Miami-Dade County

How a dispute over stationery turned this mayor's tenure into 'a Greek tragedy'

North Bay Village City Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps reacts during a commission meeting on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
North Bay Village City Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps reacts during a commission meeting on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. pportal@miamiherald.com

It all began with a dispute over some ugly notecards. At least, that's how former North Bay Village city manager Frank Rollason remembers his first clash with Connie Leon-Kreps, the village's controversial two-term mayor. That argument would lead to his resignation, several high-profile firings, an investigation into blackmail, and ultimately the consolidation of power in North Bay Village by Leon-Kreps and her allies in city hall.

The three islands strung together by the 79th Street Causeway historically formed a nexus between Miami's elite and its seedy underbelly. In its pool halls and nightclubs, celebrities like Dean Martin and Jilly Rizzo rubbed shoulders with the local gangsters who drank, gambled and occasionally slung bullets into the night. North Bay Village's government has never been far removed from the chaos, corruption and intrigue. But in recent years the glamour has given way to the petty.

The way Rollason tells it, in 2015, Leon-Kreps asked him for blank cards embossed with the city seal so she could write notes to constituents. They were misprinted. Her name was spelled wrong. And when Rollason noticed the mistake, he gave her generic cards instead.

“She goes into a tirade,” Rollason recalled, saying the mayor stormed off down the hall after seeing the cards. That's when she first started building her case to fire him, he believes. That’s just how she was, Rollason said: vindictive. He said his staff feared her.

But her allies say Leon-Kreps is a strong woman who always has the city’s best interests at heart, even if her execution can be a bit harsh.

Leon-Kreps remembers the ugly cards too. She says it was just a frustration stemming from the real issue: Rollason wasn't living up to the expectations of the job. “He wasn’t attending to the details of the village,” she said, citing dilapidated parks and rundown public buildings as proof of his neglect. She had recommended him for the position in 2013 with high hopes instilled by his numerous enthusiastic references. He didn't deliver, she said, and by 2015, she wanted him out. But he wouldn't resign.

Rollason said he did every job the mayor ever asked and more, including balancing a budget headed for the red. Forty years of government work and a long résumé of accomplishments, most recently under Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, gave Rollason loyal allies not just in the city but across the county.

At the time, some on the commission warned the mayor away from the manager. Sometimes, she said, it got nasty.

“You know, here’s a woman telling him what to do. And that can bring some resentment,” said Leon-Kreps.

The dispute ballooned into a years-long battle royal between pro-mayor and pro-manager camps. Casualties in North Bay Village city hall were extensive.

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Former North Bay Village city manager Frank Rollason pores over files of emails, ethics complaints and reports he collected about Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps. Sarah Blaskey Miami Herald

In the past year, the police chief, city attorney, and several other key government figures were fired. Rollason and two of his staff quit. A litany of ethics complaints trickled in as commissioners and employees accused each other of bad behavior. One commissioner claimed he was being blackmailed, sparking a criminal investigation for which even the mayor has been called in for questioning.

Dysfunction has reached such a critical level that next month Miami Beach will consider a proposal to annex the mostly residential city of 8,300 residents — a lengthy process that would require approval by the North Bay Village Commission. Empty and gutted waterfront buildings are the physical manifestation of stagnation in North Bay Village. For years, name-calling at Village Commission meetings often took precedence over discussing important infrastructure issues like an aging sewer and stormwater system.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy. This one thing. That’s her legacy now,” said former commissioner Douglas Hornsby, speaking of Leon-Kreps. They were friends, he says, until someone anonymously tried to blackmail him for taking Rollason’s side in the dispute.

By charter, the mayor and city manager share the job of running North Bay Village. But Leon-Kreps likes the idea of a strong mayor — one that does the job of both mayor and manager. She might even put it on the next agenda as a proposed charter amendment, she said. People who work with Leon-Kreps say she’s always tried to play the strong mayor role despite the charter restrictions. That is, until Rollason took over the job of manager in 2013 and tried to run the city his own way.

“He is a little old-school. He doesn’t do well with somebody questioning his authority. Especially a woman,” said Commissioner Laura Cattabriga, a longtime friend and neighbor of Leon-Kreps. She said the mayor and manager constantly butted heads, each believing he or she knew how to run the city best. Leon-Kreps "occasionally doesn’t pick her battles well,” Cattabriga said.

By day, 64-year-old Leon-Kreps is a nurse and case manager for workers compensation claims. She said she never had political aspirations. But she does have a guiding principle: "You either complain or do something about it." That's the reason she ran for commissioner in 2011 and then accepted the role as mayor after her predecessor was forced to resign rather than face prosecution on financial misconduct charges.

As mayor, she said she simply wanted to make change and bring some integrity to government in the scandal-ridden city. By 2015, the way she saw it, Rollason and what she called his “old boys club” of supporters stood in the way of progress (even though she is a city official of longer standing than Rollason). She didn't have the votes at the time, but she continued to look for support for removing Rollason.

In December 2016, Leon-Kreps suggested that her longtime friend Douglas Hornsby take over an empty commission seat. Hornsby’s wife, Sissy Shute, was part of Leon-Kreps’ inner circle of women influencers and she had campaigned hard for the mayor’s reelection.

Hornsby said the mayor placed one condition on his appointment.

“She asked me to fire the city manager as part of my qualification for the office,” Hornsby said. He refused, saying he would assess Rollason's performance first and then decide. By March, he said, he had seen evidence of Rollason's diligent work on major infrastructure projects including the sewer system and refused to fire him. Soon, Shute said she began to pester her husband to resign and leave the position to someone who would get rid of Rollason, who she believed opposed putting women in power. She later regretted it.

In spring of 2017, Hornsby pulled a letter from his mailbox. It was a record of his arrest and subsequent conviction for selling cocaine in 1989 in Tennessee and a question about his voter eligibility as a convicted felon. There wasn’t a written quid pro quo but Hornsby said he got the message: “Resign or change your vote" on Rollason, he said, or the information would be made public.

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Douglas Hornsby

Hornsby decided to get out in front of the potential embarrassment. On May 9, 2017, he disclosed his criminal history to the commission, saying he and his wife were being blackmailed. He also told the commission their lives had been threatened but didn't elaborate. He said he had paid for his crime and had a note from the court in Tennessee that his voting rights had been restored and asked to maintain his position on the commission. So, under the advice of then city attorney, Robert Switkes, the commission voted to allow Hornsby to continue to serve on the commission.

Records from a circuit court in Memphis show a slightly different story. Hornsby didn’t petition for the reinstatement of full citizenship rights until after he received the alleged blackmail. His right to vote was reinstated but not until July 11, 2017, in Florida, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department — eight months after he took a seat on the commission and two months after he told the commission he was eligible to serve on the commission. He had been registered to vote in Florida since 1998.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began to investigate the alleged blackmail. The State Attorney’s Office contacted Leon-Kreps for an interview about the letter, but on the advice of her lawyer, she refused to participate. Leon-Kreps denies any involvement with the letter or that she put any conditions on Hornsby's appointment.

For several months, nothing else happened. Then a group of residents including Cattabriga, who wasn't on the commission at the time, filed a lawsuit to push the city to review Hornsby’s eligibility to hold office. Switkes, Cattabriga complained, didn't take action on his own. “He just kept trying to sweep it under the rug,” said Cattabriga.

At a commission meeting on Nov. 14, 2017, Leon-Kreps unexpectedly moved to replace Switkes as city attorney with her own choice, Norman Powell. She said she had lost confidence in Switkes after his bad advice regarding Hornsby's eligibility to serve.

“So I actually saw the removal of Switkes as a really important move. In my perspective they were all protecting each other,” said Cattabriga. “Once you removed the attorney you stripped out a lot of the support" for Hornsby, Rollason, and the so-called old guard. Switkes thought his removal had to do with his role in the blackmail case.

“Your motion is clearly retaliatory for my having reported the criminal behavior to the FDLE and the FBI,” Switkes told the commission at the time.

Watching the commission act, Rollason said he realized the votes to remove Switkes had been lined up before the meeting. He thought he would be next. In January, he resigned. In an email to the commission he wrote that it was impossible to do his job without the support of the mayor and commission. “I truly feel if I would have stayed with all of the shenanigans going on now, I would have been fired,” said Rollason.

Then, on Powell’s advice, the commission removed Hornsby in late January. Cattabriga was appointed to fill the role.

Rollason said he begged the police chief, Carlos Noriega, to follow him out the door and save his career from the swift changes happening in city government. Rollason had endorsed Noriega to become police chief in 2016. He said Noriega refused, saying he was in the middle of the blackmail investigation and wanted to see it through. Besides, his lawyer had told him he had whistleblower protections as the mayor was a subject of his investigation.

On March 26, Marlen Martell was appointed as the new city manager. She had no prior experience running a city, but she had been a commissioner in North Miami Beach, had a degree in public administration and was eager to take the job. Six days after her appointment, she fired Noriega, saying the former chief just wasn’t a good fit for the team.

Then she fired Sam Bejar, the city’s internal affairs investigator who had several open cases against Leon-Kreps and Powell.

“They started picking off people like dominoes," said Bejar, who believes he and Noriega were fired for their investigations into the mayor and city attorney. “We were getting too close to the dais and you can’t do that in a coup d'etat."

If this seems like an overreaction to greeting cards or even entrenched misogyny, some in the pro-manager camp see another explanation. “I think a lot of this can be traced to Ana Watson,” said Commissioner Eddie Lim.

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North Bay Village Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps (center) during 2014 campaign. She is joined at her kitchen table by state Rep. David Richardson (fourth from left) and North Bay Village mover and shaker Ana Watson (third left), who has since been charged with felony fraud. COURTESY

Early in his tenure, Rollason said he found a private citizen sifting through property records and making copies in the building department, unsupervised. The information was public, but neither the woman nor city staff were following protocols in place to ensure the integrity of the records.

“I told her she couldn’t do that anymore,” Rollason said. He remembers instructing the woman to go through proper channels to request access to documents, which she could review while supervised, and pay for copies just like everyone else. It turned out that the woman was Ana Watson, well known around the city as a self-described fixer for property maintenance and real estate matters. Over the years, Watson served on several city committees and was active in Leon-Kreps’ campaigns.

Several city employees said that until Rollason put a stop to it, Watson had free rein in the building department to browse and copy any documents she wanted.

“The village manager found out about this,” said Bejar. “That’s how this all started.”

Leon-Kreps said the firings had nothing to do with her or her friend: "I do not have anything to do with the hiring and firing of our village's police officers or employees and that also has nothing to do with Ms. Watson."

Unrelated to her city board duties, in January Watson was charged with four counts of felony fraud and theft. She was accused of writing checks for maintenance work from her condo association, where she was treasurer, then depositing that money into accounts she used to pay personal bills. Watson's trial is scheduled for June.

In February, the commission appointed Watson to the charter review committee, despite the criminal charges against her.

The North Bay Village police investigator, Tom Columbano, who provided evidence that led to Watson’s January arrest, was also fired by the new city manager. “This case is radioactive,” said Columbano. “Three people have lost this job within the department over this case.”

As the dust begins to settle, the pro-mayor camp seems to have emerged victorious, having formed a bloc within the North Bay Village government. Members of the city's senior staff were replaced with handpicks, and changes over time on the commission leave the mayor's agenda with a majority of votes.

Members of the new guard, led by Leon-Kreps, all acknowledge that the past few years have been tumultuous for the city, but they see it as growing pains. As Powell put it: “Sometimes that’s necessary.” In their eyes, with the change of guard over, the drive to professionalize is well on its way to success. They're ready to move on.

“We have a new commission now. It’s more cohesive,” said Leon-Kreps. At its last meeting, the commission fulfilled one of her priorities: It voted to buy a building and turn it into city hall, a project the mayor had been pushing for years.

She hopes to bring new development to the island city before her term is up in November and achieve the legacy of change that she always wanted. “I’ve heard that developers like to come into a community or a city where the commission is stable."

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