Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Open Letter To Miami Media

The White Elephant completed and awaiting the end of lawsuits
I sent a variation of this letter to a local reporter. Because I worked on it for so long, and because every word I write is deserving of immortality, I am reprinting it here as an open letter in an amended form. Ahem. Testing . . . one . . . two . . . three . . . Ahem.

Dear Miami Media At Large:

Have I got a story for you. It's a great story, one you can sink your teeth into and make your investigatory bones. It's about waste and corruption within the City of Miami. I'd love to do it myself, but I'm just a little guy with a blog, yannow? I don't have the resources you do, Miami Media, and I've been chasing this story for a year. 

I was alerted to Trolleygate right around this time last year, so I wrote "An Introduction to Trolleygate." That's when I really started investigating this story. From the very beginning I said the siting of the bus garage was, straight up, Institutional Racism. It was not dissimilar to the racism that allowed West Grove to be gifted with Old Smokey all those decades ago. Therefore, it was heartening when the USDOT agreed with me, which is the thrust of a recent Miami Herald article "How fed dollars for trolleys in Miami-Dade, local cities spurred civil rights investigation." 

The article is correct, as far as it goes. However, it's missing the entire point, as far as I'm concerned. It never asks:

"How did West Grove get stuck with
this white elephant in the first place?"

The deal between Astor Development and Coral Gables aside, there appears to have been a concerted effort within the City of Miami to get Astor's dealie done with as little public input and awareness as possible. One of my off-the-record sources, an architect who has attended dozens of development meetings in several cities, tells me they've never seen a project approved so quickly in Miami. "A hot knife through butter" was the way it was described. Why? How? These are questions worth exploring, Miami Media.

From the very beginning of this project [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff seemed to be interested in making this happen on the QT, with as little muss and fuss as possible. Why? He allegedly helped Astor Development pit one West Grove community group off against another, which culminated in a huge lump sum of money ($250,000, apparently) being proffered by Astor Development for soil remediation of Armbrister Field. According to Miami Herald reporting, those people who were offered the money felt it was a bribe to get their approval for the maintenance garage, but considered it better than nothing if the garage was going to be built anyway. Why was Astor Development suddenly so magnanimous? How did Astor think to offer money to the community group in the first place? Who brokered this soil remediation deal with the community? Was Sarnoff a party to these negotiations? More questions you may wish to explore, Miami Media.

REMEMBER: This was before word broke that there was toxic soil all over Miami. What did Sarnoff know about toxic soil and when did he know it?

While those are all questions that need answers, Miami Media, there is one bigger question that might answer everything:

"Who is responsible for ignoring The Smoking
Gun email in the Miami Development Office?"

I wrote about this last September in "BLOCKBUSTER!!! The Trolleygate Smoking Gun Surfaces." Follow the bouncing ball. To paraphrase my own reporting:
As the wheels were being greased to get this project through Miami City Hall quietly, Dakota Hendon -- Miami Building and Zoning Department -- noted something VERY inconvenient. The Astor/Coral Gables/West Grove trolley garage project they had been about to approve DID NOT comply with the Miami 21 Plan. Hendon should know. He helped write the Miami 21 plan. To that end he sent an email to Miami Planning Director Francisco Garcia [embedded here] to say this garage would be non-conforming because vehicle maintenance is an industrial use, which was prohibited on Douglas Road. [Not to mention that the Miami 21 Plan specifically prohibits things called "government operated vehicle maintenance facilities" on the Douglas Road corridor.]

At this point the City of Miami paper trail seems to go cold, except for one curious thing. Astor Development resubmitted its application to the City of Miami. This second, replacement, application was virtually identical to the first one, except this new one removed the word "maintenance" from the intended uses of the building.

Let's be clear. The intended use of the building never changed. It was just a massaging of the wording on the original application once Hendon discovered there was a problem. And, on the basis of this amended application, the project was approved faster than "a hot knife through butter."
The former Pan Am air clipper terminal has been restored beautifully
to become Miami City Hal. It's where the alleged corruption now happens.
MORE QUESTIONS: Who told Astor to change its application? When Miami learned the project was non-conforming, why was the project not stopped dead in its trolley tracks? Why did Marc Sarnoff -- only after the controversy erupted in the community -- mount a Trolleygate Dog and Pony Show in a futile attempt to placate the West Grove community?

Where was the Miami Media at this laughable Town Hall Meeting? It was the kind of presentation that is usually given to taxpayers and stakeholders BEFORE a project is approved -- in order to get it approved -- not afterwards. Why was Sarnoff so concerned? Why was Sarnoff so involved? Why did Sarnoff spend taxpayers' dollars to mount the Trolleygate Dog and Pony Show if it was already a done deal that couldn't be changed? Who shepherded this project through the rough shoals at City Hall (to mix metaphors)? How did it get past goalkeepers Henden and Garcia? How much taxpayer money is now being spent by Coral Gables, Miami, and Miami-Dade to defend these [allegedly] corrupt backroom deals in the various legal forums that have erupted? (Astor pays its own freight, of course, and the West Grove community has been getting its legal services pro bono.) See, Miami Media, this story practically writes itself.

Miami Media, trust me on this one: You really won't have much work to do in order to lay this entire fiasco at the feet of [allegedly] corrupt Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff. You'll be hailed as a hero, too, because it will come right out of the blue. Sarnoff is rarely mentioned in stories about Trolleygate, despite the fact that he seemed to have his hands in almost every stage of this boondoggle in which Miami doesn't even receive tax dollars, let alone a fake trolley stop.

Sarnoff's interest in getting this disaster approved appears to have gone well beyond the basic fact that this polluting garage is in his district. Ask yourself this, Miami Media: If he was truly looking out for the interests of his constituents, Sarnoff could have interpreted every ambiguity in the zoning by-laws in favour of the West Grove community, as opposed to the OUT OF TOWN developer. However, Sarnoff said over and over at the Dog and Pony Show that his hands were tied because the project met all city standards, something we now know is not true.

If Sarnoff was truly looking out for the interests of his constituents, he would not have threatened them at the Dog and Pony Show. It was shocking to hear him casually claim that the West Grove lawsuit not only put in jeopardy the Arbrister Field bribe, but might cause him to withdraw HIS support for a redevelopment project currently in the planning stages for Grand Avenue. It was the most blatant example of Modern Day Colonialism I have ever witnessed. The naked political power dropped casually, as if he could not care less whether these projects go ahead, reminded me of Jim Crow. See, Miami Media? This story is really as old as the hills, if South Florida had any.

The Dog and Pony Show was my first contact with Sarnoff and I saw a bully in action. I'm surprised the Miami Media doesn't write more about this aspect of his character, before he starts closing down the bridges in Miami.

The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park sculpture, which I have
nicknamed Marc. If Sarnoff had any empathy for children and
families he would not have allowed two-thirds of Blanche Park
to go to the dogs at the expense of a children's playground.
And, just to put a fine point on this whole dealie: if Marc Sarnoff had any empathy for his constituents in West Grove, he would not have lined the back wall of the Dog and Pony Show with a largest police presence anyone can ever remember at a public meeting in Miami.

Could this be one of the [several] reasons my West Grove sources call him racist? Could this quiet racism be what allowed him to not even think about the residents of West Grove when approving this project, except on how to bamboozle them?

Would Marc D. Sarnoff have approved of this garage at, say, Shipping and Virginia, on the site of The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Dog Park, right next to The Marc D. Sarnoff Memorial Traffic Circle. Would he have pushed for this in any other residential neighbourhood outside of West Grove? Would it have gone through like "a hot knife through butter"?

So, you see, Miami Media, I think there are a lot of unanswered questions concerning Trolleygate, the least of which concerns the Department of Transportation's objections concerning the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Which is ironic because Institutional Racism informs the whole project at every level, from the ground up. Ask this basic question, Miami Media, and spread out from here: Why was Astor Development able to find the cheapest land in West Grove?

So, there you have it, Miami Media. It's a story of naked corruption and racism hiding in plain sight. It's one you've pretty well been ignoring for a year. But, I've made it easy for you. I've wrapped the entire package with a pretty bow just for you. Start pulling at that ribbon, that leads to all these unanswered questions, you might just discover corruption at Miami City Hall. To paraphrase Captain Renault in Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that corruption is going on at Miami City Hall."

So, Miami Media, you may want to do your job and investigate these acute angles surrounding Trolleygate. And, let me remind you, Miami Media, reporters win Pullet Surprises writing about government corruption.

With all my love,
Headly Westerfield
[aka Aunty Em]