It all started with a thick stack of cash, a political consultant known to some as the "Prince of Darkness," and a dispute over the future of a historic preservation group that has played an outsize role in shaping Miami Beach's urban landscape.
Following a contested board election in June, the Miami Design Preservation League — a nonprofit that has worked to save Miami Beach's Art Deco buildings and proved adept at blocking development that it feels harms historic neighborhoods — has been thrown into turmoil. Its bank accounts have been frozen, the office locks changed and its executive director suspended as two competing groups vie for control of the organization.
Last week, the dispute landed in court, with one camp asking a judge to intervene through a request for a temporary injunction. On Wednesday, a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge will hear arguments from both sides.
The fight has prompted concern from Miami Beach officials. The city provides more than $20,000 a year in funding to the group and had earmarked $100,000 for Art Deco Weekend, an annual event organized by the preservation league. City Attorney Raul Aguila has asked members of the competing factions not to come to public meetings purporting to speak on behalf of the organization until the conflict is resolved. He cautioned that the battle threatens to jeopardize the city's funding and the group's ability to manage the Art Deco Welcome Center on Ocean Drive.
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"Again, we urge you to resolve this matter quickly and expeditiously, so as not to jeopardize MDPL’s contractual status and/or funding with the City," Aguila told the factions in an e-mail.
The dispute began in April when political consultant Randy Hilliard, who has been called the "Prince of Darkness" because of his work running negative campaigns for local politicians, tried to get a seat on the Miami Design Preservation League's board. When that didn't work — there were no vacant seats because two board members who had planned to step down decided not to — Hilliard recruited new members and collected enough signatures to bypass the nominating committee and put his name and the names of several allies on the ballot.
"They were friends of mine and I called them up and said, 'You know this Miami Design Preservation League is being run terribly and why don't you join me and I'd love to get you on the board,' " Hilliard said.
On the evening of the June 18 election, Hilliard arrived at the Miami Design Preservation League's headquarters with more than 100 new membership applications and proxy ballots — which allowed Hilliard to cast votes on the new members' behalf — along with roughly $5,000 in cash to pay membership fees. Two other board candidates, Russell Lee and Lori Bakkum, submitted 18 new membership applications, which they paid for with checks.
An accounting firm the preservation league had previously hired tallied the election results, including the proxy ballots from new members. The addition of 131 new members in an organization of 250 dramatically altered the election results, winning seats for the candidates Hilliard had put on the ballot.
"It looks like vote buying, which is not kosher," said Daniel Ciraldo, the group's executive director, who was suspended after the election.
Ciraldo and members of the previous board argued that the proxy ballots submitted on the evening of June 18 weren't valid. They raised concerns about the membership fees being paid by third parties. They said that the applications should have been submitted before the proxy forms were signed and that the proxy ballots were submitted after the deadline. They argued that the board members who would have been elected without the proxy ballots formed the legitimate board.
"I've never met nearly all of the people who are now on that board, all the new people. I don't know who they are," Ciraldo said. "It's very scary as the executive director. The word 'hostile takeover' has been mentioned."
Hilliard's role as a political consultant with connections to politicians throughout Miami-Dade County has sparked concerns that he could be working to take control of the organization on behalf of someone else.
"I'm of the opinion that this is a stolen election. You have a long-term group of people that are involved in this organization and all the sudden 150 people show up who are not really members and try to throw the election," said Joel Levine, a board member elected in 2017 who gives Art Deco tours in South Beach. "Certainly this is weakening the organization. It's erased the advocacy department so if I were a developer I would be happy that this happened," he said.
On Monday, Levine reviewed dozens of new applications and tried calling the new members. Most couldn't be reached, he said, and only a few confirmed joining the organization and said they'd paid the membership fee. Several people said they'd never heard of the Miami Design Preservation League, according to Levine. One new member said their boss told them to sign up; when another new member answered the phone, Levine said he heard someone in the background say, "Tell him you do not speak English."
Commissioner Ricky Arriola has also raised concerns about the election controversy. "I think we've all heard and seen there's now a cloud hanging over the organization," he said at a recent finance committee meeting. "To my mind, and from what I’ve seen, it does look like there’s some folks there that hijacked the board, don’t know what their motives are at this time, don’t know why they did it," he added.
Hilliard said he was "absolutely not" working on behalf of anyone else. He acknowledged paying the membership fees for most of the new members, who he said were people he knew or friends of friends, but added that gift memberships are "a very common way of raising money for organizations."
Although Hilliard wasn't previously involved in the preservation league, he said he has long been a preservationist and worked on the campaigns of pro-preservation candidates. He said he felt the league had recently made some bad decisions, citing Ciraldo's salary, which was recently raised to $114,000, and the group's support of a 2017 referendum to allow dense development in an area of North Beach, as two areas of concern. Ciraldo agreed to support the referendum in exchange for the historic designation of buildings in two nearby areas.
"What they did is they pissed me off and one of the things people will tell you in this town is that I’m not a guy you should piss off," Hilliard said.
Hilliard isn't the only person with concerns about the preservation league's support of the referendum. Former Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, who recruited some new members, said she did not ask Hilliard to get involved with the group, but shares his concerns about support for the referendum. Her daughter, Marie Hernandez, works for the preservation league and is currently serving as acting director.
"I think that preserving what we have is very important and the organization is a key factor in that. It’s a moment in time where there is a lot to do for preservation," she said. "I think there is a lot to do on the development side ... and I think it has to be very balanced, which I think it’s a little bit out of balance now."
Ciraldo sees the decision to support the referendum differently. “I think there's an old political machine in place in Miami Beach that was just against everything no matter what, and things are a little different now," Ciraldo said. "We supported North Beach Town Center, which some people were upset about, but it led to the biggest historic designation in 30 years. Sometimes you do have to compromise and build consensus and I think that gets certain people upset."
In early July, after the league's bank accounts had been frozen and Ciraldo had been suspended with pay, the board elected by the new members asked a judge to intervene. In an order issued on Friday, Judge Bronwyn Miller granted some of the requests regarding access to the group's website and social media accounts, but stipulated that Ciraldo should be allowed to access the group's office. Another hearing will be held on Wednesday afternoon.
"The judge has indicated that she is prepared to decide this dispute," said Joseph Geller, an attorney at Greenspoon Marder, a law firm that has previously represented the preservation league and filed the emergency motion on behalf of the board elected by the new members. "Without being argumentative, we believe that the board we're claiming is the proper board got more votes. The final decision will be made by the judge."
“We think all the votes were legal and all the votes should count," he added, dismissing the competing faction's arguments that the proxy ballots should be thrown out.
Until the judge resolves the election dispute, or the competing factions come to an agreement, the preservation league remains in limbo. The group had been working to get a $2.7 million expansion of the Art Deco Welcome Center on the list of projects that could be funded through a proposed general obligation bond, Ciraldo said, along with a number of other projects.