The city of Homestead spends more than $82,000 a year to make sure its council members have vehicles they can drive on city business. But the elected officials have access to another car.
The city sets aside a white Chevy Tahoe for the council of seven to share. It’s designated for “official city business,” and Councilman Elvis Maldonado is its biggest fan.
Maldonado, who usually drives a gray Honda Fit, has signed out the Tahoe at least 60 days in the last 15 months. He uses it to attend Beacon Council meetings, South Dade Chamber of Commerce gatherings and many networking receptions.
He also uses it when he plays golf.
Maldonado played golf at least five times in 2015 while he had possession of the city car, according to his official calendar, Shotzoom.com and Gamegolf.com — websites that Maldonado used to track his golf trips and stats. Golf records logged on the websites can be viewed by anyone; Maldonado’s were deleted after the Miami Herald began questioning him.
On those five occasions, he played at either Weston Hills Country Club in Broward, Miccosukee Golf & Country Club in Kendall, or at the Melreese Country Club near Miami International Airport.
Other times when Maldonado had the car, SunPass records show the Tahoe using the Turnpike exits that are minutes from golf courses where he routinely plays.
$958.33 Monthly auto allowance for Homestead council members
Maldonado did not respond to numerous calls, texts and emails from the Miami Herald requesting comment, although he did acknowledge he knew the subject of the story.
On one occasion, a Miami Herald reporter drove to Maldonado’s home, without an appointment, hoping to talk to him, but saw him leaving in his own car. The reporter followed Maldonado to a Taco Bell, then called him and asked to talk without saying she had him in view. Maldonado, an information technology business owner, said he was meeting with a client and had no time to talk. He then said he needed to put the reporter on hold to take a call. Maldonado placed his order in the Taco Bell drive-through, then came back on the phone and said he had been working around the clock on a cyber security case.
Maldonado’s excursions in the city car raised the eyebrows of some ethics and government experts.
“I think the councilman is making a mistake and it needs to stop,” said Merrett R. Stierheim, former Miami-Dade County manager, former Miami city manager and Miami-Dade school superintendent. “I think the constant use of the car raises questions that need to be answered.”
Stierheim said that such frequent use of the Tahoe, even if it were solely for city business, could be perceived as “double dipping” because Homestead elected officials get a $958.33 monthly auto allowance, one of the highest in Miami-Dade County. Budgeted as “auto benefit,” the stipend is intended to cover any city-related travel, assuming the council member uses his or her own car. It can also be used to lease a car.
I think the constant use of the car raises questions that need to be answered.
Merrett R. Stierheim, former Miami-Dade County manager
City of Miami officials get $900 a month; Miami-Dade County officials get up to $800 a month to lease the car of their choice.
“I understand that even in lieu of the $958, if his personal car is being maintained or if it’s broken, then there might be a need then to use a city car in this case, because commissioners need to be transported. But that certainly isn’t going to be 60 times a year or more. That seems like a lot when you’re getting almost $1,000 a month as a car allowance,” Stierheim said.
Other council members use the car far less than Maldonado — from three to 20 times a year.
The Tahoe comes with perks: Gas, tolls, insurance, car washes and maintenance are all paid for by the city. When the Miami Herald placed a records request for the Tahoe’s activity, the use of the car abruptly declined.
Anthony Alfieri, founder and director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami, said Maldonado’s use of the car may have legal consequences.
“To the extent that this council member, or any other public official in the city of Homestead is abusing the privileges of his office, he may in fact be in violation of not only city of Homestead ordinances, but also, county ethics regulations and state … statutes,” he said.
All city vehicles are to be used for city business only … Inappropriate use of city vehicles will result in disciplinary action.
Homestead’s vehicle usage policy
According to the Florida statutes, public officials cannot use their position, or any property within their trust, for personal gain or benefit. The county’s ethics ordinance says elected officials cannot use their position to secure a special privilege.
Homestead’s vehicle usage policy says “all city vehicles are to be used for city business only … Inappropriate use of city vehicles will result in disciplinary action.”
“These important, public-records-based investigative findings show that the city of Homestead needs to create a more accountable system for the use of public taxpayer-subsidized resources and moreover that individual council members need to be more transparent and responsible in order to avoid abusing and exploiting a system that’s vulnerable to misconduct,” Alfieri said.
THE WAY IT WORKS (OR DOESN’T WORK)
There is no policy governing use of the car. Council members, at their own discretion, reserve the Tahoe on their city calendars. Since all seven council members share the car, it’s done on a first-come, first-served basis. They can reserve the car months in advance.
There also is not a single log that says who has the car. That information is recorded only on the calendar of the council member using the car and shows up elsewhere only if someone else tries to check it out.
The system isn’t totally accurate, though. A review of SunPass logs shows the car was sometimes in use when no one made a record of checking it out.
SunPass logs are the only record of where the car goes, and then only if the car is on Florida’s Turnpike or another toll road.
For example, Maldonado checked out the car from Feb. 5 to Feb. 8, 2015. His calendar said he would be attending a Military Affairs Committee lunch around noon on Feb. 5, in Homestead. There was no Sunpass activity before late afternoon, meaning the car was probably within city limits until then.
But at 5:46 p.m., the car headed north on the Turnpike, then eastbound on the 836 and got off on Southwest 57th Avenue at 6:04 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., the car headed back west on the 836, then south on the Turnpike, SunPass records show. Nothing on the calendar showed a city-related event at that time.
The next day, Feb. 6, Maldonado’s calendar showed he had a Beacon Council meeting in downtown Miami at 9 a.m. But Sunpass records show the car getting on the northbound Bird Road entrance of the Turnpike at 9:58 a.m. At 10:05 a.m., the car got off on Okeechobee Road — the last SunPass entry for 10 hours.
That same day, golf records show he played at Weston Hills Country Club in Broward, accessible from the Turnpike exit on Okeechobee Road or Interstate 75, which are not toll roads.
Ten hours later, at 8:07 p.m., he got back on the Turnpike at Okeechobee Road, and headed south to Homestead. Meanwhile, his city calendar said he had a military affairs event at 5:30 p.m. in Homestead.
On Feb. 7, Maldonado’s calendar showed an event at Losner Park in downtown Homestead from noon to 3 p.m. SunPass records show the car going north on the Turnpike at 7:14 a.m. and getting off on Southwest 152nd Avenue, 10 minutes away from Palmetto Golf Course, one of his regular spots, according to Shotzoom.com and Gamegolf.com. Six hours later, the car headed back to Homestead.
“In the absence of a policy, this is an issue, a policy issue, that the mayor and the council have to resolve because it does have ethical connotations and could be a source of embarrassment to the city,” Stierheim said.
The city car wasn’t always used by the city council. It was originally budgeted in 2008 for the use of then-City Manager Mike Shehadeh. The first car was a white Ford Expedition.
In February 2010, Shehadeh was fired after the city says he solicited campaign contributions for former Mayor Lynda Bell, visited a dominatrix website on his city computer and sent romantic text messages to a married female subordinate, among other things.
In April 2010 Sergio Purrinos was hired as the new city manager. Gradually the mayor and council members became the primary users of the car. Then-Mayor Steve Bateman got in a crash on his way back from a conference in Gainesville, and the Expedition was replaced with a Chevy Tahoe.
Since then, the use of the car by the city’s elected officials has been the norm.
“A decision was made by a previous administration in 2009 to make the vehicle available to the mayor and council for city business,” said city spokeswoman Begoñe Cazalis. “The previous administration left no records indicating what the rationale was for the decision. Prior to the decision, the vehicle was used by the parks director.”