The regular meeting of the North Bay Village Commission started with a 90-minute mudslinging match as the mayor, city attorney, various commissioners and members of the public accused each other of acting in bad faith, spreading rumors and falsehoods, and in some cases, committing crimes ranging from extortion to fraud.
Insults and accusations have been flung about for years in the tiny island city, but they reached a fever pitch last year after one commissioner revealed to the council that he thought he was being blackmailed for his criminal history.
On Tuesday, the mayor started the meeting by publicly revealing new information about select criminal and ethics investigations.
Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps spoke at length about an investigation into whether the former city manager, Frank Rollason, misused his position to contract for a picket fence to be built at his daughter’s house. A city investigator had already found no grounds to continue the investigation; the city attorney publicly disregarded that finding saying the report was “hastily and hurriedly prepared,” and the investigation was reopened. The mayor and Rollason both admit there has been bad blood between them for years.
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She also revealed that the city turned over evidence to the Public Corruption Section of Miami-Dade police of a “hurricane party," which North Bay Village police officers allegedly held — with alcohol — in the police precinct during Hurricane Irma, and of other unspecified “funny business” under the tenure of the former chief, Carlos Noriega.
City Attorney Norman Powell said there are legal grounds to investigate allegations that the village’s "criminal justice network” has been used “improperly to investigate residents and others for an illicit purpose." He also cited potential investigations into whether FEMA funds were misspent and whether the internal affairs process was improperly used.
North Bay Village City Attorney Norman C. Powell (far left) and Village Manager Marlen D. Martell, during a commission meeting at the North Bay Village City, on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
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The tumultuous meeting fell on the one-year anniversary of former Commissioner Douglas Hornsby’s bombshell announcement to the commission that he was being blackmailed over a cocaine conviction from the 1990s that threw both his voter status and eligibility to be a commissioner into question. After his confession, the commission voted unanimously to reinstate him as a commissioner, only to remove him the following January.
According to Hornsby, during the spring of 2017 he and his wife received at least two letters in their mailbox containing his criminal history and questions about his voter status. Hornsby wouldn’t say what else, if anything, the letters included, but to him the quid pro quo was clear: vote to remove the city manager or risk this information becoming public. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into the allegations of blackmail; it is still ongoing.
It was no secret that Leon-Kreps had wanted to remove Rollason for years. But she said she didn’t have the votes. Hornsby said the mayor had been pressing him to vote to fire the manager since 2016. “She asked me to fire the city manager as part of my qualification for the office.” He refused. Leon-Kreps denied that she ever presented Hornsby with that prerequisite.
During the summer of 2017, investigators from the State Attorney’s Office approached Leon-Kreps with questions about the letters sent to Hornsby and his wife. Leon-Kreps said she had nothing to do with the letters, and said she did not know about Hornsby’s criminal history until he told the commission last May — long after the letters were sent. She refused the state attorney’s request for an interview on advice from her lawyer, she told the Miami Herald.
Kevin Vericker, a prominent local blogger, set the tone at the start of the most recent commission meeting by accusing Leon-Kreps of collusion in the blackmail case and asking her directly: "Why not do something radical? Leave us. Resign tonight."
The mayor called allegations against her — many of which have been published on Vericker’s blog — "false rumors and unfair attacks."
Since Hornsby’s declaration last year, the village has gone through major changes:
▪ The late-night firing of former City Attorney Robert Switkes in November 2017 and his replacement with Norman Powell.
▪ The January 2018 resignation of Rollason, the former city manager, and two of his key staffers.
▪ The January removal of Hornsby from the commission and his replacement with Laura Cattabriga.
▪ The hiring of former North Miami Beach Commissioner Marlen Martell as the new city manager.
▪ The April firing of Noriega, the former police chief, that overrode his claim that he had whistle-blower protections because of his involvement in the blackmail investigation. Noriega has said he plans to sue the city over his termination.
▪ The April firing of Sam Bejar, who was in charge of internal affairs investigations within the city government.
▪ The May firing of NBVPD officer Tom Columbano, who led an investigation into a member of the village’s Advisory Charter Review Board, Ana Watson. As a result of Columbano’s investigation, in January Watson was charged with felony fraud unrelated to her city position and awaits trial in June.
North Bay Village City Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps reacts during a commission meeting on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
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Leon-Kreps, who initiated most of those moves, said the changes were about “professionalizing” the village government, but her critics say they were part of her attempt to stack the deck to fire the manager and squash any allegations against her administration.
The personnel moves have dominated the village’s affairs for most of the last year, affecting policy decisions as staff and elected officials quarrel. On Tuesday, several important resolutions were overshadowed by the allegations, personal attacks and rumors.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to buy a building for $2.29 million that they hope to convert into a city hall and community center. The commission currently meets in a rented space. Martell presented an emergency hurricane preparedness proposal. And Commissioner Eddie Lim proposed a resolution regarding ethics trainings and background checks for members of the village advisory boards.
"The reason I’m putting this [resolution forward] is because we want to have an honest government with integrity," said Lim.
The resolution failed, with only Lim voting yes. "I don’t want to see people’s dirty laundry getting aired," said Cattabriga, who seconded the motion in order to open discussion.
The bad blood boiled close to the surface throughout the meeting.
"Commissioner Lim, take a deep breath," Leon-Kreps said during one particularly heated moment just before she adjourned the meeting.
"You take a deep breath. I’m OK," Lim retorted.
State Sen. Daphne Campbell sat in the second row during the first half of the meeting. She thanked community members for their support but had little to say about the drama.
"Innocent until proven guilty," she said to the Miami Herald as she left.