Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones was on the verge of delivering an unprecedented $50 million to redevelop Overtown, the heart of her commission district. But hours before a critical vote earlier this month, city officials circulated a memo saying the Overtown investment could hurt the city’s overall finances.
At least two of the four other commissioners were wavering.
So Spence-Jones went into high gear, galvanizing community leaders and elected officials, calling reporters, holding heated closed-door meetings in her City Hall office. When it came time for the item to be heard at the City Commission meeting, she made sure dozens of impassioned Overtown residents spoke up.
“This is a big victory for Overtown,” Spence-Jones said after the plan passed 4-0.
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It was also a big triumph for Spence-Jones.
Since being elected in 2005, the one-time advisor to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has been both exalted by her constituency, and forced to fight for her political life.
Prosecutors charged her with bribery and grand theft in two separate cases, and then-Gov. Charlie Crist removed her from office in 2010. But jurors acquitted her of bribery and prosecutors dropped the grand-theft charges. She returned to the dais in August with the overwhelming support of the communities she represents.
Since then, Spence-Jones has emerged as a serious power broker on the City Commission. Observers say she returned more focused and determined than before, and with an air of invincibility.
Not only has she flexed her muscles around City Hall, she has tallied a string of wins for District 5, which includes Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City.
“Michelle Spence-Jones is probably the most effective black city commissioner since M. Athalie Range,” said Overtown observer and Florida International University historian Marvin Dunn. “The battles she went through legally only strengthened support for her. She has that job as long as she wants it.”
Spence-Jones declined to be interviewed for this report, cancelling plans to meet with a Miami Herald reporter after an article was published that she perceived to be critical.
At a commission meeting Thursday, Spence-Jones said her charge was to deliver for her district.
“People elected me to make sure that I fight for them to the very end,” she said from the dais.
She’s already done that, exerting influence in several ways:
• Immediately upon returning to the commission, Spence-Jones cast the deciding vote to oust former Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito. Exposito had come under scrutiny after Miami police officers fatally shot seven black men over less than a year, and was later suspended for ignoring orders from the city manager.
• During a contentious battle over illuminated billboards on some city-owned property recently, Spence-Jones persuaded the commission to tack on language permitting the outdoor ads in public parks. The other commissioners grudgingly approved it, even though some questioned its legality. Spence-Jones later removed the provision from the ordinance.
“The other commissioners now recognize that they are going to have to deal with her,” said Frank Rollason, a former assistant city manager. “She didn’t go away.”
Spence-Jones may also have had a hand in personnel decisions.
When nationally recognized Miami Parks Director Ernest Burkeen lost his job in March, City Hall insiders pointed to an ongoing feud with Spence-Jones. No reason was stated on his termination letter.
Burkeen and a Spence-Jones aide declined to comment on the matter.
The Overtown investment stands to become part of Spence-Jones’ legacy. If it continues moving forward, it will be the largest investment into the impoverished neighborhood in decades. Much of the money would go to mixed-use development along Northwest Third Avenue.
Getting this far, however, took skillful maneuvering. The $50 million plan will be financed by loans backed by the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency, a quasi-independent agency that Spence-Jones chairs.
For years, the Overtown Community CRA had shared an executive director, staff, office space and budget with the adjacent Omni district CRA. But just before the Overtown project was approved, Spence-Jones engineered a split in the two CRAs, and appointed a separate executive director of the Overtown operation. The move took place with little public discussion.
The new executive director, Clarence Woods, is a Spence-Jones ally and former staffer. Some observers say his appointment gives Spence-Jones more control over the agency and the millions in its bank account.
Dunn, the South Florida historian, said Spence-Jones has been able to carry out her agenda because she doesn’t have to pander.
But Reginald Munnings, of the Power U Center for Social Change, said Spence-Jones needs to do a better job of connecting with residents.
“She needs to prove to us that these things are happening for our community,” he said. “There needs to be more of a dialogue.”
Spence-Jones was supposed to be term-limited at the end of next year. But City Attorney Julie Bru has ruled that Spence-Jones can run for a third term in 2013 because a suspension interrupted her second term.
That’s welcome news for Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, the community group known as PULSE.
“She’s not settling for peanuts, the way our community always does,” Wilcox said. “She’s pushes and pushes, and knows how to get it done.”