In principle, there probably isn't a single, red-blooded American who would say that they are in favor of government giving away their money as a reward for incompetence.
In practice, giving away government money to reward incompetence is one of the economic engines that drives our economy.
Take for instance the Greater Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce.
On February 9th of this year the Village Council gave the Chamber $60,000 - in 2 annual installments of $30,000 - to subsidize approximately 50% of the salary package of their new Executive Director, although when I mentioned that to Megan Gerstel, she claimed that the Village only gave $20,000.
Now, there is a portion of our community who will leap to the defense of the Village Manager and the Council, claiming that no matter what they do, it's always done in the best interests of the Village, because in their opinion no one should say anything bad about the Council because they are volunteering their time to make our community a better place.
There are those on the other side of this argument however, who would argue that the Council's behavior represents just another example of clueless people who have no problem giving away our tax dollars, often to any pig who comes through the door wearing lipstick.
Regardless of which side of these arguments you are on, one should first be expected to have some factual information about the performance of a group requesting and receiving public money, in this case is the local Chamber of Commerce.
DO YOU HAVE A BUSINESS IN MIAMI SHORES? NO. GREAT, HOW'D YOU LIKE TO RUN OUR CHAMBER OF COMMERCE?
Unlike most civic groups, the membership of Chambers of Commerce are not individuals, but rather the membership is made up of businesses within the boundaries of the communities that they serve. Here is the way that the Association of Chambers of Commerce describes what a Chamber of Commerce is.
The Greater Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce describes itself as a business group representing the Villages of Miami Shores, El Portal, Biscayne Park and North Bay Village.
Putting aside the fact that El Portal and Biscayne Park are both considered 100% residential communities, and North Bay Village is not even connected contiguously to any of the other three Villages, one would expect that the leadership of this organization would be comprised of folks whose businesses were located within the boundaries of one of these Villages.
Not so. The President, Gladys Coia, and Past President John Meltz, are both attorneys whose law firms are located in downtown Miami. In fact, in Coia's case, she used to have her law firm on 98th Street around the corner from the Post Office, but moved some months back to high-rise close to the old Omni Center by the Arsht Center.
Vice President John Hornbuckle's business is located in North Miami. Vice President Patrice Gillespie-Smith isn't even a business owner, she works for Miami-Dade County, and Marc Conner, the Treasurer, works for a law located in Miami Lakes. The only member of the board who has a business in Miami Shores is Vice President Elaiza Irizarry.
The makeup of the Board of Directors isn't much better. Those members highlighted in RED have business located outside the boundaries of any of the Villages that make up the Greater Chamber. The 3 Mayors highlighted in BLUE seems to have been afforded seats on the board for window dressing to bolster the claim that the Chamber actually "represents" their communities.
I can hear the chorus of Magpies who have become my new best pals shout out, "So What!?! They're a private group, and it's none of your business how they decide to do things, because you're not a member!"
And that's absolutely true, but I am a property owner, and I was present on February 9th when the Council voted to give a portion of mine and your taxes to cover a 2 year, $60,000.00 grant - $30,000.00 a year - that they decided, under questionable pressure, to give to the Chamber so that they could hire a new Executive Director - like, that very night.
So that makes it my business. and the business of every other property owner in the Village for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that on closer examination this "grant" appears to have been little more than a politically expedient "gift" to the Chamber to make up for their incompetence and inability to manage their own finances.
In addition to the $30,000.00 given in February, the Village over the last two years also gave them $8,433.25 in the form of membership dues, tickets purchased for their Annual Diner, advertisements in the Egret and in their Community Guide.
On top of that, Village Manager, Tom Benton, revealed that the Village also provided $18,000.00 in in-kind contributions for police and public works for the Chamber's annual Green Day event held in 2015 and 2016.
The total comes to roughly $56,000.00 of our tax money - in cash or in-kind - that either the Village Manager and/or the Council have given to the private non-profit Chamber in the last two years.
To make the $30,000.00 "grant," more palatable, Benton informed the Village Council at the February meeting that he wanted them to approve including some performance guidelines to the granting of the money. This, mind you, from the guy who has publicly stated that he doesn't believe in annual performance evaluations for city employees or departments, and who hasn't had an performance evaluation done on himself in over 10 years.
The performance guidelines proposed by Benton, and agreed to by the Council were set out in a 3 page Grant Agreement between the Village and the Chamber signed on March 13, 2017.
The fact that after two years only 2 people bothered to click on the link to show that they liked or supported these goals, says volumes about not only about the lack of traffic to this website, but also shows a lack of interest or support by the members of the Chamber to their own website.
If the members of the Chamber show such little interest in their website and priorities being kept up to date, then why should anyone else in the Village be forced to see their tax money being used to prop up this incompetent group.
The salary of the Executive Director of this private group is their responsibility, not the responsibility of the taxpayers, because, if they can get our money why won't the next group that decides to show up with their hand out, not feel that they are entitled to our money too?
And just so there's no misunderstanding, the deal to give the Chamber $60,000.00 was a backroom deal most likely cooked up by Tom Benton and Jonathan Meltz, then Past President of the Chamber, and now a member of the Council where we can expect to see him cooking up other deals, given that he was the only candidate who refused to sign the Pledge against Self-Dealing.
There are obvious problems with the performance guidlines detailed above, not the least of which is that they are not what people acquainted with contracts would describe as verifiable deliverables.
Rather than wasting time going over a detailed discussion of why these requirements fail to qualify as anything other than asperational fluff, intended to provide cover for the $60,000 given to the Chamber as a "gift," and not a "grant," the larger issue exposed by this give away of money is how haphazardly and piece meal the Village Council tends to allow itself to be treated when dealing with public policy issues.
I have repeatedly stated that members of the Village Council are by and large treated as rubber stamps, and led by the nose by the Village Manager.
I say this because Council Members who are paid $1 a year, provided with no staff, no office, no phone, and no resources to go out and hire even part-time support staff to assist them develop a better understanding of some of the more complicated issues that comes before the Council are never going to be a match for an entrenched Village Manager, who not only has twenty years of institutional memory to draw on, but more importantly controls the paperwork, the information and even the hiring of the consultants that come before the Council.
As the saying goes: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.
Contrary as to how many people have been led to believe the Village works, the truth of the matter is that because the Village Council are the ones who make the policy decisions, decisions for instance on how to deal with downtown redevelopment, sea level rise, the replacement of the recreation center and all of the other policy issues that impact on everyone's quality of live inn the Village, they should quit allowing the Manager to have card blanc freedom to be the one that introduces policy issues piecemeal and colored or controlled by what he thinks ought to be done.
MAKING SMART PUBLIC POLICY DECISIONS STARTS WITH ASKING QUESTIONS AND INCLUDING ALL THE PLAYERS
For the last four months I've heard the Mayor, members of the Council and the Village Manager all talk about the redevelopment of the downtown district.
I've yet to hear any of those individuals ever once mention the elephant in the room: The individuals and companies that currently own the buildings that make up the downtown district.
For instance, here is a portion of the remarks that new Mayor Mac Glinn made after he was sworn in on Tuesday evening about downtown redevelopment.
Glinn's assumptions on downtown redevelopment appear based on the claim at the center of the fantasy baseball movie Field Of Dreams, where the character played by Kevin Costner hears a whisper that says, "If you build it, he will come."
There are numerous and very costly examples of where this strategy resulted in empty buildings, and hundreds of millions of dollars being wasted by politicians who never bothered to question the rosy predictions that they were told would occur if they just voted to approve spending tax payer dollars to support this or that project.
The one thing that seems to have escaped attention by everyone that talks about downtown redevelopment is that this redevelopment would not occur on a blank page. There already exists a downtown district, with buildings and tenants, and I've yet to hear anyone mention of any of the individuals who own these buildings being included or involved in the discussions about redevelopment.
Now, that doesn't mean that some discussions haven't been had, because it stands to reason that some have probably have been had, but none of those discussions occurred in a public setting, or were included as part of the pubic discussion on this issue.
To appreciate how little public information has been made available about the current state of the downtown business district consider Mayor Glinn's comments above, as he references a consultant that was the same one that I wrote about in my story, The Real Costs Of A New Village Hall Complex.
In my story I detailed several scenarios that the consultant recommended that the Village might consider to redevelop the 2 block area that currently houses Village Hall, the Police Station and the Catholic Charities building.
These scenarios are based on doing a private/partnership deal with a developer that might require raising the maximum height of the building code to increase building heights to a minimum of 5 stories, build a parking garage that the developer would operate, and possibly turn over the ownership of the property to the developer.
In the 17 page report,however there was only one direct reference made to the current status of the existing downtown properties .
This is like trying to have a public discussion about traffic congestion in Miami-Dade County, and when the issue of what role the bus system will play, being provided with the bus fares.
And this is but one issue among several that have not been addressed in ways that provide any assurance to the residents or business owners that anyone really knows what's going on.
SO THE PIPES ARE IN, NOW WHAT?
For example, the main sewer pipes are now in place behind the storefronts on 2nd Avenue, but the hookups between those pipes and the storefronts have not been made, and there continues to be confusion among some shop owners as to why that has not happened.
There has been no effort by Tom Benton to communicate what the problem is to the store owners, as I discovered when I walked around and talked with shop owners earlier this week.
The major problem I've been told lies with DERM, the county's environmental resource management department, but what that problem(s) is, or how long it will take to sort itself out is anyone's guess, because no one in the Village has figured out that maybe the best way to end the confusion and questioning of this whole process might be to prepare a detailed letter explaining the problems, and a timeline when they might be resolved and at least send that letter to everyone directly involved or impacted by this situation so that everyone is on the same page, at the same time.
WHAT ABOUT THE POTENTIAL NEW BUSINESSES WHO'VE BEEN SOLICITED AND SAID, NO?
The issue of enticing a new restaurant to the Village is neither new, or unexplored. I've been told that efforts have been made by at least one building owner, and possibly others, to try and get a new restaurant to set up in the downtown district, and that these efforts failed.
Normally the negotiations between building owners and prospective tenants would be considered private, but given that the Villlage has articulated downtown redevelopment as a major policy initiative, as well as having committed several million of our tax dollars to pay for the sewer pipes that were required before new restaurants could open on NE 2nd Avenue, the reasons why some prospective restaurant owners decided not to open in the Shores is information that needs to be heard and considered, especially BEFORE the Council was asked to give the Chamber $60,000.
Maybe the Council, after such a discussion now might decide that a better way to spend what limited money is available for inducements should be in the form of a grant to help cover the costs of a new business moving in, or maybe some tax abatement to the property owner who rents a space to a new business to help cover the costs of the sewer pipe installation for his/her property might be the way to go, or even maybe other incentives to encourage property owners to become partners in the process are needed, none of which seems to be happening now.
COMPETENCE DOESN'T SEEM TO BE THEIR GAME
The very idea that the Greater Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce is led by a group of people who don't have businesses within the boundaries of their service area is both a hoot, and elicits a "You gotta be shiiting me," response from more than one local resident who I revealed this information to.
Worse is the bad blood that that has developed between the Chamber and some of their Mom and Pop members - or now ex members - over allegations of shabby treatment.
Some folks have come to see the Chamber as little more than a hustle based on their claim of being The Greater Miami Shores Chamber Of Commerce, representing communities that don't pay into the operation of the organization as the Village of Miami Shores has done over the years, and who charge what others consider outrageous rates for advertising in their monthly magazine.
The fact that they produce one major event per year that wouldn't occur if the Village administration didn't provide them with in-kind police and public works support is another widely held complaint about the Chamber's activities.
For me however, the evidence that this group is borderline incompetent and not up to the task of providing serious leadership can be found by just going to their website. Here is a screen grab of the page that articulates their Vision and Priorities for their organization. You will see that the page was last updated in 2015.