A beautiful day on Sunny Isles Beach
Three political newcomers are facing off for a City Commission seat in Sunny Isles Beach, a 1.5-mile strip of land almost at the northern tip of Miami-Dade County known for its sizable Russian community and high-priced real estate.
The city of 22,000 has transformed over the past two decades as rows of seedy motels along Collins Avenue have been replaced by luxury condominiums, attracting droves of foreign investors. Like many South Florida cities, the renewal has brought growing pains: traffic, ongoing construction, and debates over rapid development.
The city’s transformation has also created some unique challenges. The local public school is so popular that officials have to fend off incursions from families outside the school district who lie about their address in order to enroll their children. As a city built on a barrier island, Sunny Isles Beach also faces environmental concerns like flooding and beach erosion.
The three candidates competing for Seat 2 on the nonpartisan City Commission — which represents the central section of the city between 172nd and 178th streets — agree that traffic congestion on Collins Avenue and school enrollment need to be addressed. They differ somewhat in their assessment of the city’s other priorities, however, and in the experience they would bring to the job.
David Grossman, 39, a lease broker at Evolution Leasing who grew up in New York and moved to Sunny Isles Beach in 2009, said his focus would be to make the city government more efficient and transparent. He accused the commission of “very poor planning and execution” on recent projects, including the installation of showers on the beach and construction on 174th Street.
“The biggest issues are absentee politicians that have abdicated their responsibilities to the Sunny Isles bureaucracy,” Grossman said. “The common theme for most of Sunny Isles’ problems is that no one is watching the shop.”
Like his competitors, Grossman has never held public office, but he said he has been involved in local issues, including protesting city signs prohibiting guns in certain areas. Grossman described himself as a libertarian and a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. The candidate said he’s also involved in a local Jewish group called Young Israel of Sunny Isles Beach.
If elected, Grossman said he’d also address homelessness by coordinating with the county to provide more mental health resources for the city’s homeless population and by pushing for tougher enforcement of no-camping rules. Grossman said he’d also look into the requirements for obtaining a city ID card, which residents can use to access local services. He said the current requirements make it hard for residents who don’t own property to prove that they live in Sunny Isles Beach.
Grossman has previously run into trouble with Florida regulators. In 2014, he was among a group of South Florida residents and companies accused of running a scheme to fool investors into thinking that they could buy stock in a popular video game company. Grossman reached a Consent Agreement with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation in 2015 and was fined $32,000. The candidate had previously filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
Felix Kizhner, 50, is also a Sunny Isles Beach transplant. Kizhner was born in the Soviet Union, but immigrated to New Jersey with his family as a child. He bought a condo in Sunny Isles Beach in 2000 after falling in love with the city while visiting from New York. Kizhner is now semi-retired, but previously worked for pharmaceutical companies. He currently owns an entertainment company and DJs at local events. He also works as a life coach.
Kizhner, a Democrat, said he became interested in local politics after creating a video blog several years ago. He began posting about issues in Sunny Isles Beach on his blog and started attending commission meetings. If elected, Kizhner said he would advocate for “sensible development” and push for pedestrian safety measures.
“Sunny Isles Beach is changing very rapidly,” he said. “I’d like to continue for Sunny Isles Beach to be a walk-around community so we don’t turn into a concrete jungle.”
Pedestrian safety has recently come to the forefront in Sunny Isles Beach. Over the summer, a car veered onto the sidewalk along Collins Avenue and crashed into a bus stop where a family was waiting, killing a 34-year-old father of two and injuring his wife and daughters.
“The biggest issue right now I would say is pedestrian safety,” Kizhner said, adding that the problem needs to be addressed “much more aggressively.”
Kizhner’s priorities also include tighter controls over local government spending to keep projects from going over budget. Kizhner said he would look into lowering the property tax rate once new developments, which will generate additional revenue, are completed. The city’s property tax rate is currently among the lowest in the county.
The third candidate, Alex Lama, has lived in Sunny Isles Beach since 1988. He works in advertising and has served on the city’s resident advisory committee since April. Lama, a Republican, also volunteers with the Parent Teacher Student Association at Sunny Isles Beach K-8 Center.
“The city, this is a great place to live and I’m getting involved so that way we can lead it into the future so it continues to be a great city or even a better city,” he said.
Like Kizhner, Lama said he would advocate for “reasonable” development and pedestrian safety measures.
“I think development helped the city out, we have a great city, but obviously we need to have reasonable development and see what the impact will be long-term,” he said.
In order to address pedestrian safety concerns along Collins Avenue, Lama said he would bring together a team of experts to study the issue. He also plans to work with other government agencies and environmental groups to find long-term solutions to beach erosion and flooding.
So far, Lama has raised more money than his opponents — $17,650 as of Sept. 6 including a $5,000 loan to himself, compared to Kizhner’s $9,825, most of which he loaned to himself, and Grossman’s $400, of which $300 came from the candidate. Many of the donors to Lama’s campaign are developers.
Seat 2 is the only open seat on the five-member City Commission. Mayor George “Bud” Scholl was automatically re-elected after no one filed to run against him and newcomer Jeniffer Viscarra ran unopposed for Seat 4, which represents the South-Central section of the city. The commissioners who previously occupied seats 2 and 4 were ineligible for re-election because of term limits.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that David Grossman paid a fine after reaching a consent agreement with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation in 2015. Grossman was fined $32,000, according to state records, but has not paid the fine.