Armed with a petition signed by more than 400 people from the Marshall Williamson neighborhood, Pastor Rodney James addressed the South Miami commission Wednesday in attempt to block Vice Mayor Walter Harris’ reappointment of Antoinette Fischer to the planning board.
Still, the commission passed the resolution with a 3-2 vote, acknowledging Harris’ appointment of Fischer to serve as a representative of group seat IV for a two-year term, ending April 15, 2017.
The seven-member board makes recommendations to the commission regarding changes in boundaries of various use distorts, zoning regulations, use of land and type of construction, locations and use of all structures on any valid application submitted to it.
Tension has grown between the community and Fischer since she penned a letter in June 2014 printed in the Miami Herald. Fischer’s letter, “South Miami is not a dense urban area,” offended James and many others in the community — although Fischer insists that they misinterpreted her message.
The letter centered around plans for the controversial Madison Square housing project, which had recently been expanded to include a third floor. Fischer expressed concern about the increased density, predicting that that this would create a “ghetto” on the west side of U.S. 1.
James, the president of South Miami’s Concerned Clergy and Citizens and Pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, read the letter and his response in front of the commission.
“I was offended by the racial overtones in this letter as were other community leaders in the Marshall Williamson Community,” James read. “We were particularly upset by her statements expressing the fear that (poor people) will overrun South Miami if the city does not hold the line on density and parking.”
The resolution was tabled at the last commission meeting, when Harris’ attempt to have the item placed on the consent agenda was denied, so the vice mayor removed it from the table before the final vote.
“I would like to say that (South Miami) should have just as much confidence in me as the rest of the city does,” Fischer said. “I care for every person in this city. I discriminate against no one and I am absolutely looking to protect the Madison Square area and the Marshall Williamson neighborhood. My motivation is to protect the Marshall Williamson community from over development, which I believe will seriously damage the personality, character and quality of life of long-term residents there who deserve that protection.”
Fischer, who has served on the planning board since 2013, can be appointed to the board without commission approval, according to charter. Tuesday’s vote was essentially a vote of “confidence or non-confidence” behind Harris’ original reappointment, according to City Attorney Thomas Pepe.
“My reappointment to the planning board went through in spite of a very slanderous, aggressive, prolonged and well-orchestrated attack on my character, made by Mayor Stoddard, Pastor James and Commissioner Josh Liebman,” Fischer said. “Pastor James read a very lengthy, hateful letter, that put an ugly spin on a letter I had written to the Herald.”
Fischer said she believes the attack was politically motivated because she has been such an outspoken opponent of adding more height or density to the Madison Square Project.
“There is an agenda to bring it back for another vote and add more in spite of protestations from the people who live in that neighborhood,” she said.
Harris said that he also believes the situation to be political and that Fischer is simply against excessive development.
“I believe that this whole situation is politically motivated,” Harris said. “The racial overtones just played into it. It was just convenient. I really did take it to heart and prayed about it. It’s not a hardheaded decision on my part. I was getting a lot of pressure from the concerned clergy, not to put her on the board. But I truly believe that this was much more political.
“She and I don’t agree on many things, probably on most things,” Harris added. “But she is a hard worker, she is diligent, conscience and honest. This is really important. And she’s not a racist.”
In her original letter, Fischer states that she “suspects that (South Miami) will be forced to accept even more low-income developments that … create an influx of additional low-income families without vehicles who have to cross U.S. 1 on foot (a deadly proposition) to reach our downtown district. South Miami’s restaurants and stores are mainly patronized by the affluent. Many of the middle-class residents have been priced out of our downtown district. Any newcomers will be relegated by financial status to the west side of U.S. 1, thereby creating a ghetto.”
“First of all, I did use the word ghetto in my letter,” Fischer said. “Those people who took it out of context need to look it up in the dictionary and see what the word actually means. Because they are taking it as a racial slur, and it is not. I used an English word exactly as it is written in the dictionary. It is not a racial slur. It means people who are confined to certain area. It could be people of any race or ethnicity or religion.”
James said he was “appalled and offended” by Harris’ dismissal of their opposition, and that his community is actively figuring out its next move.
“We are not going to give up on this,” James said. “We have several avenues we could pursue. One is we could go back and … we have them on record. The Coalition of Concerned Black Citizens could sue the city for her past statements and libel statements. We also may even consider recalling Vice Mayor Harris. In a few weeks we got 400 signatures. I think with a little time we can get well more than 600.”