After nearly eight hours of deliberations and three votes, Rev. Richard Dunn was selected to fill the commissioner seat vacated by Michelle Spence-Jones, who is facing grand theft charges. The commission had deadlocked twice before the final result, with Commissioners Francis Suarez and Mark Sarnoff voting twice for Miami-Dade School Board Operations Director Pierre Rutledge, and Commissioners Frank Carollo (who said repeatedly that he wished the whole process would go away in favor of yet another special election,) and Willie Gort, the newest member, who just won his seat in the same January 12 special election that re-re-elected Spence-Jones, going for Dunn.
It was a pretty deflating result, coming after impressive presentations by more than a half dozen contenders for the seat, including Allison Austin, the Tacolcy Center director who wowed the commission so much that Suarez and Sarnoff floated the idea of making her the consensus choice, Robert Malone, who holds a Ph.D. and teaches at a local college, Dufirstson Neree, who got just 66 votes in the January special election, but who boasts a Harvard MBA, former Assistant City Attorney Erica Wright, 28-year-old Basil Binns II, a tall, bright young man who works as a special assistant to the CFO and Rutledge, (plus former candidates David Chiverton and an older gentleman named Charles Flowers, neither of whom did much to ignite the crowd.) Many of the fresher faces had thrown their hats into the ring with a little inspiration from a letter circulated by concerned residents, led by 36-year-old attorney Stephen Hunter Johnson. Johnson and the others went into the hearing confident that they’d gotten their message through to the commission and the public: that it was time to turn to new faces and new ideas to revive the struggling district, rather than falling back on old school picks like the ethically sketchy Dunn. Their confidence, in this commission at least, was sorely misplaced.
The two commissioners in favor of Dunn held out as the clock ticked away ahead of a charter imposed midnight deadline, despite the fact that Dunn was the only candidate who couldn’t answer “no” to the question of whether anything in his background could be considered negative. (Dunn cited driving without a license, but he also spent a lot of time explaining prior charges that he misappropriated funds from his grandfather’s church.) The holdouts cited “democracy,” and insisted that the second place finisher in January should get the prize. (Rutledge during his voire dire, pointed out that in life as in the Olympics, there is no prize for second place…)
I knew things were heading south as Suarez, who took the lead in questioning the candidates, repeatedly tried to get the aspirants to promise to hold the seat only as a “caretaker,” and pledge not to run when the temporary seat comes up for a vote in November (a pretty presumptuous request in itself, and one that the city attorney pointed out cannot legally be enforced.) Only Austin failed to take the bait, effectively eliminating her from consideration in the eyes of Carollo and Gort. Dunn, on the other hand, seemed willing not just to take the pledge, but also to hand over a kidney if that’s what it took to get the seat. In the end, the two hold-outs caved, and justified their pick by praising the other contenders, and appealing to the “young, talented” (they did leave out “lovely”) candidates to “please run in November.” Yeah. As if Dunn is going to step aside once he’s gotten a taste of that $100 million CRA budget — smart money says he either breaks his no-run pledge, or backs out graciously to make room for a family member … his son did draw praise from the commissioners for his simply wonderful presentation on behalf of dear old dad…)
Bizarre moment of the night: Sarnoff at one point toward the end spent several minutes going on about Dr. King and Louis Farrakhan, inexplicably morphing them into W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, as he rattled on about his idea to build a brand new convention center in Miami (presumably with some of that CRA money currently earmarked for finally developing District 5,) quizzing the candidates about what District 5′s “base industry” is, bemoaning the fact that up to now, all he’s heard about regarding D5 is boring old “affordable housing,” and implying that the impoverished district would be a great place to get low wage service employees to make his convention tourism dream come true.
The Miami Herald reported on the earlier part of the hearing (which I missed,) in which the expected fireworks flew:
Tuesday’s theater followed Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff’s decision to open the proceedings to the public. Despite a warning from Sarnoff to keep statements focused on the district’s needs and the candidate they supported, the majority of speakers focused on Crist’s decision to remove Spence-Jones.
In a booming baritone, Spence-Jones supporter Billy Hardemon said “all Americans are innocent until proven guilty” — and warned commissioners not to ignore the “800 pound gorilla” of potential racial unease caused by her removal.
When Sarnoff warned Hardemon he was well over his two-minute time limit, Hardemon continued until the chair called the sergeant at arms into action. “Let’s remove him,” Sarnoff said. Hardemon walked away escorted, peacefully.
A short while later, Renita Holmes was also escorted out after a lengthy speech in support of Spence-Jones.
[Sidebar: I spoke to Ms. Holmes later, and she said she was not sounding off in support of Spence-Jones, but rather over the principle involved, and her belief that the governor's action was wrong.]
In the end, none of those arguments matter much. If Spence-Jones is acquitted at her trial, which starts February 12th, she gets her seat back. If not, welcome to the era of Richard Dunn.
So that’s that. I’ll be writing more about the Tuesday vote, either here or in the Herald. For now, suffice it to say that in Miami, politics as usual is in full effect. After the vote, the commissioners spent several minutes praising themselves for the great job they did, and Miami Mayor Regalado boasted that he was behind Dunn’s first appointment to a vacant commission seat, back in the days before you had to hold an eight hour meeting to pretend you weren’t picking Richard Dunn from day one.
Other notes: at least one candidate who didn’t make the cut tonight told me they are definitely running in November if Spence-Jones’ ouster becomes permanent. And this candidate would be a contender. More to come …