As North Miami voters head to the polls Tuesday to choose a replacement for suspended mayor Lucie Tondreau, there’s more at stake for this city of 59,000 than just a new leader for the City Council.
What many residents are hoping for is an end to a steady series of embarrassing headlines that have clouded City Hall for the past few years. In 2010, a former mayor accepted use of a Porsche as a gift; a current council member faces ethics charges; and Tondreau awaits trial on charges of mortgage fraud.
“We’re in a very dire situation and I’m looking for the one person who will be able to grasp things quickly,” said resident Carol Prager at a candidate forum last month. “We really need rescuing.”
Councilman Scott Galvin was upset enough that he started a petition calling for an “end to public corruption” in the city.
“People have been so frustrated for so long,” Galvin told the Miami Herald. “Let’s capture this moment and show people that there is hope and they need to be involved.”
The three mayoral candidates — former mayor Kevin Burns, physician Smith Joseph and former councilman Jean Marcellus — hope to unite the city and improve its reputation.
“The city of North Miami is going through some times that make us think and these are times that try our conscience,” Joseph said at a forum last month. “The city is at a critical crossroads.”
Last year’s mayoral election mainly focused on how the seven candidates could bring together the city, increase transparency and remove the perception of corruption in the city. But after a few months in office, Tondreau was already facing an outside investigation.
In November, her business was raided by the county inspector general’s office and other local law enforcement officers over allegations that while running for office, Tondreau’s campaign sent out illegal absentee-ballot requests.
The investigation, which also named her campaign treasurer, Nacivre Charles, found that absentee ballot requests were submitted for both the initial election in May and the runoff in June. The ballots were never sent because the Miami-Dade Elections Department marked them as suspicious. Neither Charles nor Tondreau have been charged in that case.
On May 20, Tondreau was removed from office by Gov. Rick Scott after being arrested on conspiracy and wire-fraud charges. She is accused of using her Creole-language radio shows to help recruit “straw” borrowers to file fraudulent loan applications to purchase homes in an $11 million mortgage fraud scheme that took place before she was elected.
Last month, one of her four co-defendants, Karl Oreste, pleaded guilty to the charges and agreed to testify against her in court.
Tondreau has said she is innocent.
Some of the other notable issues and mishaps date back to North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre who held office from 2009 to 2013.
Pierre faced several allegations of improper behavior including a mix-up in 2010 over a Porsche Panamera that he claimed was a gift. He later disclosed the gift, after the Herald revealed he might have violated the state’s gift-disclosure laws, and said he gave the car back shortly after he was emailed about it by a resident.
Further damaging the city’s image was the March 2011 arrest of Pierre’s nephew and campaign manager, Ricardo Brutus, on charges of unlawful compensation. Authorities say Brutus took cash from North Miami businessman, Shlomo Chelminsky, claiming he could sway council votes.
That case is still open and no charges have been filed against Chelminsky, who participated in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation.
The negative headlines led some residents in the Sans Souci and Keystone Point areas of the city to discuss secession from the city in 2012, but there was never any official action and the movement eventually died down.
The negative attention hasn’t focused solely on the city’s mayors. Councilwoman Marie Steril has also faced an ethics investigation.
The county ethics commission ruled in March that there was probable cause that Steril exploited her position when she asked for more than $8,000 in upgrades to her mother’s city-subsidized home renovation.
In 2011 Steril’s mother, Marie Charles-Brutus, received new counter tops and appliances. In April, the commission said it would set a date for a hearing on the case.
Former mayor Christine Moreno, said the challenges of being mayor were an “eye opener” for her and that officials have to focus on community not power and politics.
“If I wasn’t as deeply moral, religious and ethical, I could see how people could get in a lot of trouble,” Moreno said. “It’s a high-profile job and you have an opportunity to do a lot of good if you only stay focused.”
Galvin said that the city manager and staff play an important role in curtailing negative incidents as well.
“If staff says no, then it stops, it ends,” Galvin said. “With city management being too eager to please elected officials they give way to things that lead to bad headlines.”
He and other council members were critical of then-police chief and later city manager Stephen Johnson when he purchased 43 police-style badges for Pierre’s aides, which he said was done at Pierre’s request.
The city has also had its share of financial issues. Most recently residents and Galvin expressed concern over an apparent lapse in utility bill collection. The concerns caused city manager Aleem Ghany to explore a potential in-depth “forensic” audit of the city’s finances after Councilwoman Carol Keys proposed the audit at multiple meetings.
Still, Galvin and city leaders think there could be positive developments ahead including the plans for downtown’s redevelopment and the recent restructuring of the city’s community redevelopment agency.
“If we can stop the negative headlines and the energy they absorb, we can move forward,” Galvin said. “I think we’ve finally turned that corner. I’m really hopeful.”