Broward prosecutors vilify BSO detective who alleged misconduct; ‘Bloody…not improper’

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org bsohomicide

A Broward Sheriff’s homicide detective who reported that Fort Lauderdale police unleashed a dog on a murder suspect who was in custody and no longer a threat should not be believed, according to a memo by local prosecutors closing the case.

“A violent, bloody, confused, quickly-developing, and unfortunate turn of events, but not improper action by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department officers and not a violation of Florida law,” concludes the 10-page memo signed by Timothy L. Donnelly, chief of the Broward State Attorney’s public corruption unit.

Jeffrey Kogan, a featured detective on the A&E channel’s police reality show The First 48, claims he was ostracized and demoted to road patrol in Pompano Beach for reporting what he saw. In July, he filed a whistleblower suit against Sheriff Scott Israel, claiming unlawful retaliation.

The state’s investigation began after a brief conversation between Kogan and homicide prosecutor Lanie Bandell three days after the April 4, 2013 arrest of murder suspect Walter Morris Hart. Bandell said Kogan had asked her whether the use of the dog would negatively affect the prosecution. When she asked why, Kogan said, “You know, they let the dog loose after we had him in custody.” Bandell alerted her colleagues in public corruption.

The inquiry that followed ended with the Feb. 26 close-out memo, written by Assistant State Attorney Nickolaus Hunter Davis, that castigates Deputy Kogan for giving sworn testimony that the memo says was “inconsistent” and “not credible.” Worse, the memo suggests Kogan deliberately lied – though prosecutors filed no criminal charge against him.

Broward Sheriff's Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

Broward Sheriff’s Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

The recommendation to State Attorney Mike Satz: take no action against Robert Morris, the city K-9 officer on scene who unleashed his dog “Grief” on murder suspect Walter Morris Hart in the early morning hours of April 4, 2013. The memo also recommended no action be taken against Fort Lauderdale Officers Jason Marcus and Craig Sheehan, who were also present.

Still, the state’s investigation offers no satisfactory explanation for why Kogan, a veteran BSO detective with a history of superior performance evaluations, would make such an unfounded accusation against his fellow officers.

The memo asserts the lawsuit gave Kogan a reason to lie – “a direct financial motive to testify in a manner that makes Officers Morris, Marcus, and Sheehan’s conduct seem as outrageous as possible.”

Yet the lawsuit wasn’t filed until three months after Hart’s capture and a month after Kogan gave a pair of sworn statements to state investigators.

Moreover, Florida’s Whistleblower Act is not a path to a windfall. Employees who prevail under the act are only entitled to reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position with full seniority and benefits, compensation for any lost remuneration and attorney’s fees and costs.

Kogan’s demotion cost him $75 from his biweekly paycheck, according to his lawyer.

“He doesn’t have a financial motive. Does anyone really think he’s going to taint his career for $150 a month?” said attorney Tonja Haddad Coleman.

Both the state’s investigation, and the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, arose from the April 3, 2013 fatal stabbing of 20-year-old Keema Gooding in a residence at 3024 NW Eighth Court in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale. Hart, who lived there, was identified as the prime suspect.

Hart, now 20, was soon determined to be hiding out at another home within Fort Lauderdale’s city limits. BSO deputies and Fort Lauderdale police arrived at 1701 NW 15th Place about 1 a.m.  A short time later, Hart fled out the back door where city officers were waiting.

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

In his lawsuit, Kogan said that when he entered the backyard Hart was sitting on the ground with his hands behind his back and was not resisting or being combative. Then, the lawsuit said, the Fort Lauderdale K-9 officer “unnecessarily deployed his canine, who bit the suspect on his right arm.”

The memo says Hart’s injuries to his right arm later required “eight or nine stitches to close.”

Hart, who remains jailed while awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and resisting an officer with violence, refused to be interviewed by prosecutors, but gave a similar account to friends and relatives he telephoned from jail. The calls were tape-recorded by authorities, the memo says.

“I dropped on the ground and they still let the dog bite on me for five minutes…you know how city police is,” Hart said in one conversation on April 11, 2013, the memo says.

Prosecutors later dismissed Kogan’s testimony as “imprecise and impeachable.” Hart’s statements were discounted as coming from “a murderer.”

Instead, prosecutors credited the testimony of BSO Sgt. David Ellwood, Kogan’s supervisor and fellow star on The First 48, and BSO Sgt. Ian Sklar, a K-9 deputy who was on scene but kept his dog in his vehicle.

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

According to the memo, Ellwood stated under oath that he never entered the backyard and was thus unable to see how Hart was taken into custody. However, Ellwood testified that Kogan didn’t enter the backyard until after he heard Hart scream as the police dog was biting him.

“I’ve been a cop for 23 years. I know what that screaming sounds like. That is a person, a human being, being bit by a dog,” Ellwood said.

Sklar testified that he managed to “peek” over a six-foot wooden fence and saw Officers Marcus and Sheehan struggling with Hart on the ground while trying to handcuff him. As the struggle continued, Morris appeared with his dog. Marcus and Sheehan disengaged and then Morris released the dog.

Sklar said K-9 procedure is that a dog should not be removed until the suspect is handcuffed. He said, “they did not remove the dog until after the guy was handcuffed…that’s what [Kogan was] standing there witnessing.”

The memo concludes the testimony of Ellwood and Sklar “makes it seem very unlikely Kogan would have even had an opportunity to see whether Morris had cause to deploy the dog,”

A status conference in the homicide case is set for April 23 before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.

How many railroad crossings will close for new downtown passenger train service?

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org allaboardflorida

New downtown passenger train service that will speed users from Orlando to South Florida and back may sound like a tourism dream come true, but there’s a potentially unexpected cost to local residents.

Local governments face increased costs to maintain the areas where their roads cross the tracks and some fear the closing of smaller crossings to vehicular traffic to save money.

Elizabeth Fulford lives west of Broward General Hospital and believes if crossings are closed, “it may turn into a life or death issue.”

“I am very concerned about the road closures. What happens if I need an ambulance and trains are blocking the tracks?” she asked.  “If they close the smaller crossings, how will this affect the police and fire” in their ability to quickly get to the scene?

So far, plans have been announced to close several streets in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to make way for new train stations on land owned by the developer, All Aboard Florida. Downtown Miami is also slated for a new station; however, company officials say no road closures have been planned at this time.

“We are working with the city staffs to determine the appropriate traffic mitigation measures, like perimeter roads,” All Aboard Florida staff wrote in an e-mail.

HIGHER COSTS, MORE CLOSINGS?

But more crossings could be earmarked for closure if municipalities along the Florida East Coast Rail line balk at paying increased maintenance costs that could total between $6,000 and $8,000 per year per crossing, said Paul Calvaresi, transportation planner with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

In all, there are 68 crossings in Broward.

All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), is seeking a federal loan for the $1.5 billion needed to upgrade its tracks, purchase the train cars and build train stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando. FECI Executive Vice President Jose Gonzalez promises a three hour ride from Miami to Orlando.

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

“The [passenger] trains will average 79 miles per hour overall speed,” Gonzalez said. He added that speeds will be higher, up to 110 miles per hour, in rural areas. Freight trains also owned by FECI will travel along a second set of tracks, which will be restored, on the old Flagler Railroad bed at slower speeds, he told the Fort Lauderdale City Commission during its conference meeting on April 1.

“We plan to run 32 [passenger] train trips on the tracks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. per day. The 14 freight trains will eventually be moved west,” to the state-owned tracks currently used by the Tri-Rail, he said.

That’s 16 round trips a day. All Aboard Florida’s website says it expects that about three of every four of its future customers will be leisure travelers, “whether that’s a couple taking a weekend trip, or a family of four visiting from an international destination.” It cites a 2012 ridership study found that people take more than 50 million trips between South Florida and Central Florida.

More than 350 roads cross the tracks between Miami and Cocoa, at which point the train will turn west to Orlando. Each crossing that remains open requires safety upgrades, which Gonzalez said his company would pay.

But the municipalities who control the roads will have to come up with funding for enhanced safety measures to create “Quiet Zones” where trains are to refrain from blasting their horns at every crossing.

Train horns produce a sound level of 110 decibels (human conversation is about 60 decibels, with the sound level doubling at 10 decibel intervals). Conductors normally must sound the horns for at least 15 seconds before each crossing, but in Quiet Zones the horns are mounted on the crossing gates to reduce the range of the noise.

A preliminary estimate for Broward County’s upgrades comes to $13.75 million for its 68 crossings, according to Broward’s MPO. The costs are to pay for beefed up gates, vehicle detectors, sidewalks, medians, additional lights and gate-mounted horns.

“Quiet Zones affect the train horn only,” said Broward MPO planner Paul Calvaresi. “They do not minimize the vibrations made by the train. And if conductors hear of danger ahead, they will sound the train horn.”

AN EARLY STUDY ON POSSIBLE CLOSURES

Calvaresi and James Cromar, the MPO’s director of planning, are working on behalf of Broward and Palm Beach counties with All Aboard Florida. When the project started, they conducted a study.

“We looked at the 68 crossings in Broward County and made a list of where quiet zones would be most needed if funding was limited,” Cromar said. Palm Beach County’s 114 crossings also were studied

They recommended that 41 crossings in Broward not be upgraded for Quiet Zones to save costs. They included:

• Nine crossings in Fort Lauderdale between Southwest Fifth Street and Southwest 24th Street;

• Six crossings in Oakland Park from East Commercial Boulevard to Oakland Park Boulevard;  

• Seven crossings in Dania Beach from Griffin Road to Sheridan Street; and

• Eight crossings in Pompano Beach from Northeast 48th Street to State Road 811/Dixie Highway.

“We got quite a bit a push back from the cities about that list,” Cromar said.  The draft plan was scratched and the planners began looking for ways to fund all of the crossings in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with Florida Department of Transportation working up the cost estimates.

All Aboard Florida officials concede that some additional crossings will be closed but say those decisions are local and have not been made.

Hollywood does not plan to close any of its railroad crossings at this time, said Raelin Storey, director of public affairs and marketing.

All Aboard Florida “requested us to look at different crossings that could be closed but we are not of the mind to do this as it doesn’t make sense for our residents,” she said.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said All Aboard Florida has not asked his staff about closing any crossroads other than Northwest Second Street.

“I don’t expect that they will ask,” he said. “But, we would look at them individually.”

APPLYING FOR FEDERAL GRANTS

The Broward MPO is in the process of applying for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for Broward and Palm Beach counties. The grant provides funding nationwide for road, rail, transit and port projects that encourage economic recovery. The grant would pay for the increased safety equipment at crossroads in the Quiet Zones.

Grantees must provide a 20 percent non-federal match, according to the agency’s website, and no more than $150 million can be awarded to projects in a single state. The grant pool for 2014 is $600 million. The deadline to apply is April 28.

Even if the full grant amount is awarded, some crossings may close, Broward’s Calvaresi said.

“With Quiet Zones comes additional safety and maintenance costs,” he said. “The municipalities must pay those costs and they might determine the costs are too high and close the crossing.”

Streets already set for closure are Northwest Second Street in Fort Lauderdale.  Crossings on Datura and Everinia streets in West Palm Beach also will close. In Fort Lauderdale a new perimeter road will run around the station.

Miami-Dade County, which has only 13 miles of track, has not taken up the issue yet, said Wilson Fernandez, transportation assistant manager for the Miami-Dade County MPO.

“We intend to bring this up but we have a different situation,” he said. “We have a different order of magnitude and more  opportunities to be able to get this done” on their own. He added that approval for the train station in downtown Miami is going through the county approval process.

The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is also seeking funding for the three other affected counties under its jurisdiction – Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator, said they are taking a different route.

“We are asking the legislature for a $10 million appropriation to offset costs,” DeLaney said. “We don’t have as many crossings and because the train speeds will be higher, more safety infrastructure will be required” in the upgrades.

Because All Aboard Florida’s parent company is seeking a federal loan for the project, an Environmental Impact Statement study must be conducted. The study looks at the project’s significant affects on the environment.

The document is expected to be available in mid-May, according to Gonzalez. A series of up to six public meetings along the rail corridor will be held and public comment can be provided at the workshops, in writing or by email.

SAFETY SHORT-CUTS?

Meanwhile, an engineer with the Federal Railroad Administration is concerned that All Aboard Florida is short-cutting safety requirements in 57 rural areas north of Palm Beach where the passenger trains run at speeds between 110 and 125 miles per hour.

A report by Engineer Frank A. Frey said such high-speed railroad crossings should be completely sealed off so that no vehicles can get onto the tracks when the crossing bars are down. In fact, he said federal guidelines require it.

Yet his report notes that All Aboard Florida officials oppose the sealed corridor idea, saying it is a suggestion, not a requirement, and arguing that such added safety measures would cost the company an additional $47 million.

“They are not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed passenger rail service,” he said.

A loss of faith: Fort Lauderdale church sale angers parishioners, worries neighbors

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale's Episcopal Church of the Intercession

Fort Lauderdale’s Episcopal Church of the Intercession

For 60 years, the Episcopal Church of the Intercession has provided religious guidance and ministered to the needs of its congregation. Now, plans by the cash-strapped Episcopal diocese to sell the church and its peaceful, four-acre parcel in Fort Lauderdale’s South Middle River neighborhood, is roiling both church members and neighbors.

The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida has a deal to sell the property and its one-acre community garden to a local developer for $1.3 million, if the city agrees to rezone it to accommodate 60 two-story townhouses.

Parishioners, who have yet to be notified by church higher-ups of the pending sale, and local residents say density is already too high in the neighborhood.

The first public meeting to discuss the proposed rezoning is set for 6:30 p.m., March 19, at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, 100 North Andrews Ave.

Complicating the discussion are the remains of 80 deceased church members who chose to spend eternity at the site by having their ashes interred in the sunset-facing memorial garden.

The Church of the Intercession, located at 507 Northwest 17 Street, once had hundreds of active members, according to parishioner Steve Kanter. Today, those who attend Sunday service have dwindled to about 30.

“They have grown old and died or now lost their faith in the church because of all the turmoil,” said Kanter, who was attracted to the church because of its religious traditions and missions.

The lack of membership caused the diocese about a decade ago to downgrade the church’s status to that of a mission, an entity that by church law can only remain in that status for six years.

The way events have unfolded has sewn distrust.

Kanter said he understands the diocese’s stance. Nevertheless, he is critical of its decision not to notify parishioners that the property was up for sale and of the need to do so.

“I found out in September that the church was on the MLS [Multiple Listing Service] website,” Kanter said. According to MLS records, the property was listed for sale July 15, 2013, but could have been for sale earlier.

“Why in this paradise with God are we having so much trouble,” he continued. “The diocese is up to no good and we don’t like it.”

The Venerable Thomas Bruttell, diocese’s archdeacon for deployment, confirmed in an interview that the property is for sale, the price and that a deal is on the table.

“When the rezoning goes through, the sale will be finalized and, by the end of the year, letters announcing the sale will be sent to the congregation,” he said.

‘TOO MANY CHURCHES, NOT ENOUGH PARISHIONERS’

“We’ve told [the congregation] for the last seven or eight years the same message: If something doesn’t change, we will have to sell the property,” he said. “There are too many churches and not enough parishioners and something has to give.”

Rumors the church was for sale had circulated for months, Kanter said. So late last year his wife emailed Bishop Leo Frade, who heads the diocese, and asked if the church was for sale.

On Dec. 17, 2013 Frade replied. “There are no plans to sell at this time,” he wrote.

Bruttell, who is adamant that the congregation knew the status of the church, speculated that Frade may have said that because he knew it would be a year before the sale could go through.

The diocese has helped support the church financially and brought in new ideas to increase membership, Bruttell said. One of them, he said, was to fight for the city to approve urban farming on the property so the farming efforts could expand. He said the diocese attempted to include the church into a new program combining All Saints and St. Ambrose into the New River Ministry, “but they didn’t step up to that.”

He added that the people who are now complaining “are not emotionally connected for spiritual reasons, it is because of the community garden…These 16 people do not own the church, they are visitors.”

But church member JoAnn Smith disputed that assertion.

“We have not had one dime in mission support,” to attract new members, said Smith, a certified master gardener who oversees the nature area and community garden. “If we do anything, we do it ourselves.”

She added that last year the church was $3,000 short of being financially self-sufficient.

Kantner said the diocese’s lack of candor has raised other red flags, such as how the church’s money has been spent and why his church was put up for sale when there are other small congregations like the Church of the Intercession.

THE DEVELOPER SPEAKS

The controversy has not gone unnoticed by developer Jay Clark, who with his partner Jay Fertig, have offered to buy the church property.

Clark said their project would feature 60 two-story townhouses houses in 10 buildings. The two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath units will have a total of 1,600 square feet, including a single car garage. The price for each townhouse would range from $230,000 to $240,000, “depending on the market,” he said.

The current zoning is for 15 single-family homes, according to city records.

“But realistically only five or six could be built there,” Clark said.

“Our offer is contingent on getting the zoning changed,” he said. That change would allow for the 60 townhouses, a community swimming pool and green space, including preserving some of the trees.

“We’re looking at incorporating a community garden and turning over the control to the South Middle River Civic Association,” Clark said. The garden, he added, would be about 20-feet wide by 200-feet deep, about one-tenth the size of the current garden.

Clark said he knows that some people don’t want change, but others want to clean up the property and turn it into something that can make the community proud.

“We’re not trying to ram anything down their throats,” he said.

DENSITY TOO HIGH?

The South Middle River neighborhood is bounded by Sunrise Boulevard on the south, Powerline Road on the west, Northeast Fourth Avenue on the east and the South Fork of the Middle River on the north.

Neighbors are concerned an influx of new residents to the area will aggravate existing problems.

Lawrence Jackson-Rosen is president of the South Middle River Civic Association. He said the elimination of the church grounds will further limit green space that’s already in short supply.

“It’s the most populous neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale,” he said. “We have more than 2,500 households here.”

Jackson-Rosen said the association has not yet taken a formal position on the project, but is taking a survey of residents’ thoughts about the townhouse project that’s available online and via hard copies at association meetings.

With nearly 50 survey returned, “Thus far, the overwhelming majority of people who returned the survey oppose the change” in zoning, he said. Based on the feedback, the association will take a stand and provide that to the city, he added.

Gregg Pentecost, a local Realtor who is also a member of the civic association, offered his personal opinion. “People are already complaining about the traffic now and adding at least 120 more cars is not attractive,” he said.

The church site is amid a neighborhood packed with 1950s bungalows, some of which are foreclosed and stand empty, while others have been renovated. The dusty neighborhood, in the process of renewal through gentrification, has some of the last unpaved roads and in Fort Lauderdale, according to Pentecost, who lives a block-and-a-half away from the church and heads up the survey.

‘PEOPLE ARE CONCERNED’

“People are concerned about the loss of green space, the disposition of animals on the site, the environmental effects including water runoff and traffic,” he said.

“There are no sidewalks and most of the children play and walk to school in the streets,” he said.

The west end of the church property includes an octagonal-shaped church sanctuary plus several concrete block buildings that serve as offices, a church hall and a kitchen and a food bank. Last year, the church provided 22,000 meals for those in need, Kantner said.

Towering mango and mahogany trees and other mature trees on site provide cool shade over open spaces. To the west of the sanctuary is the Memorial Garden where the parishioners’ cremains are interred. The diocese’s Bruttell said he is aware of the situation and has talked to two or three churches about reburying the biodegradable containers.

A path on the eastern portion of the property leads to a sanctuary of greenery where visitors can enjoy a quiet moment with nature, said Smith, the church member who oversees the natural area and community garden.

Smith and other volunteers have been shaping and cultivating the nearly 1-acre garden area for the past 14 years.

“We started with hardscrabble and kept adding mulch and now we have free garden plots for church members and anyone in the neighborhood who wants one,” she said.

The idea of the organic community garden came 15 years ago from a former church priest, Kantner said. At the time, the project had the backing of the diocese.

“For years now, we have had no help from the diocese with the garden,” said Kantner. “We have had help from the neighborhood, school and other groups.”

Lagging in South Florida, Broward County has no on-demand video of public meetings

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don't make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don’t make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

Unlike most local governments, the Broward County Commission limits the amount of sunlight that shines on its meetings.

Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida, and the only major government in Broward County, that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing online by the public.

Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, the Broward School Board, and 18 of 31 Broward cities – including Fort Lauderdale – provide on-demand video or audio web viewing. Only Broward’s smaller municipalities lack this service.

More than 85 percent of Broward’s population resides in cities that offer on-demand web video or audio viewing of commission or council meetings.

Many governments also provide anytime viewing for meetings that occurred months or even years earlier. For example, Coral Springs has archived online video recordings of every city commission meeting since the start of 2007.

Fort Lauderdale started putting video of every city commission conference and regular meeting online in August 2012. The Broward County School Board keeps videos its meetings available online for the last six months.

Individuals wanting to watch a video of a prior Broward County Commission meeting must file a public records request to obtain a DVD copy of the session. A DVD copy costs $8 plus postage if it is mailed.

The Broward County Commission broadcasts live regular meetings and public hearings on its web page and on cable television. The meetings are re-webcast and most of the time re-broadcast on cable once, at 5:30 pm the Friday following the meetings.

FLORIDA’S SUNSHINE LAW

While Florida’s Sunshine Law only requires governments to keep general written minutes of their proceedings, on demand videos increase transparency by preserving the “richness of the discussion” that leads to decisions, said Carla Miller, founder a non-profit organization called City Ethics that provides local governments with ethics training and programs.

“If you don’t do digital recordings there is a…suspicion,” she said. “Anything that decreases the public trust is not good…Withholding things on line will always bring up suspicion.”

Broward residents have reason to be suspicious. According to the Justice Department, Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, reported that public corruption was a factor in Forbes Magazine’s decision to list the greater Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area as the seventh most “miserable city” in the United States in 2012. Forbes ranked Miami #1. West Palm Beach was fourth.

Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, supports on-demand video or audio web access, noting that many people are at work during commission meetings and are only able to watch them later. The Broward Commission meets regularly on Tuesdays starting at 10 a.m. Public hearings begin at 2 p.m.

“There is a difference between transparency and providing easy access,” said Krassner. “Putting them on line would be a best practice for open accessible government.”

Still, there appears to be no urgency to make on-demand video happen any time soon at County Hall.

“There are other things in the pipe line ahead of (on-demand video of commission meetings),” said Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Jacobs pointed out that commissioners were briefed last week about efforts to redesign existing county web sites for mobile devices. “We are really excited about it,” she said.

ON-DEMAND SYSTEMS RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE

Jacobs said, too, that Broward’s limited budget hinders archiving videos of commission meetings for on-demand viewing by the public.

In fact, many on-demand systems are relatively inexpensive.

In Jacksonville, the city purchased a $250 digital recording device and after each governmental meeting city staff links an audio recording on its web site for on-demand use.

“It’s not a hard thing to do,” said Carla Miller, who is also director of Jacksonville’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight.

Broward School Board spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said her board’s more sophisticated video system cost $12,485 to operate this year.

Fort Lauderdale pays Granicus, a California corporation, $2,290 a month to operate the city’s on-line video system. Granicus started managing the city’s system in 2012. The city’s startup cost with Granicus was $27,825.

Chaz Adams, Fort Lauderdale’s public information officer, stressed in an email that Granicus’ cost covers not just online web access to meeting recordings but it also covers many aspects of the city’s “workflow management system.”

Government on-demand web services range from the sophisticated to the simple, from the easy to the difficult to access.

Fort Lauderdale’s system is one of the more sophisticated. Once a video recording is selected, that meeting’s agenda appears below the screen. Clicking an agenda item moves the video to that part of the meeting where the item is discussed.

Miami-Dade County’s online video archives feature more than commission meetings. Also to be found are meetings of various committees, including county finance, health and social services, public safety and animal services.

William Hladky can be reached at whladky@browardbulldog.org

 

Hallandale finds allies amid aggressive response to county’s request for CRA documents

By William Gjebre, Broward Bulldog.org hbcralogo

A group of Broward cities have reached an agreement with the county Inspector General’s Office to turn over financial documents from their redevelopment agencies, temporarily heading off a possible court battle over the county’s claim that it has jurisdiction to investigate those agencies.

The Inspector General’s Office requested those Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) documents earlier this month citing its authority under the county charter, but after encountering resistance agreed instead to request them using Florida’s public records law.

Hallandale Beach city commissioners, criticized this year by the Inspector General for mishandling millions of dollars in CRA funds, sounded the battle cry at a meeting on Monday with a vote to explore teaming up with other CRA cities to obtain a legal ruling about the county’s authority over CRAs.

Commissioners approved several aggressive measures aimed squarely at the Inspector General’s Office, including a requirement that the county pay the city copying and other fees for any CRA financial documents it receives under the Public Records Act.

Commissioners authorized the city to file its own public records request for the Inspector General’s file on its completed yearlong probe of Hallandale Beach, including information about the sources of the allegations that helped start the investigation. Likewise, the commission also approved asking the Inspector General to specify the authority it believes it has under county law, or any legal ruling, to investigate CRAs.

MILLIONS AT STAKE

The Inspector General’s request for CRA records from city halls’ across the county signaled the opening of a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of funds and a possible attempt to recover from those cities millions of unspent taxpayer dollars.

Hallandale Beach maintains the Inspector General does not have the authority to investigate CRAs, and that CRAs are under the jurisdiction of the state.

“The jurisdiction question has to be resolved,” the Hallandale Beach CRA’s attorney Steven Zelkowitz told the CRA’s board of directors Monday. In Hallandale, as in many other cities, the city commission also sits as the CRA’s board.

Zelkowitz is expected to seek support for any legal action from eight other cities that challenged the IG’s request under the county charter for the financial documents. Those cities are: Lauderdale Lakes, Dania Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Pompano, and Davie.

“I feel comfortable that we have support,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. The cost of any legal action would be spread among the participating cities, he said.

Plantation, the tenth city to receive a letter from the Inspector General, is not part of the challenge. Mayor Diane Bendekovic said her city had already provided the requested documents under the original request.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, who leads the pushback effort against the county, blamed county officials for “a witch hunt” against cities whose CRAs receive property tax funds from the county.

“I’m tired of the Inspector General wasting taxpayers’ money,” Cooper said. “We welcome an investigation by the proper authority,” Cooper said, adding that the Inspector General is not that agency.

OTHER CRA CITIES CONCERNED

Hostilities between Hallandale and the county flared again following the Inspector General’s letter to Hallandale Beach and nine other Broward cities seeking a variety of CRA financial documents. This time, Hallandale’s concerns were shared by others.

Attorneys and officials representing eight CRA cities challenged the Inspector General’s assertion of jurisdiction under the county charter. They met last week with Jennifer Merino, general counsel for the Inspector General.

Zelkowitz said an agreement was reached in which the Inspector General’s Office would rescind its letter citing charter authority and re-issue a letter seeking the information under Chapter 119 of Florida’s statutes, the public records act.

The county also agreed to push back the date when the documents were due to be produced by about two weeks. The records had been due on Friday.

Merino told Browardbulldog.org her agency agreed only to “clarify” its request letter, saying the agency always wanted the documents under the public records law even though the original letter cited the county charter. She also said her agency is only conducting an “inquiry” for information and not an investigation.

According to Zelkowitz, the Inspector General’s office refused a request by the cities to jointly seek a ruling in Broward Circuit Court on whether does or does not have investigatory authority over CRAs. He also said the Inspector General failed to cite specific provisions giving it investigatory authority over CRAs.

Merino, maintaining that the Inspector General’s Office has the authority, said her office felt it “was not the right time” to seek such a court ruling.

“We are not trying to throttle any investigation,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. “We want the right investigative agency to do the investigation.”

In June, Broward County commissioners, expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit Hallandale Beach’s CRA was limited by both state and county law. They vowed to change state law to gain control. The commissioners created the Inspector General’s Office several years ago.

In Hallandale, several of Mayor Cooper’s colleagues expressed a different kind of frustration as the tug-of-war continues with the Inspector General’s Office.

“We spent enough taxpayers’ money on this,” said Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy.

But Commissioner Michele Lazarow, the lone dissenting vote in Monday’s commission action, has called for state officials to seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the city’s use of CRA funds, and for an outside audit of the CRA to determine if funds have been misused in the past.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Broward opens broad inquiry into misuse of property tax dollars by CRAs; millions at stake

By William Gjebre and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org iglogo

The Broward Inspector General’s Office has opened a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of public funds across the county with written requests sent to at least nine cities with a Community Redevelopment Agency to hand over a variety of financial records for inspection.

One official with knowledge of the inquiry told BrowardBulldog.org the Inspector General’s review is “the beginning of a long term process.”

Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said the Inspector General’s request for records is all about millions in tax dollars and who should control them.

“It’s about time that somebody was trying to hold CRAs accountable. The Inspector General’s Office might not be the right mechanism to do that, but it’s about time,” Schnidman said.

CRA’s administer programs within districts designated by local governments under state law as community redevelopment areas.  Boards made up of local government officials or persons appointed by the local government run them.

Tax increment financing is used to fund CRAs, which receive tax revenue generated by increases in real property value in their area over a baseline number determined when the CRA is created. By law, those revenues – the “increment,”— are put into a CRA Trust Fund that’s dedicated to the redevelopment of the area.

KEEPING TABS ON CRAS

In sending letters to the CRAs the Inspector General’s Office is carrying out a vow made earlier this year amid its investigation of Hallandale Beach’s CRA to keep close tabs on municipal redevelopment groups that receive half their funds from property taxes collected by the county.

Identical records requests were sent to at least eight of the 10 Broward cities with CRAs that receive county funding – Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Pompano Beach, Margate, Deerfield Beach and Plantation. An official in Coral Springs, the 10th city, said that city has not received a letter but expects one soon.

While some CRA officials express uneasiness, others welcomed the Inspector General’s action.

“I think they are looking for general information, but they may want to see if there is anything that’s improper,” said Will Allen, administrator at the Davie CRA. “They won’t find anything wrong here.”

In Hallandale, City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said, “I don’t think it is an accident that the letter was sent” shortly after the Inspector General issued a critical report against the Hallandale Beach CRA.

Earlier this year, the Inspector General charged that Hallandale Beach city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. The office said it found at least $2.2 million in questionable expenditures between 2007 and 2012.

Mayor Joy Cooper challenged many of the county’s allegations. Asked to comment about the Inspector General’s new request for documents, she said the city “will respond accordingly.”

The Inspector General’s office asked the cities to produce:  

*A copy of the ordinance that established the CRA Community Redevelopment Trust Fund. Hallandale Beach, for instance, did not have a separate fund for the first 16 years of the agency’s existence.

*Bank statements for the redevelopment trust fund accounts for the months of September and October for the years 2009-2012.

*The CRA’s general ledger account ending balances from 2009-2012

*Any and all CRA capital improvement plans for 2009-2012.

*Documentation for the disposition of all money remaining in the redevelopment trust fund at the end of fiscal year ending September 20, 2012 that was later used to reduce indebtedness for pledged funds.

*Records regarding all money deposited into escrow accounts from 2009-2012 for repayment of CRA debts.

Schnidman said the records that were sought indicate that the county’s agents are attempting to determine if the CRAs have complied with the requirements of state statute – 163.387(7) – regarding how tax increment trust fund balance amounts are to be treated at the end of the fiscal year.

Under the law, Schnidman said, those balances are supposed to be proportionally returned each year to each taxing authority, such as the county, that paid into the CRA.

“What the Inspector General is doing is he’s trying to figure out which of the county’s CRAs are in violation of the law and need to return all this money they’ve husbanded away,” said Schnidman. “It’s millions of dollars.”

WILL OTHER COUNTIES FOLLOW BROWARD’S LEAD?

At a time of tight municipal budgets, the Inspector General’s gambit could reverberate it city halls across the state.

“I wonder if other counties will follow this effort by the Broward IG’s Office in the continuing revenue discussions between some counties and their CRAs,” said Schnidman. “The threshold question is by what authority is the Broward IG seeking this information from Broward County Dependent District CRAs that it arguably does not have jurisdiction over?”

City officials in Hallandale briefly challenged the Inspector General’s authority over its CRA, but later backed off that position.

In Margate, where the CRA has focused on “streetscape” improvements along Atlantic Boulevard and State Road 7, City Attorney Eugene Steinfeld took a wait-and-see approach to the county’s inquiry.

“It sounds like they are just gathering information,” Steinfeld said.

Lauderdale Lakes CRA executive director J. Gary Rogers welcomed any new oversight.

“They are doing their job,” said Rogers.

In 2012, following up on a story the year before by BrowardBulldog.org about missing redevelopment funds, the Inspector General found that Lauderdale Lakes had misspent $2.5 million in CRA funds. The city is repaying the money to the CRA.

“We were investigated and employees were terminated,” Rogers said. “We came close to a big financial disaster” under a previous administration, added Rogers who was not with the city at the time.

“I got no problem with them looking at us,” Rogers said. “They want to make sure we are spending money appropriately.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

ATI career school company implodes amid fraud claims; $3.7 million whistleblower settlement

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org oie_2941128RKljF32J (1)

A for-profit career school operator with once-bustling campuses in Broward and Miami-Dade counties agreed this month to pay $3.7 million to the government to settle whistleblower fraud claims.

ATI Enterprises, which operated as ATI Career Training Center, agreed to the payout while denying accusations it had recruited students at homeless shelters, strip clubs and among criminals, then forged paperwork to make them eligible for thousands of dollars in federal tuition grants and loans.

The settlement, announced by the Justice Department last week, comes as crisis managers liquidate the Texas-based company by selling off assets and transferring or referring students to other schools, according to interim CEO Michael F. Gries.

At its height a few years ago, privately held ATI boasted 24 campuses in five states with more than 3,000 employees and 16,000 students. It was valued at more than $400 million.

ATI’s South Florida training schools in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park, the Doral area west of Miami International Airport, and Miami Gardens closed at the end of last year, Gries said.

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

The settlement resolved a pair of federal whistleblower complaints, including one filed in federal court by Dulce Ramirez-Damon, ATI’s former assistant director of education in Fort Lauderdale.

Ramirez-Damon’s False Claims Act complaint was filed in secret in July 2011. It alleged that ATI had engaged in a “systematic and nationwide fraudulent practice of forging documents and records to create an appearance of student eligibility in order to receive federal funds.

A similar whistleblower action was filed in federal court in northern Texas in 2009. Both suits have now been made public.

Private individuals bring false claim lawsuits in the name of the United States. They share in any recovery, in this case up to 25 percent plus attorney fees.

After investigating, the government decided to intervene on Aug. 7 in Ramirez-Damon’s case for the purposes of settlement, court records say.

The Department of Justice’s press release said ATI’s payment would resolve allegations it “falsely certified compliance with federal student aid programs’ eligibility requirements and submitted claims for ineligible students.”

ATI also allegedly misrepresented its job placement statistics to authorities in Texas in order to maintain its licensing and accreditation, the press release said.

‘MISUSE OF FUNDS’

Federal prosecutors in Miami, Washington, and Texas investigated, along with the Department of Education’s Inspector General.

“Federal financial aid is there to help students attain their dreams and goals, and misuse of these funds to increase corporate profits is unacceptable,” Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a press release. “We are committed to ensuring that federal student aid is used for the benefit of students.”

Neither Ferrer’s office, nor Ramirez-Damon’s Miami lawyer, Bjorg Eikeland, responded to requests for comment.

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

ATI has changed hands a couple of times in recent years, with the current owner being Texas-based Ancora Holdings.

But according to Gries, “all of these allegations” engulfing ATI occurred under the leadership of former ATI Chief Executive and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin, a resident of Delray Beach.

Benjamin, who now runs Salt Lake City-based Stone Mountain Investments, did not return a phone message left with his office. Here’s a link to a You Tube video he made about ATI when he was CEO.

Benjamin worked at ATI from 2005 to 2011. While there, he contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a bipartisan array of Congressional candidates, according to federal election records.

Florida recipients of Benjamin’s largess include: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; ex-Reps. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; and Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican and ex-governor and presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The whistleblower lawsuit alleges that within a month of Ramirez-Damon’s hiring in October 2009 it became apparent to her that ATI was engaged in active Pell Grant fraud. She said she notified her superiors, but that company management chose “to look the other way.”

Ramirez-Damon claimed she was abruptly demoted in April 2011 and transferred off the Fort Lauderdale campus at 2890 NW 62nd Street to a job as an instructor in Miami. The reason: “to keep her silent” and deny her access to school records, the lawsuit said.

She is no longer employed by ATI.

Pell Grants provide government aid to students from low-income families. At ATI, students could take courses to train them for jobs in automotive, health care, business, information technology and other fields.

According to the whistleblower suit, ATI falsified documents to enroll “as many students as possible” in programs with tuitions ranging from $13,741 to $46,744 per program. One former ATI employee is quoted as saying “the ATI culture…was to recruit anyone with a pulse.”

The numbers could add up quickly.

‘A LUCRATIVE SCAM’

“With a student mass of over 750 (in Fort Lauderdale) alone, and 18,000 country wide, federal subsidy of tuition is a very lucrative scam for ATI,” the suit said.

To find students, the suit said, ATI admission representatives targeted “the ‘down and out’ at homeless shelters, strip clubs and poor neighborhoods.” The “bait” to entice them to sign up was the promise of financial aid and low-interest loans. ATI distributed flyers promising lucrative salaries and guarantees of job placement.

The alleged fraud by ATI was sweeping: forged admission exams, forged proof of education, the acceptance of students without screening for criminal history, forged attendance records and falsified grades – all done to make it appear that federal standards were being met so the money would continue to flow.

In the lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon contended, “of a student body of 750 enrolled students” in Fort Lauderdale “at least 150-200 students have a violent or drug-related background.” She provided the names of more than a dozen such students in her complaint.

“It is common practice at ATI when a student is missing attendance, that employees check (the) Florida Department of Corrections website to see if the student has become incarcerated,” said the lawsuit.

ATI would also “re-circulate” poorly achieving students who faced dismissal, letting them know that they could transfer into another career training program. “This way the old grades no longer count and the student is again eligible to receive financial aid,” the suit says.

Some students who failed would fail again because they did not have the academic ability or background to take the courses they were in, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result, the students incurred more debt without graduating. ATI, on the other hand, has made more money,” the suit said.

The government’s press release noted that $2 million of ATI’s settlement payout would be used to refund student loans involving lawsuits brought by individual students against ATI.

The press release did not say how much taxpayers lost on government loans to ATI students.

Controversial “Wizard of Claws” dog seller back in business; target of federal lawsuit

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

James Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store at 4001 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

James Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store at 4001 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

“Wizard of Claws” dog seller James Anderson, who shut his business four years ago amid numerous allegations of wrongdoing and a lawsuit by Florida Attorney General’s Office, is back in business in Fort Lauderdale under a new name and again is involved in legal controversy.

Anderson’s new businesses, the Puppy Collection and the Teacup Puppies Store, are the target of a federal lawsuit alleging that he has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Also, a former customer of Anderson’s claimed in an interview that Anderson stocks sick dogs.

Competitor Eleonora Bonfini sued Anderson last month alleging he violated a permanent state injunction when he infringed on Bonfini’s federal trademarks, causing unfair competition.

In 2010, Anderson and his wife Gilda consented to a judgment and permanent Injunction after the late Broward Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Aleman found that they and Wizard of Claws had violated state law by misrepresenting to customers the source, pedigree and adult size of their dogs. Many had bought puppies believing that they would stay “teacup-size” into adulthood.

ALLEGATIONS OF MASS-PRODUCED DOGS

The Wizard of Claws case, highlighted by allegations that the pet store sold unhealthy dogs that were mass-produced at puppy mills, made headlines across South Florida.

The injunction was the end result of about 17 lawsuits filed against the Andersons, including suits brought by the Attorney General and the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society’s suit was the first of its kind in its history.

A year before the injunction was finalized, the Andersons filed for bankruptcy and the national Humane Society removed more than 30 puppies from their store.

The injunction ordered the Andersons not to use the words “teacup puppies” and “puppy boutique,” or several variations of those names in any future businesses or web sites.

Bonfini’s business, TeaCups, Puppies and Boutique, is located at 9003 Taft Street, Pembroke Pines. Her website is www.TeaCupsPuppies.com. She has registered the store’s name and a picture of a puppy sitting in a teacup as trademarks.

Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store is located at 4001 N Federal Highway. His many web sites include www.TeacupPuppiesBoutique.com, www.TeacupPuppiesStore.com, and www.PuppyBoutiqueStore.com. Anderson also shows photographs of puppies sitting in teacups on one of his web sites.

Anderson’s wife’ Gilda, is not connected with Anderson’s new business and is not being sued.

‘SOUR APPLES’ BY A COMPETITOR?

Roberto Stanziale, Anderson’s attorney, said in an interview that the words and picture that Bonfini claims are hers couldn’t be trademarked because they are generic.  The Fort Lauderdale attorney labeled the suit “sour apples” because Anderson “is very competitive in the market”

“Each one of those words is so pervasive in the industry that to say that they have exclusive use of those words is silly,” Stanziale said, adding that Anderson is in compliance with the injunction.

In addition to the trademark infringements, Anderson is misleading customers into believing that are dealing with Bonfini’s company when they order dogs from him, Bonfini’s attorney Miriam Richter said in an interview. Between 20 and 30 customers have complained recently to Bonfini about Anderson’s misrepresentation.

Richter said Bonfini noticed something was amiss during last Christmas’ shopping season when her business dropped by $50,000. Bonfini also heard reports about how Anderson was allegedly misrepresenting his store as her business.

Richter said several customers have given her client statements about the misrepresentation. Two women said they each deposited $2,000 with Anderson’s business to buy puppies after Anderson’s employees told them that were at Bonfini’s store. After they realized that they had been misled, one woman stopped payment through her credit card company and the other woman demanded a refund from Anderson, Richter said.

AN UNHAPPY CUSTOMER

Morgan Rohrhofer purchased a Boston Terrier puppy for more than $1,700 from Anderson’s store in May. Within days of the purchase the puppy got sick. A veterinarian diagnosed the puppy as having giardia, an intestinal parasite.  Dogs become infected by coming in contact with contaminated food, soil, or water.

Rohrhofer sent Anderson an email to complain. “According to the vet he contracted the parasite from where he was picked up given the short amount of time between departure from Teacup Puppies and showing of symptoms,” she wrote.

Rohrhofer said in an interview that she spent nearly $400 in vet bills, but Anderson’s business reimbursed her more than $200. She said her now five-month-old pup, Blake, is still ill and on medication.  

Puppies at Anderson’s store were kept in cramped glass cages, about 1½ foot by two feet, with three to six dogs per cage, she said,” she said. She saw the puppies “crapping on each other,” she said. “That’s how (Blake) got giardia…I’m so glad that I got him out of that situation. It’s so terrible.”

Rohrhofer said her Boston Terrier came from RCW Kennels located in Elk City, Kan.

The Humane Society of the United States in a 2007 video report listed RCW Kennels as a puppy mill. The puppies lived in “worn out wire cages exposing dogs to sharp edges,” the report stated, adding that a Kansas state inspector in 2006 reported that “urine ammonia smell was so strong in an unventilated building that it burned her nose and eyes.”

The Florida injunction states that James and Gilda Anderson may not acquire animals from breeding facilities that they know “or has reason to know” that the animals were kept “in substandard conditions…”

Attorney Stanziale said his client does not buy puppies from suppliers who raise animals in substandard conditions.

“Mr. Anderson is under scrutiny every month about where he purchased the puppies,” he said. The injunction requires Anderson to report his business activities monthly to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Stanziale questioned the Humane Society’s objectivity in labeling RCW Kennels a puppy mill, claiming that the society “has its own interest.” He said the Humane Society wants to steer people to shelters and away from retail stores that sell “beautiful” dogs.

“There is no way in a million years you can sell thousands of puppies that one won’t be sick,” Stanziale argued. “Where would you want to buy a puppy? I would want to buy a puppy from a guy who is being monitored by the State of Florida.”

Molly McFarland, deputy press secretary for the Florida Attorney General, said in an email that her office is not investigating Anderson for any alleged injunction violations.

“Should consumers believe that this company and its owners are in violation of the injunction filed…under the previous administration, we encourage them to contact our office…,” she said.

 

Push to extend ‘Doc’ Sistrunk’s name and legacy raises tensions in Fort Lauderdale

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

Dr. James F. "Doc" Sistrunk

Dr. James F. “Doc” Sistrunk

To honor Dr. James F. “Doc” Sistrunk’s legacy, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission may have to defy Flagler Village Civic Association opposition to extend the boulevard named for the black physician.

The proposal is to extend the name Sistrunk Boulevard east of Andrews Avenue through the Flagler Village neighborhood to Federal Highway.

Sistrunk Boulevard currently runs west from Andrews Avenue through City Commission District Three. The road, however, is named NE 6 Street east of Andrews Avenue, which is part of City Commission District Two.

Sistrunk Boulevard is four lanes wide until it meets Andrews Avenue, where the road narrows to two lanes as it continues east.

Economics and politics are the reasons given for opposing the Sistrunk Boulevard extension. Race is an unstated tension.

The Sistrunk district, just west of Flagler Village, is the largely black, historically segregated area of the city. Flagler Village is gentrifying into a predominantly white residential neighborhood.

Asked if racial bias is driving opposition to the Sistrunk Boulevard extension, City Commissioner Dean Trantalis – who represents Flagler Village – said, “I don’t know what prejudices are in the hearts of people.”

The Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights Community Redevelopment Advisory Board has voted twice – in 2009 and 2012 – to rename that part of NE 6 Street as Sistrunk Boulevard to encourage economic traffic into the Sistrunk neighborhood.

TO HONOR A BLACK PIONEER

Commissioner Bobby B. DuBose, who represents the predominately African-American District three, said in an interview that many of his constituents want Sistrunk Boulevard extended to honor the black pioneer’s memory.

Dr. Sistrunk, a historical hero to the black community, moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1922. In 1938, when hospitals were racially segregated, he helped established the city’s first medical facility for blacks, Provident Hospital. He died in 1966.

During a July 2 City Commission conference meeting, Mayor John “Jack” Seiler and three of the four commissioners indicated support for a compromise. They suggested using both names along its six-block stretch through Flagler Village. Street signs would read Sistrunk Boulevard underneath NE 6 Street.

Trantalis rejects that idea.

“The big problem that people have is not that they don’t like Dr. Sistrunk and the heritage he brings to the community,” Trantalis told the commission. “(The name Sistrunk Boulevard is associated) with urban decay and crime…The people who live in Flagler Village don’t want that association to be passed into Flagler Village.”

But just a few blocks west of Flagler Village, Sistrunk Boulevard has undergone a recent and dramatic transformation aimed at stimulating private investment in the area. The city, along with its local community redevelopment agency, spent $15 million on the installation of new decorative tile, wider sidewalks, streetlights, landscaping, bus shelters, on-street parking and lane reductions.

DuBose sees the area differently from Trantalis. “We have two different perceptions,” he told the commission. “I (do not) want to belabor this for another year…This is important to the city…At this point I’m ready to move…just vote on it.”

Mayor Seiler lamented that Sistrunk Boulevard retains a negative connotation to some. He called Dr. Sistrunk “a legendary individual who delivered 6,000 (babies) and had a huge impact on…those who did not have access to health care.”

Dr. Sistrunk’s legendary status has not swayed Charlie King, a local activist who is thinking about running against Seiler in the next mayoral race.

“The name Sistrunk Boulevard makes people immediately start thinking of crime, drugs and prostitution,” King said in an interview.

PREJUDICE NOT THE ISSUE?

King is a realtor who owns two townhomes in Flagler Village, and lives further east in Fort Lauderdale’s more upscale Victoria Park neighborhood.  He said prejudice is not the issue.

“It is economics,” he said, adding that renaming NE 6 Street would slow down the gentrification of Flagler Village. “The mayor is overstepping his bounds by forcing people to change the (street) name against their will.”

Street signs bearing the Sistrunk Boulevard name were installed in Flagler Village in 2012. They were  removed following complaints to City Hall. Photo: Matthew Pici, Flagler Village Civic Association

Street signs bearing the Sistrunk Boulevard name were installed in Flagler Village in 2012. They were removed following complaints to City Hall. Photo: Matthew Pici, Flagler Village Civic Association

Trantalis, who attended the last Flagler Village Civic Association meeting, said opposition to renaming the street is widespread. “Nobody in the room supported the renaming,” he said.

Matthew Pici, president of the Flagler Village Civic Association, said in an interview that his association complained to city hall in 2012 when new street signs were erected renaming NE 6 Street as Sistrunk Boulevard. The new signs subsequently were removed.

City spokesman Chaz Adams said a contractor prematurely installed the Sistrunk Boulevard signs in Flagler Village. Once discovered, the contractor removed them. The city commission had not approved the name change, Adams added.

The Flagler Village Civic Association passed a motion in 2012 requesting that any proposal to change street names in its neighborhood be submitted to the association for a vote before city approval.

The association may vote on the co-naming proposal at its Sept. 18 meeting. Commissioners DuBose and Trantalis both are expected to attend the meeting to be held at 6:30 pm at 408 NE 6 St.

“Commissioner DuBose may very well make his case (at the next Flagler Village Civic Association meeting),” Trantalis said in an interview. “I don’t want to predetermine the outcome of the meeting.”

Trantalis said the co-naming of the street in Flagler Village is not a “foregone conclusion,” even though the rest of the commission appears to support it. But if the commission votes to do it without Flagler Village support, it would set “a very bad precedent.”

To Dubose, the renaming proposal is a citywide issue. “We’re not taking, we’re adding, in co-naming, in co-branding,” he said.

“Raw nerves” in push to improve Dixie Highway in Fort Lauderdale neighborhood

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

Dixie Highway in the Middle River Terrace neighborhood Photo: Laura Croscenco

Dixie Highway in the Middle River Terrace neighborhood Photo: Laura Croscenco

Bitter disagreement over a proposed Dixie Highway improvement project is pitting neighbor against neighbor in Fort Lauderdale’s Middle River Terrace neighborhood.

The fight is between former city commissioner Tim Smith and Laura Croscenco, president of the neighborhood association, and their minions, with recently elected Commissioner Dean Trantalis trying not to get hit in the crossfire.

The rift has “exposed raw nerves that (have been) festering beneath the surface,” said Trantalis, who represents the area. What’s happening is a “total personality conflict,” he said.

The debate is about how best to improve a 1.2-mile stretch of Dixie Highway that winds through a mostly residential neighborhood of single-family houses and small apartment buildings from NE 13 Street north to Wilton Manors.

Two years ago, the Middle River Terrace Neighborhood Association appointed Croscenco to research how to improve roadway safety for pedestrians, slow down traffic, reduce traffic crashes and improve drainage. Croscenco continued with the project after she was elected to president of the association last August.

A FUNDING SOURCE

The Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has agreed to contribute $2.3 million for part of the project that would add four-foot wide bicycle lanes to each side of a 20-foot wide road. Dixie Highway currently is 24 feet wide.

An additional $2.1 million for landscaping and other needs would be sought from grants.

The bicycle lanes proposal is similar to the MPO’s plans for Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors, according to MPO director Greg Stuart. Wilton Manors has approved its upgrade.

The MPO, with a board of Broward elected officials and community leaders, funnels federal transportation monies to local projects. If Fort Lauderdale accepts the bike lanes proposal, construction on Dixie Highway in both cities would begin in about two years, Stuart said.

Opposition erupted to the Middle River Terrace proposal after an Oct. 14, 2012 vote by the association to support the bike lanes concept. middlerivermap

Four days later, Tim Smith, an ex-commissioner who resides in the area, sent out an email against the bike lanes plan. He claimed mature trees would be cut down and that the project would make Dixie “a large boulevard.”

Croscenco argued back, claiming in emails that the MPO had refused to fund Smith’s preference for a single shared-use path on the east side of Dixie for cyclists and pedestrians because cyclists would be endangered from vehicles quickly backing out of driveways onto the pathway.

In an interview, Smith said he does not think the shared-use path idea is unsafe.

“How come (motorists) haven’t run into people in the last 15 years when bicycles use the current sidewalks?” he said. “That is where everybody’s been riding and walking and nobody has been hit.”

GETTING PERSONAL

The personal nature of the dispute is evident in mass emails sent by both sides.

“The neighborhood has been fractured since you became president,” Smith told Croscenco on Dec. 12. “We always worked as a team before, but meetings are now contentious and unnerving, and the neighborhood is losing a lot of respect with the city…I too hope you will resign and will support any move to impeach you.”

Smith is a founding member of the Middle River Terrace Neighborhood Association and a voting president emeritus.

On Feb. 7, past association president Randall Klett emailed Croscenco with a similar sentiment: “I suggest you resign as president…to save yourself the embarrassment of being voted out of office.”

Tim Smith, left, and Laura Croscenco

Tim Smith, left, and Laura Croscenco

Croscenco fired back the same day, accusing Smith and Klett of bullying her and others. “Dixie Highway (does) not belong to Smith/Randall (Klett),” she said.

Croscenco’s opponents failed to oust her during a Feb. 10 association meeting.

The hostilities have seeped into city electoral politics. Smith supported Trantalis and Croscenco supported his opponent Charlotte Rodstrom in last March’s election to fill Fort Lauderdale’s District Two commission seat. Trantalis beat Rodstrom by 18 votes.

Croscenco had told Trantalis that as association president she would remain neutral in the election. So Trantalis became upset when he spotted a Rodstrom sign in her front yard.

“Have your ethics…changed recently?” Trantalis asked in a Feb. 23 email. Croscenco replied that her husband planted the sign.

In a Feb. 5 email, Klett implied that Rodstrom was helping Croscenco. “Shame on Laura Croscenco and Rodstrom,” Klett wrote.

‘STOP NAGGING’

The animosities reached a crescendo May 25 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach when Croscenco confronted Trantalis. Both were attending a party to celebrate inductees into the city’s Hall of Fame.

Croscenco said she approached Trantalis and asked, “Do you really want to lose $2.3 million for the Dixie Highway project?”

“Stop nagging me. I’m here to have a good time…I’m working to put people together,” she said Trantalis replied, while pointing his finger at Croscenco.

Croscenco, a native of Italy, said the commissioner later lectured her about democracy and said the neighborhood should vote on which project to adopt “because that’s how we do it here.”

Croscenco shot back that Trantalis wanted the neighborhood to vote for a project that will not be funded and “never can be built.”

Trantalis confirmed that Croscenco approached him at the hotel. She “launches into it…She wouldn’t stop,” he said, following him as he attempted to walk away. Trantalis said her “passion doesn’t have to morph into… (being) condescending.”

The acrimonies have continued. In a May 30 email, association secretary Domingo Cid asked, “Should the influence of Tim Smith…be allowed to put the lives of the residents…in harm’s way for his own gains?”

“My wife just told me that you have accused me…of some sort of unspecified corruption,” Smith replied the following week. “If you ever do that again…we will follow through with unrelenting legal action to make you prove it or pay dearly for your folly.”

‘MAKE A DECISION’

Trantalis said in an interview that although he “sympathizes” with the shared-use path proposal, he wants to put a straw vote to Middle River Terrace residents and/or property owners to determine which plan has the most support.

Other city commissioners shot down that idea at a June 18 meeting.

Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler called it “expensive” and told Trantalis the commission would support whatever proposal he endorses because he represents the neighborhood. Commissioner Romney Rogers quipped, “Do you want us to vote to where you will be going on vacation?”

“You are elected to make a decision,” City Attorney Harry Stewart reminded Trantalis.

“It is some type of Greek tragedy I’m dealing with,” said Trantalis, referring to the animosities in an interview after the meeting. “I need a chorus to tell me what to do.”

Recently, Trantalis said he’s leaning toward the plan that’s got the MPO funding if traffic-calming devices like speed humps are added.

William Hladky can be reached at whladky@browardbulldog.org

 

Page 1 of 3123»

Welcome to Broward Bulldog

Broward Bulldog Archives