At stake in Riviera: Progress but how,
and for whose gain?

RIVIERA BEACH Did a revolution occur here last week? Or was it a counterrevolution?

When voters dumped Mayor Michael Brown and three incumbent council members Tuesday, did they vote out a fractious, divisive administration with the hope of speeding up progress?

Or were they trying to slow and harness change? Were they derailing an ambitious $2.4 billion redevelopment plan and an administration that was trying to make it happen too quickly?

"What happened Tuesday was a debacle," said former City Councilman Donald Wilson, a supporter of Brown and his ambitious waterfront reclamation project. "We are at a crucial point in Riviera Beach history, a point where we can move to another level, and the people didn't come out to support it. I'm absolutely shocked."

Tony Gigliotti, chairman of the Singer Island Civic Association, a force against Brown, sees it differently.

"Brown was a very divisive figure, and we see progress as more possible now," he said. "As soon as the runoff election is over, we hope our officials roll up their sleeves and reengage the developers. Let's get the job done without the divisiveness."

The events of the past week were another chapter in the tumultuous saga of Riviera Beach, with its 400 acres of prime development land fronting the Intracoastal Waterway and a world-class beach, but its woeful history of stalled progress.

Since 1971, when the black majority was first able to take control of the city council, this city has dreamed of progress comparable to that of surrounding communities, only to see those dreams dissolve amid political strife.

This time, Singer Island voters went more than 4-to-1 for Brown's opponent, Thomas Masters, accounting for his margin of victory and altering the latest municipal plan of action. They also overwhelmingly voted down the 28-story Marriott condo/hotel project planned for public land on the island at the site of the Ocean Mall, which was championed by Brown.

Voters on the island and the mainland also turned against council candidates aligned with Brown. The mayor, who had feuded with incumbent council members, picked three fledgling council candidates to run on his ticket, and they also lost their races. But all drew enough votes to qualify for the runoff election March 27 against candidates backed by the Singer Island bloc.

The racial divide between Singer Island, which is overwhelmingly white and affluent, and the city as a whole, which is about 70 percent black and considerably less well-to-do, stoked feelings of stifled progress on the part of Brown and his supporters.

In an interview, Brown, who has embraced large-scale waterfront redevelopment as the primary answer to the city's social and economic woes, made a point of the racial makeup of Singer Island voters.

"There are three black families on the island. It's 99.3 percent white," he said. "But this is much closer to a class issue than a race issue. People need to understand the need to revitalize this city and not perpetuate the disparities in this city. The island has coalesced against candidates who want the whole city to advance.

"Those people are simply against change," he said of the island residents. "They like being the most affluent people in the city, and they don't want that to change."

Richard Giorgio, a political consultant who worked for the Masters campaign, said the numbers did not support Brown's claim that he was bushwhacked by the enemies of progress.

"This was a revolution rather than a counterrevolution because people on the island pulled together with many of the people on the mainland," he said. "They were on the same page."

Giorgio said apart from the Ocean Mall issue, Brown had been hurt by his heavy-handed past support of the use of eminent domain to take property for the redevelopment of the waterfront on the mainland. Although state statutes passed last year now prohibit governments from taking private property for commercial use, Giorgio said, Brown already had been damaged by the issue.

Nettie Dyke, 66, owner of Nettie's Alterations on lower Broadway, in the heart of the redevelopment area, said she had a favorable impression of Brown but agreed with Giorgio's assessment.

"Lots of people around here voted for Bishop Masters because they were afraid that with Mayor Brown they would have their homes taken away," she said.

The victorious Masters said the deciding issue was the fact that members of the community were not sufficiently consulted by Brown's administration on the projects that would affect their lives.

"You can't just tell people how it's going to be," Masters said. "This wasn't a white or black issue. Whether it's the Ocean Mall on the island or the projects on the mainland, you have to include people in the process, and the previous mayor didn't do that."

Gigliotti said he believes Masters' grass-roots campaign style will allow him to better connect to voters in the redevelopment area and smooth the acquisition of land for redevelopment.

First, the city must decide in the March 27 runoff on three of its five council members. Liz Wade, one of the defeated incumbent council members, said she and many other voters on the mainland would have a hard time choosing whom to vote for in the runoff.

"You're between a rock and a hard place," Wade said. "I'm not with the people on the island because they don't want to see anything done in this city. And on the Brown ticket, he's going to be running the city from behind the scenes if they win. That might even be better for him."

She and other political leaders said it would be very difficult for the Brown slate to overcome the Singer Island/Masters slate because of the difficulty in getting mainland voters to come out in the second round.

Brown said last week he was not throwing in the towel. He said he will challenge the election results based on what he alleges was improper handling of absentee ballots by Masters.

Regardless of the outcome of that challenge, Brown said, he was ready to campaign vigorously for his council candidates if they ask for his assistance and he thinks they still can win.

"There are lots of people angry about what happened in that first round," he said. "This has awakened a sleeping tiger."

All three of the candidates - Fercella Davis Panier, Elizabeth Pertee Robinson and Corey Smith - reached last week, said they had not asked Brown for support but added diplomatically that they were not refusing his support.

Brown also said he would help the candidates raise money, but calls to developers and other business leaders who had contributed to the mayor's campaign drew no responses.

"I think if they're smart, they'll sit on the sidelines this time," said Dawn Pardo, another Singer Island opponent of Brown's. "I think it would be a waste of their money."

Pardo said she and other Singer Island political activists plan to get out the island vote as they did Tuesday, even though their main issues, on the Ocean Mall, were won.

While only about 25 percent of eligible mainland voters went to the polls, about 50 percent of island voters showed, and that made the difference, she said.

"We're going to call every single person on the voter rolls the way we did the first time," Pardo said. "We're going to finish the job we started."

Herman McCray, a longtime civil rights leader who backed Masters, agreed that overcoming the first-round loss would be almost impossible for the three council candidates affiliated with Brown.

McCray also said he did not share the concerns expressed by Wade and others that the Singer Island slate of council candidates would stifle change.

"People didn't vote against change or against progress," he said. "But it isn't progress if it's being shoved down your throat."