Miami-Dade County

The messy political drama behind a Miami-Dade street that could be cleaner

Miami Dade County Commissioner District 10 candidate Jose Garrido poses for a photograph on July 27, 2018,  by the stretch of Coral Way where he had volunteered to clean up trash as part of the county’s “Adopt-a-Road” program.  Miami-Dade hasn’t approved the application by a chamber of commerce that Garrido led until recently.
Miami Dade County Commissioner District 10 candidate Jose Garrido poses for a photograph on July 27, 2018, by the stretch of Coral Way where he had volunteered to clean up trash as part of the county’s “Adopt-a-Road” program. Miami-Dade hasn’t approved the application by a chamber of commerce that Garrido led until recently.

Jose Garrido started running for Javier Souto’s County Commission seat in August 2017. That’s roughly when it started getting hard for the Westchester Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce to adopt a road and pick up litter for free.

Garrido was president of the small business group then and had signed up the nonprofit for the county’s Adopt-a-Road program, which pairs volunteers with Miami-Dade streets that need cleaning.

The Parks Department had already accepted Westchester’s application. A manager summoned Garrido to an Aug. 23 orientation session to give the chamber its trash bags, vests and gloves, and demonstrate how to assemble the required “Men at Work” sign.

“I just wanted to let you know that I ordered two Adopt-a-Road signs for Coral Way between SW 82nd Avenue and 97th Avenue,” Jennifer Korth Llorente, special projects administrator for Neat Streets, wrote Garrido on Aug. 28, 2017. “I will send over your contract as soon as I get it back from the County Attorney’s office. For some reason, it is taking longer than usual.”

That day, Llorente was copied on an email from her boss, Gabriela Lopez, to a top aide for Souto, who used to serve in the state Senate.

“Hey Aldo,” Lopez wrote to Aldo Gonzalez, Souto’s senior staffer. “Wanted to let you know that the Westchester Chamber of Commerce is adopting a road in Senator Souto’s district: Coral Way between SW 82 Avenue and 97 Avenue. We’re looking forward to this partnership that will help keep our roads maintained.”

Gonzalez wrote back: “Please call me at my cell phone ...”

Lopez and Gonzalez both say the conversation that followed was a briefing on the “Adopt-a-Road” program and had nothing to do with Garrido or blocking the application, which a year later still hasn’t been approved. Since then, two other partners have joined the “Adopt-a-Road” program and held cleanup days.

Fifteen orphaned blocks on Coral Way may seem an unlikely place for political drama. But with five commissioners facing reelection on Aug. 28, no contest brings such an intimate grudge fest as the one between Souto and Garrido.

In 2013, the six-term commissioner hired Garrido to work on his commission staff. In 2016, Souto forced him out after raising questions about a side venture his aide was running involving a Cuban-themed musical that had a so-so run at a county auditorium.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier D. Souto holds up the county charter as he makes a point at a 2016 commission meeting. He’s running for reelection in 2018. CARL JUSTE

Souto said Garrido hadn’t followed county rules by properly disclosing the outside venture, “Sueños, An Exile Journey,” a musical about Cuban immigrants set in the 1960s that Garrido wrote and helped produce at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in May 2016. Souto also questioned why one of his commission staffers hadn’t told him he would be holding a for-profit production in a county facility.

“I told our lawyers,” Souto said. “If you’re going to have outside employment, you have to follow the rules.”

Garrido said he was told his job was being eliminated through “downsizing.”

A year later, Garrido was running for Souto’s seat while trying to make the chamber more prominent in District 10. Souto, who chairs the commission’s Parks and Cultural Affairs committee, denied having any objection to the Westchester Chamber adopting a road in his district. “I don’t know that issue, or anything else with the adoptions,” Souto said. “I have no idea.”

Gonzalez, his top aide who is also helping with the Souto campaign, said he didn’t tell the parks department to stall the group’s application when he received the Aug. 28 call from Lopez, the Neat Streets manager.

“I did not raise any concerns and the conversation was just to get information,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to the Miami Herald.. “She provided me what they would be responsible for, which was litter clean up ...”

Public records make clear Garrido was of interest in Souto’s office in the weeks after the former aide filed his candidacy papers on Aug. 1, 2017.

Souto and aides exchanged emails about the Westchester Chamber’s upcoming events. “FYI,” the commissioner wrote Gonzalez when forwarding a mass invitation by Garrido promoting an upcoming music festival by the group. “Radio” an aide wrote Souto when forwarding an email about Westchester and chambers from Sweetwater and Medley buying air time for a show on La Poderosa 670 AM.

By the end of August, Souto was also monitoring Garrido when his former aide visited County Hall in downtown Miami. The month before, the county’s Ethics Commission received an anonymous tip that Garrido was violating Miami-Dade’s two-year lobbying ban for former employees. Garrido works as a consultant on construction projects, and helps obtain county permits and approvals for clients.

garrido pic souto.JPG
A cropped photo that Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto provided county ethics investigators of his former aide and current challenger in the District 10 race. The photo was taken on Aug. 30, 2017, according to an ethics report. Souto accused Garrido of violating the county’s two-year ban on lobbying. Ethics investigators said they found no evidence of misconduct.

Weeks after the ethics agency received the tip in an unmarked envelope, investigators said they “became aware” that Souto might have incriminating information on Garrido. That turned out to be cellphone photos Souto took of Garrido making a phone call in the public lobby of County Hall in downtown Miami on Aug. 30 — a few days after the parks department had notified Souto’s office about the Westchester Chamber’s Adopt-a-Road application.

A column fills the left side of the frame, suggesting the photographer was slightly obscured by it when snapping the shot of Garrido. “The commissioner believed that Garrido was on his way to the 9th Floor zoning office at County Hall, and may have been lobbying on behalf of clients in that office,” investigators wrote.

Souto provided two photos, plus another tip: the name of a building manager who could produce video surveillance from the zoning office proving Garrido was there.

Ethics ultimately cleared Garrido, saying his communications with zoning staffers and other county employees were exempt from the lobbying ban since they only involved submitting “routine administrative requests or applications” to Miami-Dade.

The June 2018 report also cleared Garrido of another accusation in the anonymous complaint: that he engaged in outside employment by putting on the “Suenos” musical in 2016. Investigators found the musical ended up paying the auditorium $159.16 because ticket sales fell short of the target, and that Garrido’s name wasn’t on any of the rental contracts.

Garrido is still waiting for the results from an investigation of the Westchester Chamber by the county inspector general’s office. He said county investigators knocked on his door unannounced in December and asked questions about the Westchester Chamber’s 2015 sponsorship of an annual cattle show that Souto helps organize each year at Tropical Park.

Felix Jimenez, the county’s deputy inspector general, said the investigation has finished and he’s waiting for approval by the county state attorney’s office to release the findings. With just three weeks until the Aug. 28 primary, Garrido sees questions raised about his activities as a volunteer chamber president, song writer and zoning consultant as an effort to create a cloud around his candidacy.

“It was all a witch hunt,” Garrido said.

The Westchester Chamber provided a platform for Garrido to raise his profile for a commission run, and he remains involved with the group. Garrido said he stepped down as president earlier this year, but he was the person who responded to a reporter’s inquiry to the chamber’s website seeking an interview with the new head of the group, Maria Martinez.

The parks department says the Westchester Chamber is still in the pipeline for approval of its 2017 application to join the Adopt-a-Road program. Last fall, Garrido was receiving apologetic emails from Llorente, the Neat Streets administrator. “We have everything we need,” Llorente wrote Garrido on Nov. 16. “We are just waiting for the contract to be executed. Thank you for your patience and follow-up.”

At the time, according to the parks department, Westchester was caught up in a dispute over the high price of “Adopt-a-Road” signs. Internal Services, the county’s purchasing arm, wanted about $2,000 to create and install each sign. That September estimate, according to Parks, is what’s behind Westchester’s year-long wait to pick up litter for free.

“The Adopt-a-Road program was put on hold on or about the week of September 6, 2017, after receiving a cost estimate for signs that came back extremely high,” Lopez, the Neat Streets manager, wrote in a recent email to the Miami Herald. “The following week, Hurricane Irma hit, which caused the Department and all of its programs and services to be suspended until the County got back to normal.”

She said the county currently has seven Adopt-a-Road applications from groups waiting to be approved. Of those, only the Westchester Chamber has completed the training session and received cleanup supplies from the county.

Adopt-a-Road also added two partners since Garrido attended the required training seminar for cleanup duties. One, a blog called Beneath the Sol, joined in January. Lopez said that was “a one-time oversight.” The other, a pre-med student group at Florida International University, joined the same day Lopez gave Souto’s office a heads-up on Westchester’s pending adoption of Coral Way.

Our members keeping the streets clean even on vacay #seCUREyourfuture

A post shared by CURE (@cure_fiu) on

FIU Cure’s Instagram feed includes photos of a March cleanup, with about a dozen young volunteers in yellow fluorescent vests picking up trash along Flagler Street near campus. The volunteer effort unfolded despite the restrained sign budget that the parks department said had suspended the program last fall.

“They have not had a sign installed,” Lopez wrote.