Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hialeah mayor hides behind lies

The plot thickens like un tamal en cazuela on As Hialeah Churns.

When last we left our City of Retrogress, city officials and acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez -- appointed by the lying, thieving former mayor, a political powerhouse that basically imploded in a battle of good versus evil when he tried to seek a higher office -- had conspired to tarnish the city's brave firefighters in an orchestrated smear campaign worthy of Machiavellian comparisons.

Well, maybe not that last part. Because, really, it's very mediocre, not Machiavellian. It is quite obvious to anyone who can string together the recent spate of strange and peculiar events and official statements that this cannot be a series of coincidences but rather a concerted effort to discredit the firefighters that have repeatedly asked for -- and have repeatedly been denied -- transparency and full financial disclosure from the city before they can relinquish $5 million in arbitrary cuts to benefits they have earned. They must be on to something. And Ladra bets that the mayor did not think we'd be on to him and his step-by-step, color-by-numbers, defamation-for-dummies effort. Oh, but we are, Carlos, we are.

The latest on his discount campaign "to do" list was a letter to the editor in Miami Herald that, at first, really riled me up and made me what I now call "Slick pissed", after one of my favorite handlers whose irate flare-ups are legendary. Because what Hernandez did -- or someone else, since, c'mon, everybody knows he is incapable of writing that letter himself -- was string a bunch of lies and half-truths taken out of context for political gain during an election year and target a 23-year veteran city firefighter whose honesty is unquestionable, whose demeanor is sort of like Winnie the Pooh and who is doing his best -- diplomatically, patiently, fairly -- to represent Hialeah's firefighters/paramedics under the most difficult circumstances.

But then I realized: Fire local union president Mario Pico must be making an impact.

And then I smiled: The interim mayor -- who won't return my calls or see me in his office and who shut down the press conference about the city's finances after I asked (still no answer) how much of the $6 million in the bank was in unencumbered funds not earmarked for specific expenditures and available to the general fund -- has given me yet another opportunity to publicly call his bluff.

Hernandez -- who complains about firefighter salaries while he makes $190,000 a year to waltz in late, take 90-minute lunches, go on the radio two or three times a week and campaign for re-election -- has to make the fire union a target and his short term scapegoat because he cannot engage with the other two candidates in the race, which are both political giants that will crush him. This gives him some busy work to avoid them while he pays "opposition researchers" -- including a former city cop -- to dig dirt on former mayor Raul Martinez and former State Sen. Rudy Garcia and plan his smear campaign against them. At the same time, he can try to deflect responsibility for the financial fiasco. And I say short term because his story -- if he even sticks to it because he flip flops more than his mentor, former mayor and county mayoral loser Julio Robaina -- won't wash for long when the administration is either forced to show its financial cards or replaced, whichever comes first.

Still, make no mistake that this letter -- which has media consultant spin written all over it, such as the use of certain repeated terms to subliminally embed the message -- is an orchestrated campaign to, well, boost the campaign since every poll has Hernandez in a far third position. And he needs all the free advertising he can get since his treasure chest may not be as big as before Robaina's big bust. That's also why he is using the bully pulpit and issuing press releases and media alerts about a redeveloped home for a senior citizen and an evaluation of take-home cars and cutting his salary and having a town hall meeting about cutting his salary (really? is anybody buying this?).

Since the Herald gave him this free advertising space for his campaign (that letter really should have had the paid for by disclaimer), the Hialeah reporters should follow up with Hernandez and take advantage of this chance to show what a hypocritical opportunist he is by askin him to back up the statements in this letter -- which, by the way was sent to the Herald the same day the administration entered into negotiations with the union fully intending to call an impasse, which the union president denounced. (The spin doctor working for him likely had it ready already, to try to pre-empt any complaint Mario would maketo the media). That is not negotiating in good faith, which is no big suprise since the city has lost three or four labor disputes in the past year or two at a cost of millions and millions. In fact, Ladra is quite sure they had already prepared the impasse document before going into the meeting (I think the city attorney brought it into the room with him) and had set the firefighters up a week earlier with a media alert -- a media alert!! -- from the mayor complaining that he had tried five times to get a date for negotiations with the union and had not gotten a response. Not only was this simply not true -- which Mario Pico was able to document, no wonder he's drawn such attention -- but it was also an obvious set up. It is not a common thing -- in fact, I would say it is quite rare, counterproductive and highly suspicious (hellooo?) -- for the mayor to issue an official "media alert" to whine that he could not get the union to talk to him. The union has been trying to talk to him since before he was named interim mayor and, in fact, has had several conversations with him. One of these was in front of TV reporter Jim DeFede and was recorded on video. The firefighters have been wanting to talk for months and were willing to keep talking last week when the city called impasse. Indeed, they are willing to make concessions if they need to preserve the quality of life for the residents they work for and save every day, which is something that the mayor fails to mention. They just don't want to make them in the dark. They have no confidence in the city's numbers. And with good reason. Last year, they were given two different versions of the budget. The official bounded budget. After Robaina illegally fired 17 firefighters, an arbitrator ruled the city had to rehire them and give them backpay because their figures did not support the savings they claimed to make and in fact the action seemed to cause economic hardship. Even a Robaina-for-mayor supporter and forensic auditor said that the books had many discrepancies and errors. And last month, Hernandez flip-flopped on the figures, saying at a press conference that there was a $7.8 million shorfall (blaming the lion's share on firefighters with yet another lie) and then he told reporters days later that there was no deficit (read: the spin doc read him the riot act after the first press conference because every time he says deficit, Martinez climbs).

As for the "such firefighter pay raises" line -- yeah, that's the one -- most of the firefighters have not had a raise since the 3% in 2008 that was the last of a three year increase agreed to in 2006 -- the same year the council members gave themselves a 10 percent increase all at one time. The mayor forgets to mention that, too. The merit increases are given only to the newest employees because it allows the department to offer a lower starting pay and it is in the contract. It could be discussed and negotiated -- negotiated, not just deleted -- at the table if the city had any intention of having any real give and take and not really be looking to just take, take, take. Because the impasse now allows the administration to impose cuts. They did it last year with the employees union. That's what Hernandez means by "absorbed" decreases in his letter. It was also one of the cases in which PERC ruled against the city, which had cut the general employees pay by 27 percent and then made that decrease 17 percent after the PERC ruling. The case is still pending and the city is about to be it with another grievance from the firefighters, if he imposes cuts like I am sure he will. And the city will lose that dispute eventually, as well. But, hey, maybe it's long enough to make payroll and keep the city operating until November.

It's pathetic that Hernandez is allowed this futile attempt to discredit a true public servant who has not once stooped so low during the protracted negotiations the city had no intention of honoring. Let's hope that it backfires on him and costs him votes. Ladra is working on it. Unfortunately, it will also cost the city more in legal feels for lost labor disputes, which is already adding up to millions and millions the mayor simply does not have in the bank.

His letter, however, won't cost Mario Pico one ounce of credibility. If anything, it raises his profile and makes him more relevant in the community.

I'll have to remind Mario to thank the acting mayor next time he sees him.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Morales' Sweet Home Hialeah

Yes, people of Hialeah: Former city councilman and current candidate Alex Morales is your neighbor. He moved back into the city last August, traded his half million Miami Lakes house with a yard and a wife for a one-bedroom apartment across from Tinta Latina Tattoo Studio and next to an abandoned foreclosed office building where the homeless sleep at night. He did this intentionally and solely so he could run for city council in this November's election.

You hear the alarm bells, too? That kind of sacrifice (leaving your home and family) usually means he's either too motivated -- as in up to something -- or he's just the kind of guy Hialeah needs. And, for now at least, Ladra is going with the latter. Why? Not just because the man is brilliant beyond his baffled mad scientist looks, has phonebooks of information in his head, some actual ideas of substance and knows everybody and remembers every little detail about every little minutia of anything -- which makes him a stickler for standard operating procedures, sorely needed in the City of Progress. But also because he is willing to talk openly about it all and answer questions, to pick up the phone or answer voice mail messages in a timely manner, to take the time to explain complicated budget issues without any hesitancy on details, provide me and other journalists with his cellphone number and further resources and, generally, make my life and work easier by giving me access and acting like he has nothing to hide, which usually means someone has nothing to hide. Fellow candidate (or ex-candidate, as it were) Daisy Castellanos, who refused to answer simple questions about her possibly late campaign account until she could have me "verified" (whatever that means), could learn a lesson or two from Candidate Professor, who Ladra has so dubbed because he teaches everyone even when he isn't trying to. And before Won't and other critics begin their ridiculous attempts to crimp my street creds by claiming that I am on the payroll for Morales or former Mayor and current mayoral candidate Raul Martinez or someone else because they talk to her, they ought to actually tell their candidates to try that tactic. By the way, just for context, another candidate outside the Martinez slate I am often accused of working for actually did offer me a job at our very first meeting, which I immediately and pointedly refused, explaining why the offer was inappropriate to someone who should not have needed explaining (and, yes, more on that later). Because as the cohorts who do talk to me at their own risk and often do not appeciate my sarcastic nicknames can recite on cue in unison, nothing is off the record and Ladra will hear anyone out. They, and anyone who reads this, can probably also say that if you run and hide, Ladra will chase. From day one, Morales has been readily available and brutally honest -- even if his natural ease makes him more mal hablado than an East Hialeah towtruck driver. Good thing Ladra speaks East Hialeah towtruck.

"I don't want to be a councilman," said been-there, done-that Morales, who served 11 years with both Martinez and former mayor and recently defeated county mayoral candidate Julio Robaina. "We need to fix this mess," Morales added. "These people have destroyed what it took decades to build. They destroyed Hialeah. I want to help bring it back."

"These people" are the current incumbents. Morales is on the Raul Martinez for Mayor slate that hopes to unseat most if not all the current council members in a November clean sweep. Right now, he is positioned to run for Jose "Pepe" Yedra's termed-out seat in Group 1, likely against Fernando Alvarez, one-time assistant to former Councilwoman Cindy Miel. But Ramon Sicre and Tony Vega have also indicated they will run for that council seat. Ladra thinks that's a total waste of political weight and name recognition. He should take out the Only Mighty Isis "Gavelgirl" Garcia-Martinez. As much as Ladra would love to see a Miel/Gavelgirl rematch (which, by the way, las mismas malas lenguas that are usually right say will happen), it is a far more easy win to pit Morales against, well, anyone in any council group. In fact, Morales is the number two dog on his slate, a virtual shoe-in according to numbers reportedly through the roof in the now-infamous and possibly planted Frank Lago "how's the water?" poll that Ladra still wants a copy of and an answer about who paid for it and how much it cost. In fact, Professor Morales as a running mate could be as good for Martinez as he thinks Mr. Mayor will be for him. Morales is Hialeah as much as Martinez is. A decade and a year on the council, the Hialeah-Miami Lakes High grad was also former director of the Hialeah Housing Authority until Robaina fired him in 2009. Morales has two lawsuits pending -- one against Robaina for slander/libel and one against the housing authority for breach of contract. He was one of the main forces against Robaina's county mayoral drive and has loaned himself $25,000 (he's doing quite well in the private sector) for his council bid. All the viejitos in public housing know Morales and that's good for a couple thousand votes. For more than two decades, his parents have owned a bakery on West 12 Avenue -- that may become a council recall central -- where Morales still works every Wednesday, his large hands making the most delicate of the pastries. That's good for another thousand votes, probably.

In 2008, Morales and his wife went shopping for a new house so they could bring Ada Morales' mother to live with them. "We made an offer on one in Hialeah but I didn't get it," he said. They bought a 3,700-square-foot house in Miami Lakes for $470,000, instead. Morales, who owns three other homes in Miami Gardens that he also does not live in (just in case), did not have any plans to return to politics, he said. And Ladra believes him when he says he can make more money in the private sector, writing grants and working as a housing consultant for municipalities like the city of Tampa. But when the caca started to hit the fan in the city of Hialeah, it naturally drew him back into the political wind. "I could not stand by and let them destroy what it took decades to build," Morales said, referring to the financial questions that have led to acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez requesting the approval of a $15-million line of credit puportedly for capital projects but, Ladra suspects, truly so the city can make payroll through the rest of the fiscal year.

"I have dedicated my entire life to this city. Do you really think that just because I've slept in Miami Lakes for a couple of years that I was going to forget the decades I spent here? All my life, I've spent all day in Hialeah. I've been a part of this community, this government for 21 years. And I've never seen this government in this condition, this kind of disaster."

But to run for office and make a difference, he had to move back into the city where the requirement for candidates is to be an elector one year prior to the race. Morales lucked out when one of the tenants in an apartment building owned by his parents unwilling vacated the apartment via the hospital. He moved into the second floor, one-bedroom with a window to the alley in August and immediately registered to vote. That's also when he went to a council meeting to announce that he had moved back into the city and was now a resident. Not because he is crazy (although he is, in that brilliant savant way), but because he wanted it on the record because he knew this would be made an issue. Told ya he was smart. He has been investigated. He has investigated people. He is not about to get tripped up on a stupid residency fraud allegation he made an issue of himself in a past election.

Ladra went by his apartment a few times, unexpectedly always. The first two he wasn't there. But neighbor Maximo Romero said Morales already lived in an apartment upstairs when he moved in six months ago. Rosa Vazquez lives next door and sees Morales walk in daily from her kitchen window next to his door. She said he's been living there about a year and took the unit -- the most concealed one on the second floor. "He's very nice and chats with me," said Vazquez, who voted for Robaina and did not even know Morales was going to run for office. "I told him once, 'Oh, I am so bored.' And he said he was going to find me a boyfriend. I said, to go out with y pasear, not to clean and cook for him," she said, adding that she had seen Morales' wife and son there to visit at times. They still live in Miami Lakes, however.

When I caught up with Morales, 44, at the apartment one afternoon, he was wearing shorts, socks and a Miami Dolphins t-shirt but was in a hurry because he had to change for a meeting. The minimalist Ikea furniture looks pretty new but he brought his desk from the house and it was covered with neat stacks of paper: mail, his latest city/campaign work -- including a long list of current and former council members who collected pensions while they served -- and monthly electric and internet service bills, dating back to last year, which he volunteered to show before Ladra asked. There was lots of clothes and shoes in the closet and his bathroom sink had been used that day. Yeah, I went there. Here, too: His freezer was full of Lean Cuisine and all he had were some canned and bottled beverages in the fridge. That's right: I asked him to open the fridge. I have no boundaries when it comes to establishing or exposing candidate residency. That is Ladra's favorite bone. That's why I spoke to Morales' wife, Ada, who found it funny that she would be interviewed about her husband's strange, politically-motivated living arrangements.

"We've been married 21 years. It's not like we're newlyweds," she said, laughing, "Of course I support him and it's what he wants to do." This was a Wednesday: date night. Some weekends, Alex Morales will sleep at the Miami Lakes house. But on Wednesdays, his wife comes to the wannabe bachelor pad for "date night" and reporters and cohorts -- some of whom have been to the apartment -- know not to call.

"You can drive by the Miami Lakes house and see the condition of the landscaping and you can tell I don't live there," Morales offered as further proof. He rolled off all the addresses and told me how to find them in the public records online. Again, not like some people who withhold information like it would hurt them to let it go -- because it probably will.

This post has been brought to you by Won't, Responder and their multiple personalities from the unrealuntruthsofmiami, anti-Ladra blog (yes, I am flattered), who have tried to make the Morales residency an issue by, again, spreading lies and half-truths taken out of context. These people have no other way to campaign. This context has been brought to you by Ladra, who voters can leave watching for residency requirements compliance so they can focus on real issues like where the money is and why police stations and parks have to be closed. She'll keep popping in on Morales from time to time to make sure he still lives there. Because, after all, he talks and answers questions and will provide me with a lead on another story, if there's not one there. And there's not one here. So, Professor Morales, you owe me one.

And please keep a Diet Coke in the fridge for me. You know I'm gonna look.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Candidate spending too early?

One of the people with eyes on the dais at Hialeah City Hall is a former veteran water department employee who has been campaigning and had a pretty big, volunteer t-shirted team and a banner at the city's Fourth of July celebration earlier this month.

But how did Daisy Castellanos pay for those yellow shirts and full-color banner shown in her facebook photo here? Because Ladra will bet her kibble that she had not yet opened a campaign bank account before the Independence Day celebration at Milander Park.

"Why would you want to know? It's public record. You can get it from the city clerk," she told me tonight on the telephone in a short and terse interview.

So it's going to be like that, eh? Apparently, Castellanos went to the Julio Robaina/Carlos Hernandez School of Public Misadminstration. Oh, goody. Ladra was a little bored.

What Castellanos didn't know was that City Clerk David Concepcion and his friendly, dog-loving staff, too, are bored -- of seeing Ladra every day for several days over a three week period throughout the month. I had asked for the documents filed by all candidates several times since July 4 and hers was not among them. Not one single time. I was last there only once this past week and still there were no documents given to me from her campaign. In fact, Concepcion gave me a sheet with all the candidates's group choices and, next to her name in Group 6, the position now held by Hernandez replacement Pablito Hernandez, he has N/A for campaign account documents filed. (Castellanos, who submitted her resume for the position, was reportedly upset that she was passed up for the kid, by the way). And, most importantly, Concepcion confirmed last week, much after the July 4 celebration, that Castellanos still had not sought the required city-stamped forms to take to the bank in order to open a campaign account. That would have turned up in the documents I had requested over and over again.

"So she can't be spending money?"

"She can't be spending campaign money," Concepcion said, because he knows state campaign law (or maybe Alex Morales told him).

Castellanos, a longtime city activist who worked for 20+ years in customer service at the Hialeah Water Department and served on the city's planning and zoning board, told Ladra Friday that she opened her account after the June 30 cut-off date for the last reporting period and did not have to report it in campaign reports due the first week of July. But she would not tell Ladra what date she opened the account and she would not say where, despite that the information would be a public record available Monday at the city clerk's office, which, remember, is where she told me to go. And, as I said, I have been to the city clerk's office and back Even after Castellanos was explained that she can easily show she complied with the law and prove Concepcion mistaken or had another memory lapse (it's happened before) by showing the campaign account form that Ladra will get Monday anyway. She wouldn't. Okay, then, just tell me. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. When did you open the account? She wouldn't give a ballpark date, which is always a bad sign. And, again, Ladra will bet it's because it was after July 4.

In fact, based on her facebook fundraising event invitations, the kick-off being July 21, and paypal account set up that same week, let's put $100 on Wednesday, July 20. Anybody in?

Oh, wait. I should first, in all fairness, disclose that shortly after our quick and terse chat, someone deleted the 4th of July photograph I had asked her about from the Daisy Castellanos for Hialeah City Council page -- which she better not be paying to administer because I bet it was created before she opened her bank account. That's another bad sign. Good thing I had already downloaded it.

Castellanos would not return follow up phone calls and an email. But Ladra will try to get up early enough to ask her in person tomorrow at the Hialeah Pan American Lions Club's back-to-school drive at Wal-Mart, 5851 N.W. 177 St., in Miami Lakes. Oh, who am I kidding? Someone ask her for me. She posted on facebook that she would be at the event, which is 7 to 11 a.m. and that they could use volunteers. Ironic that she wouldn't volunteer the public information about her run for public office that I am going to get on Monday anyway. Double goody.

"Was it July 3rd? Was it July 20th? Was it yesterday?" I should have knocked on her damn door.

"No, it wasn't yesterday," she said. More training from the JRCH academy and another telltale sign of something's up.

Ladra explained a third or fourth time that it had to be prior to the 4th to even smell legal.

"What difference does it make to you? I don't have to answer your questions," she said, making me really wish I had knocked on her door instead of called. "You can think whatever you want. I'll give you a call tomorrow when I check my calendar. I don't know who you are. After I verify who you are, I will call you tomorrow."

Of course, she wasn't staying on the phone after that to answer who she was gonna check me out with. So that's now the first question the next time Ex-Candidate Castellanos and I chat.

'Cause Ladra already checked her calendar.

Hialeah racers on your mark. Not!

The candidates who have filed to run so far in the upcoming Hialeah city elections were forced to show their hand by City Clerk David Concepcion this week after he was reminded that state law required candidates who ran in groups to stake claim to one before raising funds.

Or should I say slight of hand? True to Hialeah politics, not everything is what it seems on paper.

It is quite obvious even to a dog like Ladra that the ballot will not reflect the current candidate grouping as provided by the clerk. Maybe it's strategic positioning -- not playing your cards so you can see how the others lay and make a more informed decision. But it won't work if everybody is doing it and everybody knows that everybody is doing it. So. maybe they didn't know what they were doing. It was Monday. They were rushed. It seems nobody had even noticed this apparent violation of state law that requires candidates on a ballot with two or more similar groups to indicate a group -- until one of the actual candidates brought it to Concepcion's attention. Can everybody guess who? It had to be former councilman and know-it-all Alex Morales -- whose first name is really Sean, after Bond, James Bond -- one of four candidates declared for the open seat vacated by Pepe Yedra, defeated by term limits. Don't make Ladra laugh.

So let's start with that one, Group 1: There is no way all three of those candidates -- Fernando Alvarez, Ramiro Sicre and Tony Vega (who hasn't reported raising a dime) are going to stay in a crowded ring with Mr. Name Recognition and his widely-discussed and envied numbers. Watch for Alvarez to stay. It also makes sense to think that there might be some alliances sought between the three men, since they are likely going to face the strength of numbers in the form of at least one slate, maybe two if acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez decides to run with the rest of the incumbents -- or ditch them (except for Council President Isis "Gavelgirl" Garcia-Martinez) to save himself. Look for at least some of them to reach out to former State Rep. Rudy Garcia and his mayoral campaign. Ladra has heard that Alvarez already has.

Next: It is similarly unlikely (read: no way) that former cop turned housing authority official Danny Bolaños (whose name recognition has to be good as the son of longtime former Chief Rolando Bolaños so Ladra can't understand why Lago's still-undisclosed poll would not include him) will run against former Councilwoman Cindy Miel in Group 3, both for the seat now occupied by Councilwoman Vivian Casals-Muñoz, when they are sort of simpatico and should slate together. In the As Hialeah Churns episode version, Danny takes on Casals-Muñoz -- who might be a criminal accomplice (poetic justice) headed for a public court of an entirely different kind anyway as the official notary of the 1st Hialeah Bank of Julito (read: valuable witness) so that Miel can have a rematch with Gavelgirl, who does not have the funds (unless she is holding out) for an absentee ballot machine remix. But, because Garcia-Martinez is allegedly stronger in Lago's poll (which, now that we think of it, we wonder how it was paid for), she may be paired against the strong Bolaños name and Miel, who lost to Gavelgirl once before, will be pitted against Easy Out Vivian.

Because these decisions are being made right now at a much higher level, people.

Really it's all going to depend on former Mayor and current mayoral candidate Raul Martinez, who, as everybody knows, is calling all the shots. As usual. "I'm not calling anything," he told me, and you can hear the smile over the telephone wire. "People ask me for advice because they trust me. They know I know what I'm doing." And what he is doing is calling the shots for one slate of candidates. Who can blame him? Martinez does not only have to get himself elected. If he wants to get anything done as mayor, he also needs friendlies in four of the five council seats up for grabs (the seat acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez gave up, now held by Pablito Hernandez, who has not filed to keep it. Hmmmm.). That's probably why he is reportedly chatting with Miel, once a member of Martinez's opposing faction, who naturally wants to forge an alliance and ride his majesty Raul's robe into office with longtime loyalists Morales, Bolaños. So, Cindy makes three. And, dicen las malas lenguas, 0that former mayor and Councilman Julio Martinez, who was all politically riled up at the La Carretta fundraiser for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez last month is the fourth wheel on the Martinezmobile. Candidates, start your engines.

Next in Group 2: No way the vulnerable councilman Jose Caragol (if only because Ladra thinks all the incumbents can be swept out) will remain unopposed. No way Martinez will allow that golden opportunity to escape for the aforementioned reason. Look for Martinez (Julio) to face the former police spokesman and potty-mouthed viejo verde. Stay unopposed? Read my lips: No. Way.

Next in Group 6: The Carlos/Pablo Hernandez seat right now has one candidate signed up for it, Daisy Castellanos. But Ladra predicts that she will soon be out of the race. (More on that later).

Ladra predicts a lot of changing lanes before the final ballot order is made public. Candidates have until Sept. 9, qualifying deadline, to make a final decision, Concepcion said. But if they change their group after August 19, they need to notify contributors and be ready for refunds.

A+, David. Apparently, Morales is a good teacher. Maybe he would make a good councilman.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mayor's town hall tour takes off

Hours after announcing his new $1.2 million (and counting) senior staff, days after he proposed the elimination of 1,300 positions and cuts for the rest, and exactly one month after he was elected in a close and caustic race, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez pretty much coasted through the first town hall meeting on his hurried 2011-2012 budget with the $400 million discount.

Sure, the standing-room only crowd was mostly his friendly, hold-the-line Kendall and suburban supporters, so one would expect he would hit a homerun, even with many difficult and heart-wrenching questions that came from worried county workers (read: practically begging for their jobs). But he was much more than just visibly comfortable in his own skin. Gimenez was on his A game. He has an A game. He was funnier, much funnier, friendlier, happier, spontaneous, more confident, natural and -- dare I say it again? -- sexier. Sorry, sir. But it's that new swagger. It's how you naturally basked in the warmth of the mass well-wishing and respectfully rose to the challenges to the changes you champion. It's how you patiently and, like a public servant should, answered every single question -- there had to have been more than two dozen -- with specific details, consistency, context, authority, honesty and a frankness and openness that I've never seen in municipal government. For a new mayor, you seem to have an old hand for this, I told him after the dialogue with the community.

"Probably because I'm back at what I do best, or what I think I do best, and that's being a manager," Gimenez said. "I'm more comfortable in this role as mayor than I was as a commissioner."

And I think he's going to be much better at it if certain commissioners with aspirations of their own(read: Chairman Joe Martinez) do not put up too many roadblocks.

Ladra applauds his true and transparent public outreach -- and, yes, that was una indirecta al alcaldito Carlos Hernandez of Hialeah -- which should be the way all governments behave and bodes well for an open Gimenez administration. The mayor, photographed here talking with former mayoral candidate Gabrielle Redfern and her campaign coordinator/friend Kathi Waldhof, respectfully and politely scoffed at the suggestion that his town hall tour to at least seven and up to 11 communities -- which takes him next week to Little Haiti and (can't wait) Hialeah -- was a great start to his re-election campaign (the primary for county mayor is in 13 months). And even though that's what it felt like, especially with the three smart, pretty-boy "former" campaign staffers Ladra likes to call the G-Men (Alex Ferro, Tom Martinelli and Jeve Clayton) buzzing around, finger-punching messages into their expensive smart phones. And if they deny that they never even dreamed that this might be a chance to evaluate voter reaction and measure the mayor's likability, well then they are not as good as they think they are.

Still, the dream team went separately. Mayor Gimenez arrived alone -- he drives himself these days -- and stayed longer than he planned to, answering every single question. I repeat that because it is, in and of itself, beautiful and (unfortunately) remarkable. It is also worth mentioning that the Q&A ended took two hours, twice as long as intended. Then he stayed to talk to anyone and everyone who wanted to shake his hand and/or take a picture with him and/or, privately instead of publicly, ask the mayor if there was another place for this 11-year employee or that longtime public works man. He looked everyone in the eye, listened without rushing them, took cards (which Ladra later saw him give to one of the pretty boys) and told everybody that, while no guarantees, he or someone would follow up. He spent quite sometime with a young student from his alma mater, Christopher Columbus High (photographed here). When he left, a 15-year county employee walked with him halfway to where his car was parked. No security. No entourage. No staff. No sergeant at arms. Just this likely disgruntled employee and the mayor, who held his sports coat over his shoulder and casually chatted with no regard to his own safety. Ladra followed from an appropriate distance. It's the watchdog thing. Even though I love the honest everyman appeal of it, Ladra would feel better if he had one bodyguard (ojo, Candela). But one of the G-Men told me Gimenez hates it when they tag along. Whatever he said to the guy must have been good. "He's going to do whatever is in the best interest of everybody," said the employee, who would not tell me his name or the department he works for. "He's going to fix it." As they were walking, they stopped halfway when someone else driving a white SUV pulled up with his wife and three kids in the back seat -- coming to or from Chuck E Cheese's, probably -- and Gimenez stuck his head in the window to say hello. He even went to the back window to greet the kids and rub one's head. He was stately, elegant, kind, generous with his time and his words, almost noble, as ridiculously over-the-top as that sounds. He was the epitome of a leader, which is what everybody is really longing for.

"The antithesis of Alvarez," one Kendall resident noted.

And, while his senior staff of deputy mayors each making a quarter million has raised eyebrows and seems to mirror the mistakes that cost former county mayor Carlos Alvarez his job via recall (and is something we have to more on that later), Gimenez updated voters on the progress of his campaign promises. He cut his salary in half and commissioners' budgets as well (any leftovers of which he wants back into the general fund). He aims to bring real charter reform during one of the scheduled three elections next year -- if not through an agreeable commission then via a petition drive, he told me later. But, probably most importantly, he rolled the "Alvarez tax increase" back to the magic number of 9.7405, which equals $175 less a year for the owner of a $200,000 house, explained Budget Director Jennifer Glazer-Moon. And it was sooooo refreshing to hear her speak in straight-forward English and do the math for us. (Ladra hopes this government for the people thing is a trend. Where is the like button?).

"The people on March 15 spoke very loudly," Gimenez said. "More than anything else, the tax increase bothered the people in Miami-Dade County. Both me and my opponent said we'd go back to the 2010 rate, which is 9.7405." See? He said it again. He dreams that number.

But that $200 or so per home will mean some sacrifices, he said. The presentation seemed to highlight some details Ladra heard for the first time, including the layoff of 21 code enforcement officers and 62 fire department civilians, decreased funding for agricultural initiatives, the closing of the boot camp at the women's jail, new fees for the pick up of large dead animals ("I'm talking big, like cows and horses, which we get calls on," Moon said) and, last but certainly not least, "medical transportation fees," which sounds like another name for fire rescue or ambulance transportation fees, which have been controversial every time, deemed a danger to elderly and low-income residents who may think twice about calling 911 as well as double taxation for basic services, like a rush to the nearest hospital in the care of trained, taxpayer paid paramedics whose initial first steps basically save your life. Okay, if you can't tell, Ladra is not a big fan of unAmerican ambulance fees. More on that later, though, because people seemed to be kind of oblivious to all of those details -- well except the code enforcement layoffs; they heard that one -- and came with their questions already in mind. First, they were written submissions from the audience read by Suzie Trutie, from the county's communications department. But then Gimenez took queries from the floor.

More than 20 people lined up in the standing-room only community center (at least 150 people were there) in West Kendall and took turns asking questions -- and making suggestions. A constant stream of people seemed to feed the perpetual cue. Almost an uncomfortable number of them -- and I say that only because it was painful to hear their very authentic concern -- were county employees wanting to know, basically, if he could save their job one way or another. Some don't even know that they are on the chopping block. "There are rumors," one woman told me later. The layoffs of the nearly two dozen code enforcement officers was met with some concern. Gimenez said that would be one of the priorities to bring back when funding returned. He defended the elimination of 62 civilian positions from the fire department, saying the ratio of civilians (close to 500) to sworn personnel is 25 percent when the norm is 10. He also defended the retirement of both county fireboats, saying the service could be handled out of a waterfront station. Maybe the answers were not always what people wanted to hear, but he was honest and direct, and kind about it, and he didn't hem and haw and change his position or use a bunch of buzz words that mean nothing. He said top management was asked to provide the positions recommended for removal and that each would be evaluated individually. He also said he hoped that the bulk of the 1,300 positions could be cut from the 1,700 that are vacant, or that people who lose their jobs could transfer over to one that needs filling. But he said he did not think that everybody would stay at the end of the day. The one time he did not know the answer, he admitted the details were new to him and turned to Moon who he said did know. His natural, candid, intimate and unguarded dialogue with the audience gave him an air of honesty rare in county politics.

Yeah, okay, so Ladra is still admittedly a fan who got her Gimenez fix -- been having withdrawals since his swearing-in -- and feels vindicated about her vote. But I'm not the only groupie. Rosa Ortega got up from her seat to tell the mayor that he was "mucho mas simpatico en persona". See? I'm not the only one who noticed the swagger. One man waited in the question cue and publicly thanked God that Gimenez was elected. (Ladra already thanked the employees of Hialeah and the rebellious Republican women of the local GOP).

And, as always, I'm not forever listening to the same old hits. While still supportive in general, I'm concerned about the inner circle and am going to take up the new and improved Carlos Gimenez on this, I'll call it an invitation, to keep him honest. Okay, so maybe I will just invite myself. I don't think he has necessarily missed me, but I have certainly missed his sleepy face and the G-Men's constant attention (los interesados que son). So, Ladra thinks she's going to take a few walks downtown and sniff around in the coming weeks before September's budget hearings. Let's find out how the mayor's "top dollar" super staff will help reduce costs overall (and, really, can't you just do with the four deputies and not get that extra one, sherriff? So former State Rep. Marcelo Llorente, who came in third in the mayor's primary, can run for something else instead). Let's get details on his strategy for rolling out real reform (and, really, please don't align yourself with gypsy con artists who manipulate the process for private gain). Let's see how the details for the layoffs play out in real life. Let's see who on the dais will roll with the punches and who is going to try to punch the air out of the mayor's roll. Let's see him put our money where his mouth is and if he's really as open as he can be.

Let's see if he can really show us once and for all, like I think he will, that we elected the right guy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Poll gives Raul lead, Carlos hope

A poll commissioned by a new candidate in the Hialeah city council race gives former Mayor Raul Martinez quite a comfortable lead over anybody else. No big surprise there. As the city's mayor for almost three decades, Martinez is king of name recognition, the top brand. No big surprise either that the lead is 16 points over former State Sen. Rudy Garcia (Rep. District 40).

The surprise element came in the tiny two-point gap between Garcia and intern mayor Carlos Hernandez, who Ladra -- and the rest of the world, but they don't admit it as readily -- expected to do far worse than 20 percent to Garcia's 22 and Martinez's 38. Even though they naturally split the Republican vote -- which is why Martinez hopes Carlos stays in it -- Carlos was not expected to do so well in the wake of his mentor's giant fall and the financial fallout now.

Dario Moreno questioned 300 voters last week in the poll for Frank Lago, chief of staff to Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño who just lost a bid for the state rep seat vacated by new county commissioner Esteban Bovo to cigar czar Jose Oliva (Rep. District 110). He did not want to disclose the results and said Lago -- who apparently did well enough to want to throw his name into the ballot for council -- will release them on Monday (another sign he did well). But a source close to the candidate confirmed tips from others -- apparently Lago is so proud of his placing he's been parading the poll around -- that Martinez was, indeed, leading in a big way. "Double digits," one seasoned campaigner said. "Twenty points," said another Hialeah political veteran.

Lago told Ladra that Council President Isis "Gavel Girl" Garcia-Martinez polled the highest among incumbents, which also was reported by one of the operatives. Later, I was told that Gavel Girl Garcia -- who already publicly supported Lago's candidacy -- beat former Councilwoman Cindy Miel (who will likely run against her to reprise their greatest hits) by 20 points in the poll. No word if Lago was pitted against Gavel Girl, but he likely won't challenge her. He reportedly got better numbers, howeer, when run against either council member Vivian Cassols-Muñoz or Paul Hernandez, the appointee serving out Hernandez's term through November. Lago and his fans say his showing is the residual result of his state rep run, where he did well in Hialeah (he lost by less than 700 votes) and gained name recognition.

The good news for Lago is he can run for practically any seat -- as long as it's not against former Councilman and housing director Alex Morales, who seems to have scored highest of any candidate, including the incumbents, on name recognition. He did serve the city for 11 years before he was run out of town (he does live in the city again and more on that later) by former mayor Julio Robaina, who Morales worked dozens of unpaid hours to help defeat in the county mayoral race ('cause Karma is another word for Ladra). But that was more than a decade ago, which is nothing but bad news for the incumbents.

The good news for Martinez is two-fold: Don't mess up and you're in the runoff for sure. And you could even be so lucky as to face Hernandez there. Most political observers agree that Raul will wipe the floor with Carlos while he could face a costlier, closer runoff against Garcia.

Good news for Carlitos is he could actually get into a runoff with Martinez and keep a little of what dignity he has left -- at least before he is obliterated in the head-to-head or saved by an act of God. Those really are the only options.

There's not much good news here for Garcia. Sure, he is number two as expected, but with a wide gap and with candidate number-three-with-the-bully-pulpit closer than anyone imagined, practically breathing down his neck. Still, it's a bit premature for his peak and Garcia has to go up from here. He hasn't campaigned in more than a decade and has not been on TV or in the newspapers or on the radio -- as Martinez and Hernandez are constantly -- in almost as long. So these numbers are going to be skewered against him.

That might be why he isn't putting much faith in the Lago poll and won't do one of his own at least until after qualification ends Sept. 9. "It makes no sense now."

But Martinez isn't going to rest on his alleged laurels, either, and seemed unimpressed with his lead. "Polls are a picture of a specific time and any elected official that guides the campaign just by polling is not very bright. You use the poll and cross reference it to look for strengths or weaknesses."

There is a lot of time for that, three months seems like years from here (it will seem like seconds once we are there). And Ladra predicts that Garcia's numbers will go up. Though whether it will be enough is the remaining question. Many political observers say Garcia is the only candidate out there that could beat Martinez. But he needs to roll up his sleeves and get ready to work hard because these are the streets of Hialeah, not the halls of Tallahassee, and hard work is something I've been repeatedly told Garcia -- a 26-year professional legislator who ran unopposed since 2000 and reportedly has some cushy figurehead (read: "no-show") job with his family's carpet business -- may not be entirely familiar with.

For the newlywed dad to 11-month-old twins and only real challenger to Martinez's return to his rightful throne, losing about 10 pounds knocking on doors, this might be a crash course.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Impasse part of campaign game

An anticlimactic impasse declared by Hialeah city officials on the fire union explains some seemingly out-of-nowhere machinations by intern mayor and opportunist bully pulpit candidate Carlos Hernandez, who falsely fingered the firefighters Friday at a staged press conference that should have had a paid political advertisement disclaimer.

The city declared impasse about two hours after labor negotiations began with the fire union -- which has been successfully battling attempts for the last few years to cut firefighters' benefits without showing cause and which had brought a proposal to save $600,000 a year to the table. That's good faith. But the meeting would have probably ended even sooner if not for the reporter or reporters that attended, to the surprise of the city's attorneys who now had to make it look real. Because it was really just more theatrics in another episode of As Hialeah Churns.

That impasse was premeditated, and not just moments before the bargaining session, although Ladra suspects that if someone made a public records request (read: done) for Grodnick's computer history from Wednesday morning, one will find the impasse document created or at least tinkered with before the meeting. But, it's actually been part of the plan since intern mayor Carlos Hernandez and the Three Blind Mice -- Finance Director Vivian Parks, Budget Director Alex Vega and Water and Sewer Director Armando Vidal -- realized just how bad the city's financial crisis is (read: you ain't seen nothin' yet, folks) and decided, more importantly, they had to find someone to blame in the eyes of the voting public in what promises to be a particularly pissy election year.

Enter the increasingly influential firefighters' union. They've been a stubborn thorn in the side of the administration for years, arguably costing one-time county mayoral front-runner Julio Robaina the election, forcing the city to hire back 16 firefighters that were illegally fired by Robaina for political motivations and generally annoying the hell out of city officials with pointed public records requests and demands for financial transparency. So they're perfect scapegoats. Imagine this "mayor's conference room powwow" episode on As Hialeah Churns:

  • Hernandez: "The *&^%$#@ firefighters are perfect! Hell, we can turn the other employees against them because they are the only ones who haven't made any &^%$#@ sacrifices." (Whispered: "*&^%$#@ celebrated a^%$#les think they're better than cops.")

  • Parks: "Well, sir, actually, and as we have explained to you five or six times each, the firefighters are the only ones we haven't been able to take concessions from."

  • Vega: "Yet. But maybe there is a way we might make it happen before the November elections. Maybe." (Inner voice, without his lips moving: "And we can all keep our jobs a little longer.")

  • Hernandez (watching a couple lizards go at it on a tree outside the window): "I'm listening."

  • Vidal: "Can I have the rest of that sandwich?" (Takes half of Vega's sandwich without waiting for a response).

  • Hernandez: "Well, Alex?"

  • Vega:"Sure, he can have it."

  • Hernandez: "No, your idea to save our jobs."

  • Vega: "It's actually Vivian's idea."

  • Parks (shakes her head): "Armando told me." (Everyone looks at Vidal, gnawing at the sandwich in oblivion, and then back at Parks with a 'yeah, right' face). "Okay, Bill told me.

  • City Attorney William Grodnick, who has been sitting at the end of the table unnoticed: "It's rather easy and genius, if I do say so myself. We declare impasse, no matter what, just declare impasse and then we impose on them whatever cuts we want. To make it more credible, Carlos (and the actor playing Grodnick slows his speech) you will issue a media alert a week or two earlier, next Monday in fact, denouncing the fire union's refusal to respond to our five requests for a meeting to discuss their contract. It's classic media crisis management: We force them to defend themselves. We are the alpha dog."

  • Hernandez: "But we did meet. Then I told them to hold off until after the county election."

  • 'Grodnick: "Who cares? Who knows that for a fact? They will still be in a defensive mode. And some people will believe it. You are the mayor. Put it out on an official media alert. It's official. The media is lazy and stupid anyway."

  • Hernandez: "But the ^&%$#@ bomberos did respond, didn't they? Hey, wait, didn't we even meet with them once?"

  • Grodnick: (Sigh) "That's not the point. We put it out with our spin, the TV soundbites and radio briefs will eat it up. People are sick of public employees with fat paychecks." (Under his breath) "As long as it's not public lawyers with fat six-figure paychecks." (Back to his normal voice) "They'll buy this."

  • Hernandez: "We're selling something else to make up the budget gap? Great idea!"

  • Parks shakes her head.

  • Vega slumps his shoulders.

  • Vidal freezes in motion momentarily, then pops the last bite of sandwich into his mouth.

  • Grodnick: "No, Carlos. Just trust me. Issue the media alert. Then we can agree to a forensic audit, because it will never happen before we declare impasse. Then have a press conference to discuss the city's financial situation, but make sure you blame the firefighters for the bulk of the shortfall. Yeah, that should do it. First, the media alert that puts them on defensive. Second, agree to their demands for transparency, which makes you the good guy. Third, blame them for the shortfall, which makes them the target."
Okay, maybe that's too much creative license. There is no way to know, for sure, if there was a sandwich in the room. But one thing I do know: The firefighters were set up and the impasse was always the city's intention. The media alert sent 10 days earlier to complain about a lack of response smelled fishy from the onset, and Ladra questioned it's motives even then. Especially, since it was easily proven false. Fire Union President Mario Pico, taken by surprise when the media showed him the press release, was able to show emails where he had, indeed, communicated within the dates of the supposed lack of cooperation. And in my two decades of government journalism, I have never seen a city issue an official "media alert" on the labor union's alleged lack of response. Sure, it could happen. I haven't seen it. Is that intended to get a better response? Hardly. It is intended to get media coverage and spin it one way. Because it looks real. But, like the mayor agreeing at last week's council meeting to a forensic audit he never intended to allow, and like the false accusation that $5 million of the $7.8 million shortfall is due to a lack of concessions from the fire union (false because the 2010-2011 budget clearly states that the $5 million in demanded cuts was never factored into the numbers), what we have here is scenery. The backdrop, if you will, for the impasse episode. Not the grand finale, however. That comes next.

Remember at the beginning of the conference room scene, someone said action must be taken before November? That's because of the elections in which Hernandez could lose his $190,000 job. Impasse could allow the mayor to flex his muscles in front of voters by imposing pay cuts on the firefighters, like the 17 percent cuts illegally imposed on the general employees (which was ruled by PERC an unfair labor practice -- surprise, surprise -- and will end up costing the city millions it does not have). That, my dear handlers and fans, is the end game. Why would the city want to do that again? If it's going to be ruled illegal anyway and they'll have to pay more in the end? Maybe 'cause that end could come post election. It only has to look real for a few months.

But the press and the public appear to be on to the city's plans -- especially after Hernandez refused to answer questions about the city's finances at a press conference he announced Thursday for Friday so he could repeat practiced soundbites (read: campaign opportunity) about no tax increases and vague plans to fix city finances -- and have already started to ask more questions.

Let's hope they demand answers and transparency that aren't staged to simply look real.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'New' known name in Hialeah race

If at first you don't succeed, don't waste the name recognition and run again.

That's a life lesson apparently learned and, now, applied by Frank Lago, chief of staff to Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño, who just took a stab at a state rep seat and lost to cigar czar Jose Oliva (Rep. District 110). So he's taking a stab at an easier target: Hialeah City Council.

Lago, 30, confirmed to Ladra late Tuesday that he was, indeed, going to run for a council seat and would file within the next few days. He also said it was not his idea.

"I've been called by a couple of people in the community," said Lago, who knocked on thousands of doors and did well in Hialeah, where he says he has lived for six years. (He did well in Hialeah and lost the race in Miami Lakes, Oliva's home, and unincorporated Miami-Dade). He's already polled voters and says he is pleased with his name recognition among the incumbents: Only Council President Isis "Gavelgirl" Garcia-Martinez has more name game (read: watch him run against one of the others or in the open seat). That stands to reason: "I spent a lot of money in Hialeah," he said, referring to the bulk of his $100,000 state campaign effort, most of which went to absentee ballot queen Sasha Tirador, whose machine Ladra will be watching closely again.

Lago said he has always been drawn to "Tallahassee politics" and wanted to try something other than a municipality, which is his day job. "What convinced me was the residents in the area have been calling. They say there are problems. They thought that I can bring my municipal experience, especially now that there's a $13 million deficit. If it wasn't for the residents, the people who supported me in Hialeah, I wouldn't be doing this."

He hasn't aligned himself with anyone, yet, and says he wants to see more from the mayoral candidates before committing. "The three candidates have reached out to me," he said, and he was not referring to State Rep. Eddy Gonzalez (Rep. District 102), a very telling omission that bolsters rumors Gonzalez will stay in his state seat. "It is too premature to determine who I will go with," Lago said.

It's far enough along, however, to know he will likely not be slate buddy with intern mayor Carlos Hernandez, "because of what he's proposing," Lago said, referring to the $4 million revolving credit line the mini mayor wants so he can "feel better" about the general fund with the secret true balance you have to ask in writing for. "We have a deficit and we need to create new avenues of revenue," Lago said. "It's unbelievable to me that we're going to cover this gap with a credit line."

Both Martinez and Garcia confirmed that they had spoken to Lago and both said he was a quite viable candidate. "He has good name recognition" said former mayor Raul Martinez (who added that the young wannabe called him, not the other way around). "He did pretty good with the state race." Former State Sen. Rudy Garcia called him a "contender" whose name has come up with voters as he has walked and talked to voters for his own campaign. "A lot of the business folks and residents speak vividly of Frank's visit," Garcia said. Yes, he said vividly. Looks like Lago has a fan. And if he still has his sights set on a state seat, Garcia could be a good guy to have on your team.

But Ladra is going to go out on a limb here and predict, way prematurely, that Lago will end up on the slate with Martinez (and Alex Morales, whose name recognition was also high in the Lago poll). Yeah, Mr. Mayor is a high-profile Democrat and Lago is Republican to the core. But Martinez helped Lago's wife, Liz Iglesias, with her unsuccessful bid for the council in 2007. And Hialeans are crazy loyal if anything. It could be hard for Lago to run on a slate against Martinez with his wife staring him down every day over dinner.

Plus it would, theoretically, be a nice revenge thread in As Hialeah Churns, hypothetically anyway, if it were true that former Hialeah mayor and county mayoral candidate Julio Robaina (who I am sure does not want to see Martinez elected) stabbed Lago in the back by helping Oliva.

Stay tuned.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hialeah mayor bluffs about budget

There were more questions than answers after Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez ended his press conference "to discuss the city's finances" Friday, where he presented misleading numbers. Especially since the information seemed to be pulled from the air, offered nothing to back it up and refused to answer relevant and legitimate questions about his puffed up numbers.

Maybe his figures are on steroids.

In fact, the "press conference" looked more like a campaign stunt, a set-up soundbite opportunity to say he was not going to raise the taxes and that he would have a balanced budget. He always looked right at the camera when he said this multiple times. But he didn't say how. So, in fact, we don't know anything more now than we did Friday morning.

First, he provided members of the media with a "daily cash report" dated Wednesday -- before Thursday's weekly "check run" for payments to vendors, suppliers and contractors and before Friday's $3.2 million payroll was issued. Then, he refused to answer when Ladra asked how much of the $9.4 million he said was in the Suntrust account Wednesday was in unencumbered general fund monies as opposed to earmarked enterprise funds like the gas tax revenues or storm sewer utility, which can only be applied to certain expenses and not general operating costs.

"You will have to put that question in writing," he told me, and then basically shut the press conference down. Even though other questions in writing have not been answered and it's extremely relevant to the issue he was talking about. And it's something he should know. So basically, here is the interim mayor and candidate, providing a number that he knows is false, hoping nobody would ask about those things and refusing to answer when someone does. Finance Director Vivian Parks, Budget Director Alex Vega and Water and Sewer Director Armando Vidal -- all standing to the side, presumably to lend the mayor some credibility, but making themselves actually complicit in the smoke and mirrors -- should have known the answer also. But they are not allowed to speak anymore, according to a gag order issued last week.

Hernandez would not answer the second part of Ladra's question, which was to confirm that the "daily cash" in the Suntrust account was actually about $6.2 million today, because it is payday and the payroll takes about $3.2 million. Then I wanted to ask how much Thursday's check run was, to subract it from the $6.2 mil. Then I wanted to ask about how they would make the next five payrolls through the end of the fiscal year, which totals about $19 million. With a shortfall of about $13 million for that, I wanted to ask -- and did put it in writing earlier this week -- what the project revenues are for this month, August and September.

Ladra doesn't think the revenues are going to be enough, judging from trial balances that project this month's accounts receivables at $44,000. Maybe that's why Hernandez wants to take out a short-term credit line. He said it was to have a revolving fund for capital improvements that the city advances funding for while the county or state or federal bond or grant monies come through. So it's a loan secured on the accounts payable from these projects, which he says the city has dipped into the general fund to start and/or complete.

Although he called it his general fund. A few different times.

"We have been fronting $4-$6 million from my general fund," Hernandez said. "When that money money moves back in and out... I'm not comfortable with that." So he will ask the council to take out a line of credit at the next council meeting, he said.

"So I feel better. I don't have to do it... but I'm going to feel very omfortable in case of extreme emergencies," Hernandez said, adding again that he would "put it into my general account.

"I'm going to have it to be there for whatever comes to mind," he said.

Like payroll? Like payments to the vendors whose checks are reportedly being held? Like paying the 16 firefighters who were fired illegally for the five months they were illegally laid off, as ordered by an independent arbitrator?

We don't know. Because he won't answer any questions. But if he thinks this non press conference would relieve the pressure from the media and employees demanding more specific information and evidence, he is even denser than his critics say he is. Ladra thinks it's going to be worse.

Stay tuned to As Hialeah Churns and we will see.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hats off to Al Crespo, el maestro

I have to daily thank any dieties that are responsible for Al Crespo, the blogger who brings us The Crespo-Gram Report, which keeps scooping all the mainstream media and bringing us breaking big stories like Tony Crapp's resignation and the bribe, er, I mean early retirement offer by Mayor Tomas Regalado to Police Chief Miguel Exposito so he would resign and lay off him, with downloads and everything. Gotta love that.

Crespo is an inspiration to Ladra. Fresh posts are scheduled to be published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but lately he's been updating it daily with a stream of breaking news. He is the source on inside Miami Proper politics and government games and graft.

Earlier this week, he posted a story about a meeting to discuss a proposed CRA development with a private development company -- and brought out a PDF of a fundraising flyer/invite from Commissioner Richar Dunn's campaign last year hosted by the same development group. Then he went to Dunn's campaign reports, and found $20,000 in the three days after from developers and such, including the company's president. The meeting was cancelled -- I think after his post. Gotta love that.

He is relentless with his public records requests and is adept at connecting the dots and putting it into context, having the benefit of a wealth of insider knowledge and history and adding his own perspective, which is wise beyond its humor.

Yes, thank heavens for Al Crespo. For without his voice and vigilance, imagine all we would never know.

Climax in 'As Hialeah Turns'

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez has announced that he will discuss the city's much-questioned financial situation at a press conference at 3 p.m. Friday. Ladra was off by an hour.

"Government should be transparent. For this reason, I will be discussing the city's finances," Hernandez said in a media release sent a few minutes ago.

But I guess transparency has a timetable because he has not wanted to disclose the city's financial figures for weeks. That's really the right word, mayor: Disclose, not discuss. He was asked simple questions like what the city's current cashflow was at Tuesday's meeting and would not answer then. Has he just learned in the last two days? Or was he playing politics since the one posing the question is going to trounce him in the November mayoral elections? I hope former Mayor Raul Martinez -- who does pay taxes on his Hialeah property unlike former mayor and Hernandez mentor Julio Robaina, who was defeated in the county mayoral race -- goes to the press conference. Ladra likes fireworks.

I also hope the public records I've asked for -- trial balances for the past few months, projected revenues for the rest of this fiscal year, the list of vendors whose payments have been held or are outstanding for more than 30 days (with amounts and how long they have been due, and we have to be specific because, if not, we will just get a list of names), a list of the companies that provided funds to open the parks and how much they provided -- will be available. There has to be some documentation of what the mayor wants to "discuss" in order for it to have any weight.

Today, I will add travel and expense reports for all council members and top administrators as well as any and all new hires and promotions since May 1 -- names, salaries and positions. And I will copy the city attorney because Ladra was told he might not be very happy about the delay in getting public records requests filled. And if Hernandez believes so much in government transparency -- words that make Ladra's tail wag -- then these documents should be copied and stapled together and handed out to all the media that attends the press conference.

Ladra hopes the other journalists there ask the right follow-up questions. Maybe they should get a "cliff notes cheat-sheet" handed to them as they enter the mayor's crence room...

Okay. Gotta go. Ladra has homework for tomorrow's press conference.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Outsiders outraise incumbents

While the mayor's race in Hialeah seems to be attracting the big bucks -- former mayor Raul Martinez and former State Sen. Rudy Garcia (REP, District 40) have more than $240,000 between them -- the money is not trickling in as much for council candidates.

Not all the campaign finance reports for the upcoming Hialeah elections are in, but those that are indicated new candidates running for Jose Yedra's open seat or challenging the sitting members of the council are out-raising the incumbents.

Only two incumbents had filed reports that were due Monday. Vivian Cassals-Muñoz raised $600 and Jose Caragol, $800. Combine that with the $1,000 interim Mayor Carlos Hernandez gave himself, and it looks like the First Hialeah Bank of Julito has run dry, or at least it's political campaign division.

The reports can also be mailed in and they are on time as long as they were postmarked Monday. And that means we should have them by tomorrow, for sure. But already, from the ones the city clerk does have, the outsiders are drumming up more campaign contributions.

Leading the list of candidate contenders is Danny Bolaños, the former police chief's son and ex-cop himself who resigned in 2003 after a police shooting that was reviewed more than most in what seemed like a politically-charged atmosphere (he had years earlier been accused of using excessive force and acquitted of simple battery for the same incident). He now works in at the Hialeah Housing Authority (which is always good for a few thousand absentee ballots). Bolanos, who lost a bid for the council in 2009 but has deep support among Hialeah's hierarchy, has raised $10,550 for his run and has not declared which seat he will go after. His report also shows he stopped fundraising on June 8, around the time he started helping Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez win votes in Hialeah. Strange then, that among his donations are two $500 maximum contributions from the Cayon family, who donated tens of thousands to the Bolanos nemesis, former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who lost to Gimenez in the runoff.

Number 2 in the money race on council seats is Ramiro Sicre, who has declared to run in Group I for Yedra's open seat and has raised almost $9,000. Only $845 was in the last period, however, and much of that from outside Hialeah or even Miami-Dade as he apparently hits up friends in Winter Springs, Orlando, Davie and Sunrise, as well as Tucker, Georgia. In the same group, Fernando Alvarez -- the first guy to put signs up everywhere -- -- raised $1,440 in the last period (all from Hialeah or Miami Lakes) for $3,550 total.

Ladra still needs to chew on these reports, compare them to each other -- to see who is helping who -- and look for more Robaina (and Gimenez) money to see how these candidates are aligned. But that takes a little more time and you, dear readers, were chopping at the bit for whatever information there is, since Hialeah does not put the campaign reports online.

And maybe there will be more reports to consider tomorrow. Ladra is particularly interested in the one from State Rep. Eddy Gonzalez (REP, District 102), who had already reportedly raised more than $100,000 for his mayoral bid but has not been heard from and is rumored to be dropping out and dropping into a council race. He has likely spoken to both Martinez and Garcia because Gonzalez is now the prize.

Since council members are elected at large in Hialeah, not by district, and often run on slates that combine their expenses, both Garcia and Martinez would do wise to get him on their "teams" and get some of that money.

Especially since it looks like nobody else has any.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fight! Raul, Carlos spar at meeting

Hialeah voters got a look at how nasty the city's mayoral election may get Tuesday when former Mayor Raul Martinez -- still called Mr. Mayor by almost everybody, even Interim Mayor Carlos Hernandez -- challenged the acting boss and fellow candidate to tell him what the city's financial standing was.

The question remains unanswered. Not because Hernandez does not know, but because he wants to wait until later this week to let us know, promising figures Thursday or Friday, he said.

"We will have all those numbers in the next couple of days," Hernandez said, but Ladra is unsure if he is talking about the budget for 2011-2012 or the current state of the city, which is what has been asked over and over again. By me, by employees and by other journalists. If there's nothing wrong with the books, why can't anybody take a look? Hernandez has the huevos to say nobody's asking to. "All these people you are talking about, I don't see them," he told Martinez, even though I was sitting right there, two rows behind fire union President Mario Pico and the general employees' union President Barbara Hernandez. Close by were newspaper and television reporters who I'm sure asked for the same figures. But what Hernandez was doing was taking a shot at the front running candidate for the job he wants to keep.

"I only see people who are politically motivated," he said.

Martinez, being the savvy administrator and campaign king he is, reminded him that "the budget has nothing to do with the cash flow. Are the employees going to get paid? Because they are coming to me and they are worried."

Hernandez seemed to wince: "I'm glad they go to you now." Ouch.

"They come to me because they trust me," Martinez said, citing Hernandez's promotional "salary cut" (annual pay was $40,000 two months ago and is now $190,000) as an opportunistic campaign ploy, which is exactly what it is when you hear the acting mayor talk about him being a public servant and the people tiring of bloated salaries -- which he forgets to say he approved.

"Now you're throwing Julio Robaina under the bus," Martinez said, referring to the former mayor and defeated county mayoral candidate whose political future the council tied their trailers to.

Hernandez leaned on the dais and began to complain but I have no idea what he said because either it was incoherent or because I was still writing down the bus comment or because Isis Garcia-Martinez interrupted the two men and almost chided Martinez in a flirty mommy tone. "Yes, I know how good you are," she told him and Ladra would almost swear she saw a wink. Or did she just roll her eyes again? "In the past, when you wanted something done some way, it was done that way. You need to respect Mayor Carlos Hernandez," she told Martinez -- and she should have winked then but she said that with a straight face.

Hernandez punched back, raising the raises that Martinez gave himself as mayor from 2001 to 2005. And Martinez started to speak again, likely to raise the issue about how he lobbied for the city and worked full-time while the city now pays lobbyists and the mayor works out. Except that Garcia-Martinez, a kill joy who likes that little gavel that comes with council presidency, stopped both of them from talking over each other. "This is going to be a political match? Why don't we leave it to November," she said. Que aguafiestas.

But Martinez will not be shut up that easily. "The city council approved every single one of those raises and when I left the city, the city had $35 million in reserves. Where are the reserves now? You don't want to answer how much money you have in the bank?"

"I gave you my answer," Hernandez said, calm again, apparently referring to the tell-ya-later response.

"You're in trouble," Martinez said, head tilted, tiny sarcastic smile on his face. Then he left the podium as Hernandez said "no we're not."

"He sounds like Hugo Chavez," Martinez yelled as he went out the council chambers door.

Really, it may sound like I am but I am not making this stuff up.

So, en resumen, Hernandez's answer is that he will provide an answer later in the week. Look for it on Friday and late in the day, around 4 p.m. Because Hialeah politics is turning into a top-rated telenovela and you know they always wait to air the crazy plot twists and dramatic cliffhangers at the last minute of the last day of the week. Why? So they can promote it all week long, of course. And Hernandez -- who has a scant $1,000 in his campaign account from himself, and on June 10th (nothing else at all) -- is getting a good amount of free ink and free air time (read: campaign promotion) in the meantime so he can spin-say, over and over again, how and why he cut his salary, when he's really looking at a nearly 400% raise (which is how he spun it with TV reporters Tuesday). I am sure the employees who were forced to take an illegal 27 percent cut that was later changed to 17 percent after the city lost a PERC ruling, would love a "cut" like that instead.

But while Friday is drumbeat day, Tuesday's council meeting was still a great episode. After Martinez, Pico spoke about his lack of trust in the city's numbers. I'd be suspicious too after so many varying reports from an administration that has (1) once provided two different budgets to the union and (2) been dead wrong on budgetary justifications, such as in the case of the 16 fired firefighters -- swept out (coincidentally?) right before a union vote on concessions -- that the city had to rehire after an arbitrator said the city's financial reasoning was bogus.

"There have been errors and omissions in the past, and the concerns are still there," Pico said, adding that the fire union would pay for the audit. "All we need is that you openly participate with us. We pay. Let's both choose the auditor. I think at the end of the day, this is going to tell us how big a problem we have." Now there's a solution. But Hernandez can't see that. At first, Hernandez declined, and he took the opportunity to malign the union because they have not been able to impose cuts and because they had to rehire the firefighters and it cost the city more than $1 million between the overtime already paid and the $687,000 in backpay ordered by a binding arbitrator. (But Ladra thinks that the city is broke and has no intention of paying the firefighters for the five months they were illegally unpaid). "The firefighters union has not given up anything yet. Let's get to a table and we look at the numbers. Bring whoever you want," he said, knowing full well that is not what Pico meant by a forensic audit, where auditors sit in the city's finance office poring over numbers, looking for discrepancies you just know they will find. Again, Hernandez turned it into a campaign speech and said that Pico was playing politics. "I'm not going to spend for an audit," he ended. But he should take the wax out of his ears. Did he not hear the union say they were footing the bill?

Pico was undeterred and turned the interim mayor's argument against him. "The CAFRS [comprehensive annual financial reports] were delayed quite a bit this year and politically there were elections going on and I'm not playing politics. We are ready to absorb the costs," Pico repeated and stressed. "We just want it to be something the council participates in," he said, adding again that lingering financial questions cause concern about the requested $3.2 million in concessions. "We have heard and seen a lot of weird things. We have no confidence in the numbers right now. We don't want to make our sacrifices in the dark," Pico said, adding that firefighters are willing to take measures to increase savings -- but if the city is not squandering funds elsewhere and has a solid recovery plan. "I'm not going to be part and parcel to the political games and ineptitude of this administration," Pico said. That's right, he went there.

"I don't have a hidden agenda," Hernandez said. "I will tell the citizens of Hialeah where we are at."

The city attorney then rose to the interim mayor's defense. "Today we got a very nasty letter from Mr. Pico saying we are waiting for the mayor to sit down. We've been negotiating in excess of 27 months and the fire union has received two merit steps while other unions have sacrificed."
But those negotiations have not been made in good faith when time and again the city loses PERC rulings and arbitrations on illegal firings. And the letter, of which Ladra has a copy, was not nasty. It was, in fact, a response to a media alert issued by Hernandez announcing that five attempts to meet with the union have been ignored. Not only is that untrue, because they had a meeting attended by two reporters, in June. It's also just simply weird. Why would Hernandez issue that kind of press release unless he knew that the forensic audit was going to be suggested and he wanted to cast doubt on the firefighters intentions? It makes no sense at all. Especially since Pico can show that they met in June and said that Hernandez himself called after that meeting and asked to postpone any negotiations until after the county mayoral elections.

"Does the city attorney speak for you, sir," Pico asked the mayor, who answered something to the tune of that he did speak for him at that moment (hope he puts that on campaign literature). When the attorney continued to ask Pico to provide a date, the union president said he would do so in an email. "There has to be some very serious questions about those numbers that better be answered."

Garcia-Martinez tried being peacemaker again, saying "I think there's good faith here now." And maybe that was just the right amount of pressure, because Hernandez suddenly grasped that it would not cost the city a thing and agreed to the forensic audit. With a Catch 22, that is. "Within a time limit, sure, do it," Hernandez said. But he demanded negotiations begin next week and how likely is it that a forensic audit will be done before that?

But Ladra sure hopes we don't have to wait that long before the public can hear how much the city has in the bank, how much it owes and how much it expects to come in for this current year's cycle -- which, again, are numbers that the mayor or his gagged financial department heads should have at their fingertips but are refusing to provide for whatever reason they have. C'mon, just a ball park figure. Give or take a couple hundred thou.

My guess: It isn't good news. Because if they could just show we have this much and this coming in and it's enough to pay these expenses, it would be in the interim mayor's best interest -- and the best interest of his already struggling campaign -- to do just that.

Gimenez hires "deputy mayor"

This breaking news just in: An hour or two after Jose Mallea called Ladra to tell her he was only going to be the interim chief of staff for new Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Ladra gets the word that Key Biscayne Village Manager Genaro "Chip" Iglesias -- the mayor's former chief of staff when he was commissioner in District 7 -- got the permanent gig. (Kudos to fellow blogger Frank Alvarado for making the prediction).

He will start in mid September and will make an annual salary of $225,000 (that's more than his boss and it is not including benefits) as a Deputy Mayor. That's because in addition to representing Gimenez and running the mayor's office, Iglesias will supervise several of the departments that remain after the mayor downsizes the county. He also said that there might be more deputy mayors named in the near future. (There goes the mayor's cut in his salary).

We had already heard Iglesias' name float around and were told he might become the next fire chief. But even though he was once captain at the Miami Fire Department, that seemed off and we didn't use it. We do know Iglesias (who was also once chief of staff to former county commissioner Jimmy Morales and Gimenez when Gimenez was Miami City Manager) was restless in paradise and had become a finalist for the Pinecrest Village manager job. (He already called them and told them to take his name out of the hat).

Mallea could not be immediately reached and Gimenez is in a meeting, according to his press guy, so I will have to wait for details. Tom Martinelli, the former Marcelo Llorente campaign staffer now working on the mayor's transition team, also said he would get back to me later with a full list of who has been hired and what they are going to earn in pay and benefits.

Iglesias put in his 60-day notice with the village council and that will take him until Sept. 11, meaning he can start Sept. 12 -- one day before the first budget hearing. So, of course, he will be moonlighting. "I'll be helping out unofficially," he said.

Before this last minute change, Mallea -- who will apparently stay through mid September when Chip takes over -- told me he was only going to be a temporary chief of staff until the mayor got his office in order and that he would work for nada, as a volunteer. Just as he did on the campaign. Maybe his new restaurant, The Local in Coral Gables (opened this year with high school chum Mauricio Lacayo) is doing that well. But Mallea -- who also owns JM Consulting Group, a political consulting firm that also does "private advocacy work" (read: lobbying) in DC -- said he won't get paid a dime for county work.

Now, that worries Ladra. Because decent, transparent compensation (especially in a job that someone else is about to get about $18,000 a month for) is not only fair and ethical, it leaves little room for conjecture and things that make you go hmmmmm. Non-existing compensation makes you go hmmmmm because it seems -- at least from the outside -- like there is something under the covers. Quid pro quo? Future favors? A job for someone else close to him (although the mayor's recent history suggests Homey don't play that... sorry to steal, poet).

Maybe Ladra is just too cynical these days and there are other good people, other heroes like the ones who helped Gimenez get elected, that do it out of the goodness of their hearts (or their hatred for Robaina) or their concern for the wellbeing of this community.

Forget being chief of staff. That guy should run for office.