In one of Miami-Dade’s youngest municipalities, candidates for vice mayor in Palmetto Bay have engaged in a war of words over fitness for office, potentially overshadowing their relatively similar policy positions.
The campaign for the District 2 council seat is less heated, but the challenger in the race was sued by the village for using its logo in campaign materials.
Located on Biscayne Bay between Coral Gables/Pinecrest and Cutler, the village of Palmetto Bay was incorporated in 2002. Its population is about 25,000. The village doesn’t have a long history, but some recent fights over town issues — and sometimes on the dais at council meetings — have been loud and bitter.
Palmetto Bay has five candidates for two seats on the Village Council
Two seats are being contested in the Nov. 8 election.
The candidates running for vice mayor include: John E. DuBois, the incumbent and head of a telecommunications company; Erica Watts, a member of the Village Educational Advisory Committee; and David Zisman, owner of a fireplace and grill retailer.
Candidates for the District 2 council seat are Tim Schaffer, the incumbent and owner of a financial services company; and David Singer, CFO and CEO of Berkowitz Development Group.
▪ John E. DuBois, 54, is the current vice mayor, completing his first term on the council. The Washington, D.C. American University graduate grew up in New York City, moved to Kansas when he was 13 and to Florida in 2001. DuBois has been a resident of Palmetto Bay since 2006.
He is president and CEO of Eyecast, a cloud-based video surveillance company. He is also on the board of Camillus House, which provides services for homeless people.
He said he was not always interested in local politics. That changed in 2010 when he said he noticed how divided the village seemed to be and made his first — and unsuccessful — run for a council seat.
Since being elected, DuBois said he has focused on maintaining the quality of life for the residential community. He mentioned the tremendous pressure to solve traffic issues, which seem to be increasing with the popularity of Waze, a GPS app that helps users avoid traffic and sometimes guides drivers through the village on its residential roads.
Dubois’ two challengers said they are concerned about his judgment after the vice mayor allowed a family friend, Stanley Kowlessar, Jr., to stay at his home last year following Kowlessar’s arrest on charges of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl. Kowlessar, who was on house arrest, moved out a few months later, with the vice mayor citing the intense news coverage as the reason. Kowlessar has not yet come to trial.
DuBois said the incident says nothing about his fitness for office. “I will not apologize for helping a friend in need,” he said.
▪ Erica Watts, 47, was born and raised in Maryland. She moved to Gainesville after graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and worked for legal aid, then moved to Miami and earned a law degree from St. Thomas University.
Watts worked in family law, but said she left that job to dedicate herself to her family and the Coral Reef Elementary PTA, of which she served as president until June. It was her PTA work with the Village Council to make school improvements that sparked her interest in running for the council.
She sits on the Educational Advisory Committee, the Autism Spectrum Disorder Board for Coral Reef Elementary and the board of Thread of Life International, which works against human trafficking.
“Running for office felt like a natural progression in my life,” Watts said. “I’ve always looked to try to solve problems in the community.”
Her primary issue is solving traffic problems, which she believes can be accomplished only through a joint effort of the county, surrounding cities and public transportation. Development is also a concern for Watts. She said she wants to stop construction for the time being because of its impact on traffic.
▪ David Zisman, 57, grew up in Miami and lived in West Kendall until he moved to Palmetto Bay in the early 1990s to get away from traffic. “Then the traffic followed me,” Zisman said with a laugh.
He was appointed to the city’s Charter Revision Commission and the Downtown Redevelopment Task Force and ran and lost in his first attempt to get a seat on the Village Council in 2014.
One of his goals is cleaning up the site of an old FPL power plant, located on 152nd Street and 57th Avenue, and turning it into a park. He is worried a developer might buy the property and build homes that will add to the traffic.
“We have 69 acres of land that is polluted and just sitting there,” Zisman said. “I am advocating that Palmetto Bay buy that property and rejuvenate it, clean it up, do whatever it takes with the help of Florida Power and Light, Dade County, and the state of Florida, because we can’t do this alone.”
He also wants to enforce speed limits by having police officers patrol residential roads where drivers are known to speed.
Two years ago, Zisman’s fireplace company, Evening’s Delight, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He was accused of hiding assets from creditors by pretending to cease operations, changing the name of the company to “Evening De-light Store 1” and keeping the store’s inventory.
The company, in court documents, responded that the company was solvent and any transfers were done legally. Zisman, in an interview, said his parents founded two corporations for different locations of the business in the 1970s. When one location closed, he said he filed for bankruptcy to shield his personal assets. The case was settled in late 2015, and Zisman said all creditors were paid.
▪ Tim Schaffer, 56, is the incumbent District 2 councilman. He declined multiple interview requests.
He grew up in Miami-Dade County, but moved to Virginia for five years, according to a biography on Palmetto Bay’s village website. In 2005 he and his wife moved to Palmetto Bay.
The University of Miami alumnus is the sole proprietor of Woodbury Financial Services. Prior to that, he retired after 15 years as a reserve and auxiliary police officer for Miami-Dade County and Portsmouth, Virginia police departments.
Schaffer was elected to office in 2012. At the time he told the Palmetto Bay Community Newspaper that his concerns have been outsiders’ influence on the direction of the village.
▪ David Singer, 54, has lived in Palmetto Bay since he was 6 years old. He has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Florida State University and a Certificate of Accounting from the University of Miami. He holds a Florida CPA license and a Florida Realtor license and is the CFO and CEO of Berkowitz Development Group.
Singer believes the residents of Palmetto Bay are unhappy with the development that is taking place and seeks to stop the expansion.
One of Singer’s top concerns is traffic. He doesn’t think the current councilmembers are doing enough to fix the issue.
“They’re doing it by bits and pieces. Putting a stop sign here, and a right turn only sign and speed bump there,” he said. “They need to do an overall traffic plan for Palmetto Bay.”
In July, Palmetto Bay sued Singer, accusing him of using the village’s logo on his campaign materials without written permission. The candidate, who described the move as “purely to harass me,” said he had seen other candidates use the logo without any problems, but removed the mark from his campaign website.
An earlier version of this report gave the wrong status for Erica Watts’ role with the Coral Reef Elementary PTA. Her term as president ended in June. In addition, the story incorrectly characterized Tim Schaffer’s business, Woodbury Financial Services.