Activists target Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell for recall

09/06/2013 11:07 AM

09/06/2013 8:21 PM

The coalition of activists ballyhooed their lottery-style drawing Friday as the launch of the takedown of a county commissioner.

They had so many prospects, they said — eight commissioners who dared to vote against raising the property-tax rate — they would pick one name at random out of a hat, an Uncle Sam topper festooned in red, white and blue.

They exulted when the hat yielded the name to be targeted for a recall drive: Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell.

But for a while, things looked like they were not exactly what they seemed: The drawing appeared to have been rigged.

The evidence: A printout handed out to reporters — before the name was plucked out of the hat — already listed Bell as the targeted commissioner.

Absolutely not, insisted one of the event’s organizers, who blamed the mishap on a photocopying flub and an unlucky coincidence.

“No, no,” said Michael Rosenberg, co-founder of the Pets’ Trust, one of two groups heading the recall effort. “If I could have picked, she wouldn’t have been the one. ... I would have made sure she wasn’t in it, if I could arrange it.”

The Pets’ Trust drafted talking points specific to each of the eight commissioners — but by mistake only gave out the first one that was printed, co-founder Rita Schwartz said late Friday. That one, as it happened, listed Bell.

“It was honestly just a stupid mistake that I made,” Schwartz said.

The suspicions could have been appeased earlier if activists had agreed to show reporters the other names in the hat. But they refused.

Rosenberg later texted the Miami Herald photos of the seven other names he said had been folded into white envelopes and sealed before the drawing. Rebeca Sosa. Bruno Barreiro. Esteban “Steve” Bovo. Jose “Pepe” Diaz. Javier Souto. Xavier Suarez. Juan C. Zapata.

The eight commissioners voted on July 16 in favor of Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposal to keep next year’s tax rate flat.

And that — as much as the circus atmosphere Friday to announce the recall drive — may blunt the effort: The activists want voters to oust a politician because she voted against raising taxes.

Bell quickly pounced: “It is ironic to note that not too long ago, a former mayor and a county commissioner were recalled for raising taxes, and now, I am being targeted for not raising taxes,” she said in a statement.

Two years ago, angry county residents voted massively to recall Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas in part for approving a major tax-rate hike.

Keeping the tax-rate flat for the upcoming fiscal year means a far-reaching animal-care plan drafted by the Pets’ Trust, and supported by 65 percent of voters in a nonbinding ballot question last year, will not receive the full funding Gimenez had initially proposed.

A campaign to recall the mayor, reelected last year, would have been too expensive, the activists said. Instead, they focused on commissioners, saying it didn’t matter which one was targeted first.

At first, Rosenberg could not explain how his four-page talking points memo mentioned Bell’s name. A bullet point read: “Last night, we could not agree on which Commissioner should be the first. So we decided to put the names of several commissioners in a hat. I drew out of the hat the name of Commissioner Lynda Bell.”

No drawing took place any time before Friday’s news conference, Rosenberg said. “We had originally talked about doing a drawing the night before the commission meeting on Tuesday,” he said. “Then we said it’d be better to do it live, and whatever happens, happens.”

“Lynda Bell’s been very good to me,” he added. “This is not easy for me, knowing it’s her.”

The talking points were nestled in folders passed out to reporters by Deborah Dion, president of the Miami Economic Sustainability Alliance, a nonprofit group also sponsoring the recall drive. Its vice president is Fred Frost, a former head of the South Florida AFL-CIO.

Bell said she was disappointed in being targeted, “as a lifelong owner and lover of animals and a strong advocate for animal welfare initiatives…. Given the current state of the economy, I stand by my vote to not raise taxes on the residents of Miami-Dade County.”

The name-drawing had the air of a publicity stunt intended to put pressure on commissioners four days before they hold their first public hearing on the proposed 2013-14 budget.

“We’re going to start with one” commissioner, Rosenberg warned. “On Wednesday, we might come back for drawing number two.”

Rosenberg and Frost said they hope commissioners will change their mind Tuesday and raise the tax rate, as Pets’ Trust backers and advocates for public libraries and fire stations facing budget cuts have requested.

But while a tax-rate hike is technically a possibility, it is unlikely. A reversal would require spending about $700,000 to mail all property owners new tax estimates, according to Gimenez’s office. Final budget approval would be pushed back by a month.

“We’re going to send a message now,” Frost said. “We’re going to take our government back.”

Frost pumped his fist in the air when Bell’s name was chosen out of the hat. The woman making the pick, Marta Pedrosa, said she was a passerby who, on her way into the downtown Miami courthouse, happened upon the event and supported the cause.

After the name-drawing in front of a gaggle of television cameras, activists visited Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin to deliver their recall petition form. It was formally received, and now Ruvin’s office must review it for legal sufficiency. If the form is approved, the campaign would need to collect signatures from 4 percent of the registered voters in Bell's district over 120 days.

The name-drawing tactic runs the risk of not being taken seriously, by leaving to chance the commissioner’s name in a county that in 2011 experienced the deliberate, costly and tumultuous recalls of Alvarez and Seijas.

A conservative Republican in a nonpartisan post whose district covers a portion of South Dade, Bell seems like a clear target for pro-labor political interests. But she already faces reelection next year, so even a successful — and expensive — recall would only oust her from office a few months before she would have been on the ballot anyway.

Rosenberg dismissed suggestions that the activists’ recall effort is anything but genuine. He noted that the Pets’ Trust campaign to stop killing unwanted dogs and cats at the county’s animal shelter was initially discounted — until the group managed to get the nonbinding question on the ballot last November.

“They all told us that we would lose,” he said. “So far we’re 1-0 when it comes to elections.”

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