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Despite past mishaps and false starts, North Miami Mardi Gras is a go

Stilt walkers dance down Biscayne Boulevard during the Fourth Annual Greater Miami Mardi Gras in 2006. The festival kicked off with a parade and celebration with more than 20 different countries represented. A similar event is set for North Miami on Jan. 29
Stilt walkers dance down Biscayne Boulevard during the Fourth Annual Greater Miami Mardi Gras in 2006. The festival kicked off with a parade and celebration with more than 20 different countries represented. A similar event is set for North Miami on Jan. 29 Miami Herald File

North Miami is fully committed to a Mardi Gras festival Jan. 29 that will cost the city a quarter of a million dollars and comes with a long history.

The carnival has been in the works since 2013 and is expected to feature food, music, marching bands, floats and colorful costumes. The festival will also include performances from dozens of Caribbean and Latin-American artists, including former Haitian President Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly.

The city is partnering with a group called Fahrenheit Music Festival, and the man at the center of that group and the carnival is Ringo Cayard, a lobbyist and former political consultant who was a political ally to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and was one of the organizers of President Donald Trump’s visit to Little Haiti last September.

The city paid Cayard about $92,000 to organize the event in March 2013, but in November 2013 the City Council decided to cancel it.

The contract at the time, with MAJ Investment Group, said that termination meant the city couldn’t get the money back. The organizers and the city were never able to finalize a location and a route or establish specific deadlines for executing the event, which was set for sometime in 2014.

Cayard previously organized Mardi Gras events in Miami in the early to mid-2000s along Biscayne Boulevard, and the festivals drew thousands. Miami-Dade County financially supported the event from 2002-05, but stopped after allegations that Cayard misused county grants intended for a former nonprofit and the Mardi Gras event.

Cayard faced multiple counts of grand theft and money laundering, but the charges were later dropped and he was ordered to enter a diversion program for first-time offenders. He consistently argued his innocence and the case mostly fell apart due to witnesses changing their testimony.

“There was not even one thing they could come up to charge me with,” Cayard said.

The city is now full steam ahead in support of the carnival, which is set to go from 1 to 10 p.m. along Northeast 125th Street from Northeast Sixth to 12th avenues.

“The Mardi Gras is a cultural event, and it’s going to bring a lot of people together. It’s all about unity,” Cayard said. “This is the first time that North Miami, as a smaller city than Miami or some others, is doing something on this scale.”

City officials hope the event, mostly promoted during the holiday season, will draw interest. Dozens of residents and other supporters spoke in favor of the event when it was approved last month and also echoed the calls for community unity.

“This would bring people from other areas together. If you’re from the Caribbean and you hear the sound, you will move,” said Ketley Joachim, a North Miami Beach resident.

City Manager Larry Spring said if Fahrenheit is unable to remain on schedule, the event could be postponed.

“There’s a lot of work to do and they’re working feverishly,” Spring said. “It’s a very short window. I have talked to the promoter about [other] dates.”

The organizing group was incorporated only about a week before the City Council voted on the festival contract. Cayard did not speak at last month’s meeting, and his son, Kevin, was originally listed as the company’s registered agent. Ringo is now listed as a manager for the company, according to state records. Cayard’s previous company, MAJ Investment, is no longer active with the state.

“I didn’t like the game of, is Ringo part of this or is Ringo not part of this?” said Vice Mayor Scott Galvin, who voted against the item. “It’s never that I’ve been opposed to Mardi Gras, but I didn’t like some of the planning.”

Some critics think the support from Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime and Mayor Smith Joseph could also be politically motivated, as both are up for reelection in May. Cayard has been a political mover and shaker in the Haitian community for decades. He was also a political ally to former County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle and was executive director of the now-defunct Haitian American Foundation Inc.

The two men denied that their vote was swayed by the upcoming election or by Cayard’s potential influence.

“My decision wasn’t based on who’s doing it,” Bien-Aime said. “My time in office should determine whether or not a resident should vote for me, not a carnival.”

Joseph, who was elected with no opposition in 2015, also said the decision was not political.

“The election has absolutely nothing to do with it. I don’t even have an opponent yet,” Joseph said. “It’s all about selling the city to tourists.”

Cayard’s previous plans to bring the festival to North Miami were approved in March 2013 by the City Council under Mayor Andre Pierre and several people spoke in support of it, including North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo and County Commissioner Jean Monestime.

After Mayor Lucie Tondreau was elected, she was critical of the event and said the unanimous support from the previous City Council came because “it was election time.” Tondreau was later removed from office by Gov. Rick Scott after an arrest for her role in a mortgage fraud scheme. She is now serving a 65-month prison sentence.

The $250,000 from the city will be paid to vendors for the carnival, with $5,000 going directly to Fahrenheit. Some of the highest costs: $68,000 for talent booking, $55,000 for technical equipment and about $25,000 for police security.

Most of the payments for talent booking are for $30,000 for reggae artist Shaggy and another $30,000 for Martelly. Spring has said the costs for the festival were budgeted, but critics still wonder if the money couldn’t have gone toward things like infrastructure improvements.

“My preference is that they get the money back and invest it somewhere else,” said Karen DeLeon, president of the Keystone Point Homeowners Association. “I don’t understand why my city is in the event-planning business.”

DeLeon also pointed to the city’s plans for a multi-million dollar bond issue and wonders how the city can ask residents to support that referendum while spending for this event.

“Many of those [referendum] items could be taken off the list for $250,000,” DeLeon said. “I don’t understand the priorities.”

Councilwoman Carol Keys said that even when the city plans events, like the Thanksgiving parade and Hispanic Heritage Month events, they usually only cost tens of thousands of dollars and are well attended.

“I have a real big problem this evening just giving $250,000 for a one-day event,” Keys said before voting against the item last month.

Bien-Aime has defended the spending by comparing it to the $150,000 the city spent to sponsor the North Miami Brewfest last November and the millions in support the city has given to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

“I have more people calling me in my district about MOCA than about the Mardi Gras,” Bien-Aime said at last month’s meeting.

The city’s 2017 budget for capital improvements includes about $1.3 million for street and sidewalk improvements and about $260,000 for street resurfacing, but those projects often take years to fully complete.

Ultimately, city leaders like Bien-Aime think the cost is worth it if North Miami sees future investment and development.

“Miami-Dade County is a tourist destination, and I think North Miami should pay attention to that,” he said.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3