North Bay Village voters will fill two of the five seats on the Village Commission this fall.
Two years ago the commission races were uncontested, but this time the mayor and commissioner-at-large are busy touting their accomplishments because both face challengers highly critical of the state of the village’s affairs. On the radar: the city’s crumbling water infrastructure, residents’ access to Biscayne Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, street cleanliness, the state of the village’s parks and the need to attract new businesses.
In North Bay Village, the mayor and commissioner-at-large serve two-year terms. Harbor Island Commissioner Eddie Lim, who served a four-year term and was up for reelection, failed to draw challengers and was automatically reelected.
North Bay Village is a three-island cluster on the Kennedy Causeway with roughly 7,000 residents and a $6 million budget.
Early voting starts Monday, and Election Day is Nov. 4.
Connie Leon-Kreps stepped into the role of mayor in 2011 after former mayor Corina Esquijarosa resigned. For the first time since she was elected to the Village Commission in 2010, Leon-Kreps is being challenged for her seat.
The mayor is a registered nurse and has lived in the village since 1997. She owns a business called Medical Insights Inc. that coordinates medical services.
She said in an interview that she is most proud of helping save the village’s firetruck, which the county threatened to remove last year, and of lobbying the state for a $600,000 grant for the city’s sewer and drinking-water infrastructure. She said she is also proud of getting village residents limited access to the Normandy Isle swimming pool, which is otherwise open only to Miami Beach residents.
If she were reelected, Leon-Kreps said, she would focus on increasing funding for security in the village’s parks, pushing for speedy updates to the water infrastructure and revising the village code to promote “green” development.
One of the issues facing the village is the lack of public access to Biscayne Bay and the Intracoastal — an interesting issue to have in a village surrounded by water.
Leon-Kreps has supported the construction of a boardwalk on the village’s east end — a bridge that would take pedestrians under the Kennedy Causeway and connect the north and south sides of Treasure Island. She said this is the most feasible way to provide residents public access to the water, but that it could take time.
“To think that you can have water access without the boardwalk is unrealistic,” Leon-Kreps said of the project, which is still in the design phase. “We’re talking about years from now. Sometimes a project takes 20, 30 years.”
Her opponent is Jorge Brito, a retired Miami-Dade County police detective and former sergeant-at-arms for the county. Brito‘s duties included investigating complaints of public corruption — among them, the Hialeah ballot fraud case of 2004.
“I was exposed to bad government,” he said, and promised he would work to bring more transparency to the village. “At the same time, I was exposed to local politics and how government is run. I learned how to navigate the holes of politics.”
Brito, a constant presence at Village Commission meetings, has lived in the village since 2004 and said he decided to run because “I want people to know they have other options.”
His focus, he said, would be on the village’s water and electrical infrastructure, as well as promoting foot traffic in the village by making sure the street-cleaning contracts are enforced and that the public has access to the water.
On the boardwalk project, he said, “it will never take place.”
“You can’t have a boardwalk that goes in the Intracoastal under the bridge,” Brito said.
He serves on the board of the Kennedy House Condominium Association, whose property manager, Rachel Badilla, was arrested in August on grand theft and forgery charges.
Other members of the board told the condo’s lawyer to send Brito a letter asking him to stop investigating into the association. Brito says his queries contributed to Badilla’s arrest.
Both Brito and Leon-Kreps have vowed to stay away from negative campaigning, but have enlisted campaign managers with experience in negative races.
Leon-Kreps’ campaign is being run by Randy Hilliard, who has been called “The Prince of Darkness” for his work in Miami-Dade politics running negative, but often successful, campaigns for local politicians. In 2010, the village hired Hilliard for a six-month stint as a public-relations consultant.
Jeremy Kozyak is Brito’s campaign manager, and his most recent work includes Joe Geller’s bid for a seat in the Florida House. Geller is a former mayor of North Bay Village. Both Hilliard and Kozyak also worked on campaigns for Miami Beach City Commission races last year.
In the first and so far only negative mailer of the race — paid for by “Floridians for a Strong Future” — Brito is accused of threatening and intimidating the Kennedy House Condo Association.
“If he does unlawful investigations in his condo, will he also investigate residents or intimidate residents who do not agree with him?” the mailer asks.
Floridians for a Strong Future is an electioneering communications organization being funded mostly by contributions from real estate firms, including some with projects underway in the village.
Jorge Gonzalez became commissioner-at-large in 2012, when his only opponent dropped out of the race four weeks before ballots were cast.
Now, that same opponent — Mario Garcia — is back and running for Gonzalez’s seat.
Gonzalez has lived in the village since 2007 and is the president of the 360 Condominium Association, where he lives. Before he was elected to the commission, Gonzalez served on the Planning and Zoning and Charter Review boards.
So far, Gonzalez has received the endorsement of the North Bay Village Fraternal Order of Police.
He says his focus will be on getting the city low-interest loans and grants to fix its water infrastructure and, like Leon-Kreps, he lobbied state legislators for the $600,000 grant the city obtained for the project.
“We’ll borrow money the cheapest way we can find,” Gonzalez said.
He also hopes to establish a community board to serve residents with special needs, such as the elderly and the disabled.
Gonzalez’s building faces the water, but in violation of the village code it does not provide public access to the water. He says that although it was in the original plan, right now there are security concerns.
“The practicality of opening up a secure area is an issue,” Gonzalez said. “What impact would that have to the security of the property needs to be assessed. At this point, I don’t really have solutions.”
He added that the new waterfront developments have been designed to provide public access.
“We need to make sure that we monitor that so that we don’t have the same situation that we are seeing now,” Gonzalez said.
The commissioner owns and manages Solex International, a Doral business that exports electronics such as iPads, iPhones and computers to Latin America.
Public records show Gonzalez has embarked on many other business ventures. One business he co-owned, 1119 LLC, filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Gonzalez, the company and others also were sued in connection with a loan, and a judge ordered them to pay close to $1 million. The lender later stated in court papers that the judgment was satisfied, in part by selling the collateral property.
In an email, Gonzalez told the Miami Herald: “It has nothing to do with North Bay Village or my service as commissioner of North Bay Village.”
Gonzalez and his Blue Stone Holdings Corp. also owe the county roughly $1,300 in unpaid business taxes — an accumulation of bills from 2012 to the present.
Garcia, Gonzalez’s opponent, is a newcomer to local politics.
A family nurse-practitioner at the Community Health Delivery System at the University of Miami, Garcia has lived in the village since he moved from New York City in 2011. He is a constant presence at Village Commission meetings, and served on the village’s Business Development board before it was disbanded.
Garcia said that if he is elected, he will focus on improving the look of the village’s streets, fixing the village’s parks and creating a plan that focuses on recreational uses for the village’s few green spaces.
“Taxes have gone up in the last two years, our streets are dirty and the causeway looks awful,” Garcia said.
The candidate also wants to increase the police presence on the streets, and to expand the village’s business base by meeting with local business owners.
In 2012, Garcia received 52 percent of the vote to Gonzalez’s 48 percent, but that was after Garcia had dropped out of the race. By the time Garcia had withdrawn, ballots already had been printed.
Gonzalez said that was because voters are more likely to vote for the candidate that appears first on the list and, by alphabetical order, Garcia’s name lands on top of Gonzalez’s.
“I can tell you that in November it will be a completely different story,” Gonzalez said. “People know who I am now. This will be the real campaign.”
North Bay Village commission candidates
Occupation: Registered nurse; owner of Medical Insights Inc.
Education: Associate’s degree from Miami Dade College; bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Miami.
Years lived in North Bay Village: 18
Public service: North Bay Village mayor; former commissioner and member of the Planning and Zoning and Community Enhancement advisory boards. Volunteer for the Red Cross and Guardian Ad Litem.
Occupation: Retired Miami-Dade Police Department officer.
Education: Associate’s degree, Miami Dade College.
Years lived in North Bay Village: 10
Public service: Secretary of the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana; volunteer for the Children and Youth Foundation at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Occupation: Business owner.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida, master’s in business administration and management from Nova Southeastern University.
Years lived in North Bay Village: 7
Public service: North Bay Village commissioner; volunteer for the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program; member of the Optimist Club of North Bay Village; former member for the Planning and Zoning and Charter Review advisory boards.
Occupation: Family nurse-practitioner for the Community Health Delivery System at the University of Miami.
Education: Associate’s degree, Kingsborough Community College in New York City; bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from the State University of New York.
Years lived in North Bay Village: 3
Public service: Former vice chair of the North Bay Village Business Development Board and treasurer of the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association in New York City.