The smaller the town, the weirder the politics. Lately that seems especially true of the pint-size town of Bay Harbor Islands, a once-peaceful enclave in Biscayne Bay that has been roiled by the fallout from a big luxury-condo boom.
Victor Maya, an activist involved in battles over historic preservation and what he claims is political cliqueishness in Bay Harbor, challenged a longtime pro-development town council incumbent, Jordan Leonard, in a contentious election last week. Leonard, who also held the ceremonial title of mayor, handily won re-election to the council of the town, population 5,975.
The day after the April 10 vote, Maya came home to his co-op building to find the town had affixed a red "unsafe structure" sign to its main exterior staircase. The staircase, a historically designated Miami Modern landmark known as the Bird's Nest for its circular shape and spiky top, was sealed off with yellow tape. The co-op has been the focus of a high-profile preservation tussle.
Because the Bay Harbor Club co-op board was in the middle of figuring out how to replace the staircase's undeniably corroded railings, that might have been unremarkable. Except for the fact that this wasn't the first time something like this happened.
Two years ago, one day after Maya told Leonard in an angry meeting at town hall that he would run for his seat, the town slapped the Bay Harbor Club with a notice listing several building-code violations. "A coincidence," Leonard called it at the time.
But an investigator for the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust called the circumstances "suspect" in a report compiled after Maya complained. Investigator Larry Lebowitz concluded Leonard may have exploited his council position to send Maya "a message," but closed the case without sanctions because of a lack of clear evidence.
And now? Was it retaliation? Or another case of unfortunate timing?
Leonard, the incoming president of the Miami-Dade League of Cities, insists it's another coincidence. He declined an interview request, but in a brief statement said he had nothing to do with the red tag. The town building official's action resulted from inspections related to the building's 40-year re-certification, he said.
"I had no knowledge of the actions of the Town of Bay Harbor Islands Building Official until the Council was notified by the Town Manager," Leonard said in an email. "The building’s 40-year certification process, and the report that was created, was handled by professional staff, independent of our Town’s elected officials."
Town manager Ronald Wasson issued a 39-page report calling any suggestion that the new enforcement action was related to the election "false and without merit." Wasson said Bay Harbor's building official, Dale Lee, acted on his own after noticing the condition of the railings while conducting an inspection of other repair work at the building.
But critics of Leonard and Wasson claim the two enjoy a cozy relationship. They aren't buying the explanation.
"It doesn’t pass the smell test," said Kelly Reid, a council member who supported Maya in the election and who has been sharply critical of Leonard and several of his allies on the council. "I find it hard to believe that the timing of this red tag was a coincidence."
Maya said he harbors few doubts. His co-op board president also questioned the timing of the citation.
"It's happened again. I view that as blatant intimidation and bullying," Maya said. "The message is clear: Do not mess with Town Hall."
In an email to town officials, Bay Harbor Club president Dale Northrup said Lee had looked at the Bird's Nest railings on Feb. 1 and apparently saw no need for action then.
"Safe then but not 10 weeks later? The timing caused pause to us as well," Northrup wrote.
Leonard held the title of mayor until this week, but it brought no special power other than to run the council's meetings. He was re-elected to the council by a comfortable 620 to 344 vote. At a post-election organizational meeting Monday night, the seven-person council chose member Stephanie Bruder, a Leonard ally, as the new mayor.
Maya, who has long been a thorn in the side of town officials, contends Leonard and Bruder are part of a four-person alliance that dominates the council and Town Hall.
Leonard has been a target of political payback in another town. He was briefly assistant city manager in Opa-locka, but was fired after blowing an early whistle on one piece of what turned out to be a far-ranging public corruption scandal.
Maya said the red tag on the Bay Harbor Club, which reads "this building SHALL BE VACATED," put a scare into some residents who thought the entire building was condemned. Town administration later clarified the notice applied only to the Bird's Nest portion of the structure. The building does have elevators and another set of stairs.
But there was some cause for fear: A prominent MiMo building next door, the Bay Harbor Continental, lay in a heap of rubble at the same time. The Continental had been designated a historic building by Miami-Dade County's preservation board, over vocal objections by Leonard and other town leaders and residents. But the county commission controversially removed the landmark protection on appeal, clearing the way for the Continental's demolition this month.
The side-by-side buildings, both designed by architect Charles McKirahan, were considered the crown jewels of Bay Harbor's East Island, until recently a treasure-trove of MiMo architecture. The Bay Harbor Club, in fact, is famous: It was featured in the cable TV series "Dexter" as the main character's home; for the years it aired, building residents were sometimes disturbed by curious fans strolling in for a look.
But developers looking for waterfront property to redevelop in a hot condo market were backed by a mostly anti-preservation town leadership. Together, they fought off local and national efforts to establish a historic district or protect some of its more prominent buildings, including the Club and Continental.
Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Bay Harbor's East Island on its list of 11 most endangered historic sites in the nation in 2014, a broad swath of its architecture has been leveled and replaced with larger condos. In the end, the county preservation board managed to designate only the Bird's Nest portion of the Bay Harbor Club and the entirety of one other building.
Maya, a retired lawyer, was a leading voice for preservation of the Club and has clashed frequently with Leonard and Wasson. Maya also questioned an arrangement that allowed Wasson to join the town's pension plan.
It was at a heated meeting with Leonard in Wasson's office over the pension question that Maya vowed to run against Leonard. The next day, he found a "courtesy" notice from the town taped to the front gate listing several violations for rusted railings and peeling paint. Northrup sent the town an annoyed email complaining about what he felt was the "retaliatory nature" of the notice, according to the ethics commission report.
Leonard acknowledged to the commission's investigator that he twice notified a town code-enforcement official about the condition of the railings and paint at the Bay Harbor Club. According to the report, Leonard said he was only passing on a complaint from a neighbor, and he insisted he had done so well before the meeting with Maya.
But the resident told a different story, according to the ethics commission report: She said she had not complained to Leonard, only mentioned the railings in an aside during a conversation on other topics while asking whether building had been sold — something that concerned her because she did not want to see it demolished.
Neither the resident nor the town, though, had a record of precisely when the conversations with Leonard took place. Nor did they have a record of when the mayor contacted code enforcement. But code enforcement director Marlene Siegel acknowledged having spoken at some point to Leonard, though she could not pinpoint the date or find a record of the conversations.
On the day of the heated meeting between Maya and the town officials, Siegel ordered an inspector to inspect the building the following day, the report says. Because of a lack of certainly about when Leonard passed on the complaints, and because the building railings and exterior did in fact need work, the ethics case against Leonard was closed with no further action.
It wasn't the first time Leonard has tangled with the ethics commission. Another report, in 2014, examined whether Leonard had misrepresented the town's position in speaking in favor of an ordinance that would have taken away the county preservation's board power to designate properties in Bay Harbor Islands as historic. While speaking before a county commission committee, Leonard, then vice-mayor, failed to mention that the town council had not yet adopted a position on the matter. That prompted a complaint from a Bay Harbor resident who said Leonard left the impression he was speaking for the town.
The ethics commission report on the matter dismissed the complaint but suggested Leonard should make it clear when speaking to another public body whether he's doing so as a private individual or in an official capacity. "Leonard should take care to speak more carefully in the future," the report said.
Since the first violation notice, the Bay Harbor Club has repainted and also replaced exterior railings along exterior walkways. According to Northrup's latest email, it's also weighing bids to replace the Bird Cage railings, but that's taking longer than expected because the job needs to meet historic architectural standards. It also requires approval from the county office of historic preservation.
In his email, Northrup said Lee knew this before issuing the unsafe structure tag. That's because Northrup ran into the building official on day the new rails were inspected and explained the delay in repairing those on the staircase.
In his report, though, Wasson said Lee grew concerned about the delay and decided to re-inspect the Birds Nest on his own.
Maya did not dispute that the railings need to be replaced. "I'm not defending the staircase," he said.
But, he added, "this is what happens when you challenge the town establishment."