While downtown development surges in Miami Shores, its local country club remains a quaint getaway for residents to play golf, practice tennis and enjoy food and drinks.
But recently, the club became involved in political controversy when Miami Shores Councilman Jesse Walters — also executive director of the Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce — asked the country club to change some of its policies and revisit its lease agreement with the village.
Instead, the country club ended its Chamber membership.
Tuesday night, Walters suddenly resigned from the council. “I just wanted to get my life back together and spend time with my family,” he told the Miami Herald on Thursday.
Miami Shores Councilwoman Ivonne Ledesma said she is shocked and disappointed to see Walters leave the council.
“Jesse was an openly gay councilman,” Ledesma said. “When he ran, almost immediately, he experienced a lot of prejudice from the community and continues to, in my view, get all this hate for no reason.”
Taking Walters’ place on council is Mac Glinn, who came in fourth behind Alice Burch, Steve Zelkowitz and Ledesma during last April’s council election.
Walters council resignation doesn’t fix things, said Johnny LaPonzina, president of Professional Course Management (PCM), which operates the country club.
“The fact that he resigned doesn't lessen our remedies, these actions still occurred,” LaPonzina said, pointing to a string of emails between Walters and the country club.
In the emails, LaPonzina says, Walters orchestrated a means to revisit the lease agreement, even though there were 20 years left in the country club’s contract.
Walters told the country club’s general manager, Alberto Pozzi, and Village Manager Tom Benton in an email July 30 that “not all is well within the mindset of the [club] members and frequent users.”
In the email, Walters said he specifically reached out to more than 15 “heavy users of the club,” and that “the vast majority of the individuals interviewed for this project wanted village council to investigate a buy-out offer of the contract with PCM, their displeasure is that acute.”
Walters also questioned the country club's marketing efforts and recommended in the email that the club be open on Saturday nights and that the staff be trained on improving service, among other things.
“They were issues brought to my attention. Things seen done that could change by frequent members,” Walters told the Herald. “One of the most frequent things you hear is that the club is not open enough.”
LaPonzina says Walters’ requests were more like “aggressive and derogatory commands.”
“We were taken by surprise. We’ve never had any issues before,” LaPonzina told the Herald. “He decided to attack our staff unfairly, in my opinion.”
As a result, LaPonzina hired an attorney and filed a Freedom of Information Act to review Walters’ emails.
Shortly after, Walters canceled the chamber’s future reservations at the country club.
That’s when the public got a whiff of the news and Walters began receiving complaints from residents about the club quitting the chamber.
“Its been an ongoing thing of a small group of people making my life miserable,” Walters told the Herald after his council resignation.
Heide Marando, a Miami Shores resident for nearly 14 years, sent Walters an email upset over the matter.
“The first time I read the letter I was very hurt,” Marando said. “His demands where he compares them to Red Lobster, I didn’t think that was right.”
Marando and her husband, Rocco, visit the country club at least once a week to play golf, and their two kids attend camp there.
“I thought it was so insulting,” Marando said of Walters’ emails to the club. “Had they been just suggestions it would have been just fine, but they were demands.”
The 1990 lease agreement with Miami Shores states the club has a 45-year contract. Today, the club has 20 years left as a tenant.
The contract does allow the council to revisit the lease every five years, but at PCM’s discretion. The lease does not allow council to buy out the club as long as it pays its rent.
“As a councilman I understand and recognize we have a 20-year contract,” Walters said. “I respect the country club. I just hope they’re open for input.”
During a council meeting on Oct. 6, Ledesma sought to make the public aware of the conditions of the contract.
“I thought it was important for the public to understand the main terms,” Ledesma said.
Walters said he is a member and frequent customer of the country club and wants it “to succeed and prosper.”
LaPonzina, however, said Walters had a clear conflict of interest questioning the club as a village councilman and then canceling reservations as the chamber director.
“It’s obvious. Meeting with him as a councilman has nothing to do with the Chamber of Commerce,” LaPonzina said. “Maybe [resigning] is his way of apologizing. In my opinion, it’s unfortunate it’s gotten this far.”