Mayor’s arrest upends a bizarre political ecosystem

08/31/2013 7:16 PM

09/02/2013 12:46 AM

The last city manager had left just as a public corruption investigation was starting. The one before that was fired after a private investigator uncovered visits to a dominatrix website on the manager’s city computer.

So in 2010, with Homestead’s city manager’s office empty yet again, City Council members opted for a national search to find a replacement. It was the first time in recent history that the insular city decided to look outside for help.

They found George Gretsas, a veteran administrator who had most recently run the city of Fort Lauderdale.

He came. He saw. He was shocked.

Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, records and interviews with city officials indicate, was all but running a parallel branch of government — badgering department heads, midwifing cut-rate land deals with campaign donors and business partners, interfering with hiring and firing. This, in a city where a professional manager is supposed to call the shots.

Still, nobody on the outside of this still-agrarian pioneer town paid much attention — until this past Wednesday, when police came knocking at Bateman’s door and carted him off to jail. He’s charged with using his mayoral office to land a secret $125-an-hour consultancy with a nonprofit with business before the city.

The arrest and Bateman’s subsequent suspension from office finally brought attention to the far-flung city of Homestead.

City officials quickly called a news conference, and the community center where Bateman ran council meetings only weeks earlier was packed with camera crews and reporters. Gretsas welcomed them as though they were guests he had been eagerly expecting.

“I’m fairly new to these parts. We’re here on the outer rim of Miami-Dade County, and it’s nice to see you all,” Gretsas said. “It took a while for people to start paying attention to what was going on here.”

Gateway city

Homestead clings to the southernmost swath of the continental United States, just before the mainland gives way to the Florida Keys. Most know it only as a pass-through to the island chain, or because it was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

As though the mentality of its earliest pioneers never faded, Homestead’s residents have a reputation for fierce independence and self-reliance. It’s Miami-Dade County’s second-oldest city, with its own homegrown banks, hospitals, and even its own water and electric plants.

“We relish the idea that we’re a small-town people,” said 82-year old Nick Sincore, a life-long Homesteader. “It’s nice and comfortable, and we don’t want it to change.”

Sincore sat on Homestead’s council for 30 years — six of them as mayor. His son is a Homestead cop. His son-in-law is now running for mayor.

Within Homestead’s small circle of politically involved residents, personalities can clash in a big way. On more than one occasion, bar fights have broken out between opposing political factions.

Other times, the close-knit nature of Homestead’s political class has proved personally profitably for a select few. Nowhere in the city is this more evident than in Homestead’s quaint downtown.

Stretching several blocks along Krome Avenue, Homestead’s main street is equal parts charm and decay. It’s dotted with medical clinics, an iconic-but-abandoned theater and a small park. There are also boarded-up storefronts, for-rent signs on buildings with peeling paint, and vacant lots.

After Hurricane Andrew ravaged the area, Homestead created a Community Redevelopment Agency to generate a steady stream of tax revenue to be used for improvements to downtown and the city’s equally blighted southwest section. The CRA raises a little more than $2 million a year.

Over the years, millions of those dollars have been squandered through bad business deals with the politically connected, according to a 2010 audit. The county audit tore into the city’s dealings with Steve Shiver, a former mayor and county manager of Miami-Dade who played an active role in multiple ill-fated initiatives.

A company he headed won a contract to develop a downtown park even though the selection committee picked someone else. Shiver protested and overturned the verdict.

Through his role heading a local nonprofit, Shiver oversaw a comically bungled “Holiday Home Makeover” project, going tens of thousands over budget. He farmed out a chunk of the work to his father, a longtime Florida City commissioner.

In 2007, Shiver convinced the Homestead CRA to give him $1.9 million for 4.2 acres of depressed real estate. It was called the “shotgun property,” because the land was covered with small, decrepit “shotgun-style” houses. In a solution that was pure Homestead, the independent CRA borrowed the money from the city to purchase the land, and planned to repay the loan with proceeds from the sale of another property: a bowling alley the city bought years earlier, after the hurricane. The bowling alley was paid for in part with CRA money, even though the agency is restricted to spending its money only within the redevelopment district’s boundaries, and the bowling alley is well outside those boundaries. The payback plan was like giving someone who owes you $20 a $20 bill so they could pay you back.

Trouble is, the bowling alley hasn’t sold, and the people proposing to buy it (including, recently, Shiver) are offering as little $500,000. The city insists that anyone who buys the property — currently dark, dank, shuttered, rat-infested and redolent of mold and mildew — reopen it as a bowling alley, since there are no lanes nearby.

Reached by phone, Shiver asked a Herald reporter to email him questions. The former mayor, who recently returned to Homestead after a failed attempt to revive a ghost town-themed amusement park in North Carolina, never responded to emailed questions.

Mayor and friends

Meanwhile, six years later, the city still can’t unload the shotgun property — despite Bateman’s attempt, over a dinner at Red Lobster, to sell it to his onetime business partner. Former CRA director Jordan Leonard, who was present at the meeting, told that to investigators when they were snooping around another of Bateman’s alleged schemes, one that involved claims that he directed Homestead staff to wipe out a $10,000 electric bill owed by a well-known resident. Bateman wasn’t charged in that investigation.

For a while, it looked like the city would rent the shotgun property to a developer friend of Bateman for $1 a year to build a charter school, but even that fell through.

In several other deals, those close to Bateman play lead roles. Including:

•  Frank May: He has been a key player in Bateman’s political campaigns, and also happens to be the city’s PR consultant. That meant writing speeches, ghostwriting newspaper columns, and even cooking up jokes for Bateman, all on the taxpayers’ dime. May’s nonprofit also got yearly infusions of CRA money to manage the renovation of the historic Seminole Theater in downtown Homestead. Despite devouring more than $4 million in public and private money over more than 10 years, according to the county’s audit of the CRA, the theater remains gutted and empty. That debacle was blasted in the audit. The city got the last word, paying May $2,000 to ghostwrite a rebuttal.

May’s name popped up again last week in the arrest warrant for Bateman. The warrant revealed that Bateman had not only secured a $125-an-hour job for himself, but a $40-an-hour gig for his friend.

In an interview Saturday, May said he resigned from the unpaid presidency of the theater board on Friday because he was angry with the City Council. He characterized the city’s news conference after Bateman’s arrest in this way: “They were kicking a man when he was down.”

•  David Berrones: He and Bateman went into business together in 2008, running a company called Golden Land Holdings. Berrones said he and Bateman started the company before he was mayor and they bought townhouses together.

Berrones is the individual Bateman tried to help buy the shotgun property in the no-bid deal, according to what the former CRA director told investigators. A transcript of the director’s statement says Bateman stormed out of a dinner when Leonard told him that the deal would have to go through a public bidding process.

Berrones has a different version of events.

“Mayor Bateman wasn’t trying to push him to sell it to me,” he said. “We know how it works. I know it has to go through a bid process.”

Berrones said that he wanted to buy the property to build affordable housing, but that the land was too expensive.

Berrones also landed a job with a company building a charter school — not the shotgun property one — after Bateman crusaded for local vendors to have an edge on the project.

The local companies that benefited from the local vendor preference often were, or became, contributors to Bateman’s election campaign.

Berrones, a well-known builder in the area, told the Herald that he was hired directly through the company building the school and that the mayor had nothing to do with it.

•  Bateman’s wife, Donna: Donna Bateman worked for a real estate firm handling the sale of several city-owned properties to Ernesto Perez’s Dade Medical College. The deal called for a sale of CRA-owned land at a fraction of its appraised value — about 40 cents on the dollar. Perez and his associates, in turn, donated $7,500 to Bateman’s election war chest. Donna Bateman did not respond to a phone call for comment.
•  Janet Legrand, and Shiver again: The top two bidders for the planned new downtown city hall — a $25 million project to replace the old, radon-contaminated city hall on U.S. 1 — include Bateman’s neighbor, Janet Legrand, and a company with links to Steve Shiver, Munilla Construction. Shiver’s company came in No. 2, but he has filed a formal complaint trying to knock Legrand out of the picture.

Bateman’s arrest seems to be a stark departure from the culture of “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” that has prevailed in Homestead.

In the end, it was the mayor’s own colleagues who worked to bring him down. At the news conference following Bateman’s arrest, Gretsas announced that two council members had, for years, been feeding investigators with information about the mayor’s alleged misdeeds.

“The council decided they wanted to take their government back,” Gretsas said.

The people of Homestead will ultimately decide. On Friday, Bateman filed papers to run for reelection in November, arrest or no arrest.

Said Vice Mayor Jon Burgess: “Politics does strange things to people.”

Follow @ben_brasch and @Cveiga on Twitter.

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