In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: 'Hidden gem' city had secrets

It wasn’t long ago that Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was enthusiastically endorsing his city as “one of America’s hidden gems” on a nationally syndicated television show.

The master-planned town the Graham family built in the northwest reaches of Miami-Dade, the mayor said, was now home to a diverse, well-educated population, A+ schools, and commercial ventures that thrived along lushly landscaped residential communities and parks.

“It’s kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Pizzi said, explaining why the city was being featured in a segment of the “Discover America” series in the Travel Channel dubbed “America’s Hidden Gems to Live, Work and Play.”

Some of us, who have lived in Miami Lakes for decades comforted by the quaint laurel-canopied streets but worried about modern-day shortcomings, shook our heads at the jolly mayor’s exaggeration.

Once, Miami Lakes was sort of a Rockwellian village, but the deterioration of recent years has not been lost on us, from garbage thrown from cars collecting on once pristine streets to people parking with impunity along fire lanes at shopping centers, and a once impeccably charming Main Street in need of a paint job and customers.

Oh, silly us and our petty old-timer concerns.

The FBI swooped in on City Hall on Tuesday and led the mayor away in handcuffs.

How’s that for Rockwellian?

Pizzi, 51, who is also the town attorney for Medley, was arrested along with Sweetwater mayor Manuel Maroño and two lobbyists, all of them charged with taking bribes in a scheme to pocket federal grant money.

Two mayors arrested by the FBI in one day. I don’t remember another sting netting city leaders of that stature in Greater Miami’s long and storied history of political corruption.

But turns out that what lurked in the shadows of our gem of a city — one of the greatest places to live in America — may have been more than the $20,000 the city invested in the taping of that television segment praising our idyllic lake frontage.

Or the $40,000 that the city, so satisfied with the results of that investment in its image, paid to a West Palm Beach public relations firm to brand and promote the “growing beautifully” city because, as Pizzi put it then, “our economic vitality depends on economic expansion.”

Back then, we old-timers once again rolled our eyes at the word “expansion” given the already existing traffic gridlock in our suburban Shangri-la. But hey, we re-elected the mayor, didn’t we?

Like the best-city stunt, Pizzi’s next public relations gimmick brought him plenty of media attention.

He arranged a “Mayor vs. Mayor” mixed-martial arts fight with Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández to raise funds for youth programs. Every television station and newspaper has covered Pizzi’s training for the amateur fight, his weight loss.

But nothing, not his penchant for publicity nor his ebullient personality, could have prepared residents for Tuesday’s surprise bust and the FBI allegations that the mayor took $6,700 in bribes from undercover FBI agents, who created a fake Chicago company that arranged to obtain federal grants for cities — only the money would be divided between the mayor and the lobbyists, who allegedly helped facilitate the scheme.

According to the FBI, which recorded conversations and meetings, Pizzi took the first $700 as campaign contributions and the rest in cash. He was the two-bit player in the scheme in comparison; Maroño is accused of pocketing $40,000.

In this far from Rockwellian town, the mayor is led away in handcuffs, and that is one sad sight.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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