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South Miami: a city where weird things are always happening

Commissioner Valerie Newman attacks Mayor Philip Stoddard as South Miami commissioners terminated City Manager Hector Mirabile Friday.
Commissioner Valerie Newman attacks Mayor Philip Stoddard as South Miami commissioners terminated City Manager Hector Mirabile Friday.

In South Miami, the leafy, pleasant suburb off U.S. 1 just south of the University of Miami campus, the tenor of political discourse tends to toggle between the mundane and the absurd.

Lately it has been more of the latter.

At a meeting last month, Mayor Philip Stoddard and a commission ally were talking about ousting the city’s police chief, something they can’t do because only the city manager has that power (and they had just fired him four days earlier).

Commissioner Valerie Newman, a foe of the mayor, didn’t like what she was hearing and began to object vehemently.

Mayor Stoddard, a bespectacled biology professor at Florida International University, banged his gavel like an impatient Judge Wapner. Newman interpreted that as a cue to proceed.

“These are scoundrels sitting up here who are afraid of being arrested for nudity in front of two minors,” Newman blurted out of the blue. “[And] another one for housing a wanted criminal in his back yard.”

Unusual. And yet so very South Miami, where the politics are raw and deeply personal.

The stakes may be small, but the personalities, peccadilloes and grudges are jumbo size.

“This is unlike any thing I have ever seen,” said longtime political activist Richard Ward, who, as a former middle school assistant principal, has presumably witnessed some unruly behavior. “There has always been back-stabbing, but this — this is just South Miami getting worse.”

This is the city where a previous mayor, running for a new term, was arrested outside of City Hall on election eve for allegedly accepting an illegal contribution. He lost the election (but won acquittal).

A weekly newspaper publisher once ran for mayor even though it was an open secret that his condo was outside the city. The publisher explained that he slept on a cot at his newspaper plant, which is in the city, making him a resident and thereby qualified to run and serve. An architect who supported the other guy would crank-call the publisher at odd hours of the night to see if he lived where he said he did. And if he answered the phone? The architect would say “just checking” and hang up.

It’s where a city supervisor — the human resources manager, no less — hired her brother-in-law as parks and recreation director, despite his lying about having a master’s degree. The manager resigned in lieu of being fired.

The problem with running for office in South Miami is that you might actually win. And then you will be bombarded with personal attacks. Even before his election, during the 2010 campaign, opponents claimed Stoddard was a convicted drug dealer, which he wasn’t. Someone with a similar name –– Phillip Dale Stoddard –– had the rap sheet. And yet, Stoddard won.

During the last election in February, opponents distributed flyers accusing Stoddard of polluting city water by building a pool-sized fish pond in his backyard without a permit. Stoddard said the city didn’t require a permit, but he has since gotten one.

Stoddard’s academic studies focus on how animals’ dishonesty affects communication systems. One study examined the behavior of electric fish, including their sexual behavior.

Newman latched onto that tidbit, labeling the mayor “a pervert” during a public meeting.

The mayor’s chief ally on the commission is Bob Welsh, known as Bicycle Bob because he spent years pedaling around town on a girls’ blue coaster bike handing out political flyers and railing against “big money interests.” During the Mariel boatlift, he met newly arrived refugees and handed them Spanish-language joke books that he had written. Bicycle Bob was elected this past February, beating Armando Oliveros, a former commissioner whose time on the dais was interrupted by a prison sentence for money laundering.

When the spirit moves him, Bob breaks out into song or recites poems during public meetings. A week ago Tuesday, he burst forth with Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry, to lament a report on WSVN-Fox 7 titled “The Naked Truth.” It was aired after Newman’s public outburst over “nudity” and “scoundrels” on the commission.

Newman was referring to an odd episode 20 months earlier at Mayor Stoddard’s three-bedroom home. The mayor’s parents were visiting and were sleeping in his daughter’s bedroom. Displaced from her own room, his teenage daughter chose to sleep that night on a futon in the bedroom of her parents –– Stoddard and his wife, Gray Read.

An exchange student also was staying in the home, in a different bedroom, Stoddard said. It was about 6 a.m. and Stoddard’s parents had left to drive Read to the airport. Someone broke into the house. The exchange student walked out of her room and found the burglar in the kitchen. She screamed, ran to the bathroom and locked herself inside. Stoddard bolted out of his bedroom as the burglar fled. The mayor was naked. When a police officer arrived, the cop saw him putting on his pants.

The initial report of the crime made no mention of nudity. But in early July, days after Stoddard roiled the waters at a commission meeting by raising red flags about supposed bid collusion on a sidewalk project, police officers supplemented the report to note that the mayor likes to sleep in the buff.

Relations between the mayor and the manager and chief began to deteriorate after Stoddard criticized their friendship with a former Latin Builders Association president, Camilo Padreda, who is a convicted felon and former FBI informant. The mayor questioned the (competitively bid) award of a city carpet contract to Padreda’s daughter.

The feud intensified in late June when a friend of the mayor, a UM professor, was jailed on a charge of disorderly conduct. The professor says he wagged his finger at a South Miami officer for making an illegal left turn. The officer, who was responding to a 911 call, says the prof used his middle finger.

The charge was reduced to resisting arrest without violence and the educator participated in a pre-trial program.

The broadside about “housing a wanted criminal in his back yard” was a blast at Bicycle Bob, who had been letting a homeless friend stay in a makeshift shelter as he worked on one of Welsh’s properties. The worker was an undocumented Canadian with a drug charge on his rap sheet who did work for neighbors sometimes in exchange for beer. Cops detained him, questioned him and turned him over to immigration in early July.

Tensions have spilled beyond the city’s borders all the way to Tallahassee. Three days after the manager was axed, former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms wrote a scathing four-page letter to Stoddard, calling his behavior “creepy, crude and bizarre” and demanding he apologize and resign. The diatribe was forwarded to FIU and the office of Gov. Rick Scott.

No apology or resignation has been forthcoming.

Vice Mayor Joshua Liebman, a political rookie who ran on a platform to “restore trust and civility at City Hall,” was asked this week how that effort is going.

“The definition of insanity,” Liebman said, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That is what is happening here. Something has to change.”