A concrete shell of a building stands behind a construction fence in Miami Lakes’ East Park, where a new youth center should have been buzzing months ago.
The $1 million project came to a halt last year when town officials said they had problems with the contractor, Ballarena Construction, over structural defects found during inspection. Ballarena had done hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work for Miami Lakes before — most of it under the purview of a public works director who had worked for Ballarena before taking the job with the town.
After a yearlong investigation, the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust determined last month that Hiram Siaba, the town’s former public works director, violated an ethics ordinance that prevents public employees from doing business with former employers for a two-year period. After ending a part-time job with Ballarina in September 2010, Siaba took the job in Town Hall in January 2011.
During the next few years, Siaba assigned Ballerena more than 10 projects that fell below the $25,000 threshold for awarding contracts without going to the Town Council for approval. A few big-ticket projects that were put out to bid, like $178,000 worth of improvements to Sevilla Estates Park and the unfinished youth center, went to Ballarina during Siaba’s time with the town.
The investigation began after city officials fired Siaba last spring once they discovered he was renting a residential property in West Miami to Jorge Ballarena, owner of the construction company. Former Mayor Michael Pizzi filed a complaint with the ethics commission soon after.
On Monday, Siaba said he was not aware that he should not have been dealing with Ballarina because of the ethics code, and said he did not help Ballarina obtain any competitively bid contracts.
“I was not involved in the bidding process,” he said. “They were closed bids. It’s impossible to me to see what their bids were.”
Siaba did not dispute the ethics commission’s findings, and in March he agreed to pay a $500 fine to settle the matter.
According to the ethics investigation report, there was no evidence that Siaba received payments in return for contracts, or that Siaba assisted Ballarena in winning any bids. It also noted that Jorge Ballarena has paid the fair market price for the rental property in West Miami.
“The person involved did take actions that violated the ethics code,” said ethics commission director Joseph Centorino. “There is no evidence of any further underlying corruption than that.”
Pizzi, who awaits trial this summer on unrelated charges, said Monday he went to the ethics commission because he suspected a disproportionate amount of town funds were going to Ballarina.
“This was not some minor conflict,” he said. “This conflict impacted over a million dollars in taxpayer expenditures.”
Mayor Wayne Slaton, elected in October after Pizzi was suspended in the wake of federal bribery charges, said the town is mainly focused doing what it needs to do to get the youth center completed.
“There’s definitely been ongoing concern from the community to get that park back open,” Slaton said. “It should have been done before now.”
Now the town is negotiating with the contractor’s surety company to make sure the town doesn’t lose any money and the project gets finished, according to Town Attorney Raul Gastesi. A surety company ensures that a contract is completed should the contractor default. It either finds another contractor or compensates the town.
“The goal is to make the city whole,” he said, adding he hopes to present the Town Council with a resolution of the matter at Tuesday night’s meeting.