retirement package an extra $25,000 with him which the city, in all fairness, at first tried to recoup from him before it changed its mind.  The city attorney claimed, among other things, that it would cost more in litigation than in it was actually worth it.   Brown didn't even make a good faith effort the attempt to return the money.

No criminal charges have been filed against anyone else in Coral Gables.  Most of the people in question, though, have either been quietly let go from their positions, have resigned, or sued the city in order to get huge settlements.  Margaret R. Pass, the director who was put on suspension with pay for over a year in 2006, played a game of cat-and-mouse for over year until she cajoled three commissioners in 2010 to vote for a settlement worth $99,000.  The commissioners simply turned a blind eye to the fact that the results of the criminal investigation against Margaret Pass and her department was still ongoing. 

And so it goes...

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