Miami-Dade County

Biscayne Park candidates: Civil rights violations by village police are behind us

A racial scandal in the Biscayne Park Police Department changed the town’s priorities and reputation.
A racial scandal in the Biscayne Park Police Department changed the town’s priorities and reputation.

One is a standup comic who now consults with companies on how to market their business. Another is an exterminator. There’s a financial regulator for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, a roofer and a real estate company controller.

What they all have in common: Each wants to become a commissioner in suburban Biscayne Park, a small and leafy bedroom community with no commercial property, nestled between Miami Shores and North Miami. It’s a village that before this summer was probably best known for an iconic log cabin where villagers gather.

Before this summer, the village’s biggest hurdles: A small annexation attempt that was thwarted by Miami-Dade County and getting the Florida Department of Transportation to sign off on crosswalks along the village’s busiest roadway, Northeast Sixth Avenue.

Those quaint issues were unseated in June, however, when a federal investigation into a series of questionable arrests dating back to 2013 became public. The investigation found that three innocent men were framed as suspects so village police command staff could brag of a perfect arrest record for a series of home burglaries that were plaguing Biscayne Park.

By the middle of September, three officers who had been cooperating with federal investigators and former police Chief Ray Atesiano all pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to violate the men’s civil rights. Atesiano is facing as much as a decade in prison.

The three men who were wrongly arrested are all black.

Until Atesiano’s plea deal was reached, village leaders were tight-lipped. Two weeks ago, Biscayne Park Mayor Tracy Truppman issued a four-paragraph statement praising the former village manager for dealing with the issue swiftly.

“The actions of these officers betrayed the public trust and their oath to serve and protect our residents and all those who visit our village,” Truppman wrote. “Their unlawful acts do not represent the values of our community, staff, police officers or administration.”

The topic remains on the minds of some of the candidates, though most say it’s a disturbing issue from the past that has been dealt with. The village has a new police chief and there has been almost a complete turnover in the department.

“There’s a cloud over the village and I understand we’re under the microscope of the NAACP,” said Laura “Betsy” Wise, a 50-year-old divorced mother of twin boys who’s running in her first election. “Frankly, we’re embarrassed by it.”

Laura “Betsy” Weiss

Wise, born in Coral Gables and a graduate of Ransom Everglades, was a South Beach bartender before going to law school at the University of Miami. She practiced for a year, didn’t like it, moved to Los Angeles and found work as a standup comic, a job so trying at times she said she was forced to live out of her car.

“I was in the proverbial catbird seat,” she said. “But I have to tell you, I did not enjoy commercial litigation.”

Shortly after 9/11, Wise moved to New York. She was back in South Florida by 2013 and started her own company as a branding consultant and verbal strategist. A Democrat, she said she had no plan to run for a commission seat until this past summer when she was moved while watching the funeral of U.S. Sen. John McCain. Now she vows to reach across the aisle and try to get the village to accomplish goals in unison. She said she wants to explore the possibility of bringing commercial properties to the village to increase its tax base.

“It has become very clear to me that there are factions in the village that want to stop it from moving forward,” said Wise. “I want to bring everyone together. Not in a kumbaya kind of way though. I can see getting there is going to take some mettle.”

Biscayne Park is a predominantly white community of about 3,100 residents who live in mostly tree-canopied homes. There is no commercial tax base. The village broke away from the city of Miami in 1931 during the Great Depression. It’s bordered by Miami Shores to the south and North Miami to the north.

Manuel Espinoza, 67 and married, was born in Ecuador and moved to the village six years ago. One of his two sons also lives in Biscayne Park with his family. Espinoza received an associate’s degree in computer science at a junior college in Massachusetts and now works as the controller for a Broward County property management company.

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Manuel Espinoza

A political novice, Espinoza says he has faith in the current leadership of the village police department. He said, if elected, his main goal will be to increase the village’s reserve fund, which was depleted by paying bills after Hurricane Irma came through a year ago. He said property values have increased enough to put some of the money into reserve.

But he also says he’d focus on making sure that village residents working from home pay their fair share of taxes, another possible source of revenue for the village.

“We’re also not maximizing value on payments from code enforcement violations,” said Espinoza. “I will prepare some good budgets and maximize revenues.”

Jared Susi, 32, was born and raised in North Miami Beach. He moved to Biscayne Park with his wife in 2012. They have a 2-year-old son. Susi attended college in Colorado and at Florida International University before joining his family’s construction business full-time.

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Jared Susi

Susi says with the village lacking a commercial tax base, it needs to be efficient in its day-to-day operations, perhaps even outsourcing services like the city did with waste pickup. His main concern is bulking up the village reserves, which were depleted after last year’s hurricane.

“We have a good foundation,” said Susi. “As long as we can stay financially responsible and build up reserves we should be fine.”

Susi says he wants to preserve the village for the children and his son, who he hopes one day will move into the home he bought with his wife.

“I just want to make sure we’re steering the boat in the right direction.”

As for the village police department, “I like to look at the future,” he said. “That was in the past. We have to instill good values [in officers] and give them the correct training.”

Daniel Samaria, 64, is hoping the third time is a charm. Twice before he’s run for a village commission seat, losing both bids. He’s a U.S Marine Corps veteran who spent six years on the village’s Recreational Advisory Board before leaving it to run for office in 2016. Samaria hitchhiked to Miami from New York in the late 1970s and has been here since.

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Daniel Samaria

Single and with no children, Samaria spent most of the 1990s as an exterminator, beginning his own pest control company in 2001. He said one of his main goals is to get residents involved in village business.

Samaria is concerned with the village’s small residential tax base and believes Biscayne Park should buy foreclosed homes and rent or sell them to law firms or children’s daycare centers to create a large tax base.

“I care about the village a lot,” he said. “I live here. I like the small community.”

He applauded new village police Chief Luis Cabrera for bolstering the force by hiring more than a dozen reserves to help policing. He said he’s not particularly concerned about the past actions of the department. That’s in the past, Samaria said.

“That’s old news. I think we’re moving forward.”

William V. Tudor is the only candidate with experience among the bunch. The U.S. Securities & Exchange examiner was first elected as a commissioner in Biscayne Park in 2016. He’s 48 and moved to South Florida in 1996 after graduating from the College of Charleston and beginning his career in federal law enforcement. He spent a decade as a U.S. Marshal.

Married and with a stepson, Tudor moved into the village with his wife in 2003. He said he ran for office because he felt commissioners were out of touch with residents. Analytical and soft-spoken, Tudor pushed for the hiring of an outside company to run the village’s finances and the hiring of a full-time public works manager. He also pushed for $250,000 that is now earmarked for road improvements.

William V. Tudor

He considers traffic-calming and the need for a larger tax base to be the village’s main issues. He’s pro-annexation and said he’s willing to look at an area that includes some small commercial businesses along Northeast Sixth Avenue to the south of the village and just west of there.

“It’s not a huge commercial component. But I guess, for us, it would be a start,” he said. “Annexation can be a bad word for people in the Park. But we really have to look at what areas are available,” he said. “

Tudor is also pleased with the way the police department has been revamped the past year. He said the poor decisions made by the department are a thing of the past, though he realizes the village’s reputation may have taken a hit.

“All of a sudden it makes everyone question the integrity of everyone in the Park,” said the former law enforcement officer. “It sheds light on what can happen when you’re not policing the police.”