Wednesday, August 16, 2006
If there is a driving force behind Riviera Beach's $2.4 billion redevelopment project, if there is one person who is imprinted on the effort like a cattle brand, it is Michael Brown.
The city's "weak" mayor.
Brown's post is meant to be largely ceremonial — he doesn't even have a vote unless there's a rare tie on the five-member commission. But he's used his nonvoting status as an excuse to ignore laws that govern all other elected officials. And it seems the further he treads into legally and ethically dubious territory, the more powerful he becomes.
Since he was elected in 1999, Brown has steamrolled the beachfront redevelopment plan through his city. He's brought in consultants and construction contractors, negotiated the terms of numerous development deals, and held sway over a majority of the five commissioners.
"It's called leadership," he told me last week. "If I had not stepped into the city, the city would have been bankrupt. It would have been a disaster."
In May, Brown engineered the passing of the giant redevelopment plan, which hinges on Riviera Beach's buying hundreds of people out of their homes through a dubious eminent domain scheme that will benefit private developers. The town's public beach space on the more affluent Singer Island is also slated to become home for a giant hotel and condo development.
Everyone seems to agree that the largely impoverished city needs new development, but a growing number of citizens is questioning whether Brown is doing it the right way. In essence, he's selling out the beach and selling short homeowners in favor of developers, including the family of billionaire Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who stand to cash in on the deal.
But Brown is king of the city, and his way goes. How has he amassed that power? For one thing, he may be the only mayor in Florida who freely admits that he operates outside the state's Sunshine Laws, which prohibit elected officials from discussing government business with one another outside the public eye.
Brown believes that since he doesn't vote, he can speak with individual commissioners about his plans whenever and wherever he wants, whether on the dais or in a dark alleyway. "It allows me to pitch ideas and get things done," he explained.
There hasn't been a legal opinion based on his unorthodox stance, but I told him I thought he was violating the law.
"You have your legal opinion, and I have mine," countered Brown, a Florida native who is a lawyer by trade. "And if I was a betting man, I would bet on mine."
It's not just Sunshine Laws that he plays loose with — Brown also ventures into dicey legal territory when it comes to mixing his private law business and public duties as mayor.
In 2003, the City Commission voted to approve a Winn-Dixie shopping center in Riviera Beach. Brown was City Hall's biggest proponent of the grocery store, promoting it on the dais and helping to expedite the project through the bureaucracy.
Here's what has never been reported: As a private attorney, Brown also represented Byram Properties, the company that provided the land for the Winn-Dixie. And Brown readily admitted to me that the $1 million sale, on which he was paid a commission, was contingent on the city's approving the grocery store.
"And I single-handedly negotiated the deal through the city," he boasted.
Brown insisted there was nothing wrong with what he did. Why? Because he didn't vote, of course. Florida's unlawful-compensation statute forbids public officials from profiting on their elected positions. But Brown countered that Byram Properties was a longtime client and that he would have represented the company in the land sale whether he was mayor or not.
"I detest public corruption, and anybody who knows me will tell you [I'm] squeaky clean," he said. "I have made numerous sacrifices in my professional life. I could have taken the easy way out and taken the money, but I knew I wanted to help my community."
He's on undeniably murky ground, though, as he is in his longtime close relationship with Kimley-Horn and Associates, an engineering consulting firm Brown brought to the city shortly after he was elected mayor in 1999.
The firm has been paid huge sums of money as a consultant for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. But a million dollars that the city paid to the company really stands out.
The check was in the amount of precisely $1,005,917. It was dated September 19, 2003. And Mayor Brown admits that he personally intervened on behalf of Kimley-Horn engineer Paul Cherry to make sure the city paid it.
"Kimley-Horn contacted me and said the check is approved; can you make a call to see what's going on?" Brown explained. "People call me all the time and say, 'Hey mayor, can you help me with the bureaucracy.' And in that case, I made a call to the administration."
The problem: The payment hadn't been approved by the City Commission, there was no contract in place, and a city contractor, PSA Constructors Inc., insisted that it couldn't be justified.
"We could not verify that the work had been done," recalled Michelle Andrewin, who was PSA's liaison to the city. "We could only verify that $400,000 worth of work had been done."
But the check was still issued and cashed by Kimley-Horn, all with the help of the mayor.
The conflict over the $1 million check was mentioned only in passing by the Palm Beach Post in 2005. But what I've learned is that Brown was involved in a private Kimley-Horn deal at the time to build a $64 million bridge in the Bahamas.
Under the direction of Cherry, the firm began planning to build a bridge from Freeport to Abaco Island in late 2002. In its proposal to the Grand Bahama Port Authority, Kimley-Horn listed the Riviera Beach mayor as a member of its development team.
Brown said all he did was recommend Kimley-Horn as a company that could get the job done. And he said he was never paid a dime for the project, which hasn't been built because the Bahamas couldn't come up with the funding.
"I was put on the plan because I was black — I mean, if you're doing business in Miami, wouldn't you want a Cuban involved?" he asked. "I would have helped [Kimley-Horn] in any way I could. If I was a consultant for them, I wouldn't have done it when Kimley-Horn was a consultant for the city. I could have, legally, but I wouldn't have, because of people like you who ask these questions."
Former Riviera Beach Commissioner Edward Rodgers, who also helped put together the bridge proposal, said he wasn't paid any money for his involvement and doesn't believe the mayor was either.
"Nobody to the best of my knowledge got any money out of it," said Rodgers, who left the commission this past April. "I think they just put Brown on there to drop a name to bolster their credibility in the Bahamas."
Rodgers — who traveled to the Bahamas with Cherry for the project and even had a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Perry Christie about it — said the plan was never officially killed but just faded away because of a lack of funding.
"As far as I know," Rodgers said, "it's still sitting in someone's desk somewhere down there."
Cherry, though, said the plan was for Brown to be a consultant on the project, just not directly connect to Kimley-Horn. "Mayor Brown was going to be a consultant directly to the Bahamians," the engineer said. "But he didn't do anything on the project."
Whatever the truth, the episode is another illustration of Brown's habit of playing loose with ethics. And it might shed light on why Brown was so adamant about giving Kimley-Horn that million dollars.
"Brown was always very protective of Kimley-Horn," Andrewin said.
Today, Kimley-Horn works not only for the city but also for Viking Inlet Harbor Properties — the master developer for the city's $2.4 billion redevelopment plan.
Although that would seem to be a blatant conflict of interest, Brown doesn't see it that way. "It doesn't bother me," he says.
To add to the incest, Brown's brother, Jeff, has secured work for Viking Inlet Harbor Properties to demolish houses in the redevelopment zone. The mayor said he had nothing to do with helping his brother get that job.
"My brother does demolition for Viking," Brown said. "He is knocking down three or four more houses for them right now. And if you need a house knocked down, he'll knock yours down for you too."
In other words, it's business as usual in Riviera Beach — and it has outraged several city activists.
"Riviera Beach, a sunny place for shady people," longtime city observer Dawn Pardo said. "You can quote me on that."
Added Martha Babson, who recently sold her home in the redevelopment area: "I can't believe what goes on in this city."
Today, both women are incensed that another handpicked Brown consultant, Bernard Kinsey, has a city contract to negotiate the redevelopment deal. Kinsey's six-month contract, which is expected to be extended soon, is worth nearly half a million dollars — and as much as twice that with expenses.
It's the way Brown wants it. And he promises that his power will only grow after he gets the commission to approve a measure to make him a "strong" mayor.
"It's the story of my life — I'm always winning," he said. "And that's because I'm on the right side... I will get more authority. Some people might not like it, but it's coming."