Gangsta Politics play out at City Hall as City Manager is latest victim

Miami's Community Newspapers

You’ve seen this played out in the movies – the mob boss orders several hits. The targets get systematically taken out by the contract hit man. And in the end, the hit man takes it in the back after the dirty work is done. Fiction based on real life mob stories, only to be realized in real time here in the “City of Pleasant Living.”

On Tuesday, May 4, the recently appointed Acting City Manager took the hit at the City Commission Meeting with his abrupt firing before a packed, agitated chamber. He was to be the second city manager to be abruptly terminated within the year.

It is no small secret in town that a “hit list” existed. Carlton, speaking after his termination reported that certain members of the dais let it be known that his continued tenure would be determined on terminating certain staff. (According to Carlton, Commissioner Velma Palmer was the only one who objected to the terminations.) Carlton, a senior municipal executive for over twenty years reportedly told the commissioners that it would happen, “if it needed to be done.” A private investigator, former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms was brought in to review several departments.

With little rancor, targets fell by the wayside over the past several months. The last was the Chief of Police Robert “Bobby” Richardson, a South Miami native, and someone who has risen through the ranks for over twenty years.

The crowd that assembled came to protest the imminent firing of Chief Richardson and others to register their concerns about a city ordinance that they say unfairly regulates small businesses. But before the public could speak, a procedural maneuver by Vice Mayor Valerie Newman landed Carlton out of a job and thus, unwittingly, put the status of the Chief’s termination in question. Since only the manager has the authority to hire and fire city staff, the 4-1 vote to terminate Carlton opened up the possibility that the Chief may be able to stay in his job after all. (Newly elected Commissioner Walter Harris cast the lone dissenting vote saying “it wasn’t the time for an overnight change.”)

In advancing her resolution to terminate the Acting City Manager, Vice-Mayor Newman, who lavishly praised Carlton only a few months ago, brutalized his character and his work, and said he was attempting to “extort” the commission. In her rambling list of accusations against Carlton and in other actions, she effectively usurped control of the meeting.

Carlton, whom the commission hired in late October as a temporary replacement for previous manager Ajibola Balogun, when given an opportunity to speak, retorted, denying Newman’s claims, noting that he had discussed the probe with all elected officials, and that the commission was smearing his character and long-established executive career reputation.

And it seems that Carlton is not the only one in the Vice-Mayor’s cross-hairs, as she publicly criticized Mayor Stoddard for meeting privately with the Manager, the City Attorney and Investigator Harms (as the mayor has every right to do). After Carlton’s dismissal, she started directing the Acting Police Chief to escort Carlton to and out of his office, to which the mayor blurted out, “I chair this meeting!” It was one of the few times that the newly-elected mayor exercised any control of the meeting. Although the move handed some residents their first victory and diffused some of the tension in the room, many residents who came to lambaste the city manager over the chief’s firing still directed their frustration at the mayor and commissioners.

Several noted that firing Carlton was a “step in the right direction” in bringing the city back together, a reference to a rift in the community that runs along racial lines. Community activist Sarah Ann Thompkins, rhetorically asked if the terminations were “racially motivated.” In addressing the Commission, Thompkins said: “I’m not going to say they were. You look at the pictures and answer for yourself.”

Others spoke of Carlton’s impressive career of service in Miami-Dade County and as Miami Beach Manager. Long-time area resident and management/marketing business consultant John Edward Smith said, “It seems, the more things change, the more things remain the same.” He said that Carlton was “thrown under the bus” after doing the work he had to do to clean up the previous administration’s messes and the commission’s beckoning.

On several occasions, residents shouted down speakers who praised Carlton, forcing Mayor Stoddard to chastise the crowd for their unruly behavior.

With Carlton promising ’not to go peacefully’ after his character was impugned, we again seem to be going down the path of lawsuits. Conveniently enough, any impending lawsuits were previously engineered to be the legal responsibility of the citizens of South Miami. The offending commissioner now has carte blanche to smear a person’s reputation with impunity, because the tax payer will be footing the bill.

Faced as we are with being the collective “sugar daddy” for the whims and capriciousness of our elected officials, how can the tax payer afford their repeated power plays? We now have two ex-city managers who have legitimate grievances against the City of South Miami—one who has a lawsuit pending and one who may be suing. It seems that any new manager can only be viewed as a potential fiscal liability.

In other action taken at the Commission meeting, and thanks to the efforts of the Red Sunset Merchants Association, about a dozen members of the business community were also on hand that night to fight what they say is over-regulation of small businesses who have a hard enough time surviving in a tough economy. Their complaint:

an overly vague ordinance limiting display of merchandise outside a business, even on private property. The measure, on the books since December 2008, was only recently enforced by the city, resulting in several citations and one fine for popular ‘sidewalk sales.’ Mack Cycle and Fitness owner Mary Jane Mark, the sole recipient of a fine for her store’s outside displays, spoke about the hardship the ordinance imposes on business owners who rely on the sales to boost traffic and profits, and asked the commissioners to amend the ordinance. The audience applauded her as she left the podium.

Mark and the other business owners assembled that night would prevail. Near the end of the long session, commissioners voted to refer the ordinance back to the Planning and Zoning Board for amendments to clarify the language. The Commission also acted to rescind the fine levied against Mack Cycle, a 50+ year-old South Miami business.

Interestingly enough, those who view the proceedings on the city’s cable access network may find it implausible that the City Attorney directed the IT staff not to show re-runs of the meeting, as he felt it was an embarrassment to the former manager. How about to the City itself?! But, truth be told – and truth be seen.

Editor’s note: “After inquiries by Community Newspapers, the full, unedited recording of the City Commission meeting of May 5 is now being broadcast.”

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