Miami-Dade commissioner takes on Beacon Council

Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell turned up the heat Tuesday on a simmering political feud with the county’s economic development agency, the Beacon Council.

Bell proposed renegotiating the county’s open-ended contract with the Beacon Council — a move that agency leaders fear could threaten the 27-year-old council’s existence, or at least create uncertainty in its plans to expand and recruit businesses to Miami-Dade.

Friction between the Beacon Council and Bell became public in recent weeks, after Bell sent a letter to the editor raising concerns about the agency to a community newspaper that had published an editorial questioning the Beacon Council’s effectiveness — particularly in South Miami-Dade, where Bell’s district is located. The editorial prompted the Beacon Council’s lawyer to send the paper a letter demanding a retraction.

The Beacon Council has a big-picture focus, its leaders say, intended to attract businesses to grow the county’s economy as a whole. At least some commissioners, however, counter that the agency doesn’t do enough to help small businesses in their districts. More than half of the agency’s annual budget comes from $3.7 million in county funds.

The tension was evident Tuesday when Bell briefly presented her plan to have the commission more closely oversee the Beacon Council.

“I report to the people and to the taxpayers, not the Beacon Council or its board,” Bell said. “Many in my community, and many in yours on the dais, have been crying out for help.”

She ultimately deferred her measure at the meeting of the internal management and fiscal responsibility committee — but only after several other commissioners praised her proposal and vowed to support it. Bell pledged to bring back the legislation after meeting with members of the Beacon Council’s board of directors.

She sat down with the council board’s chairman, Joe Pallot, and with the Beacon Council’s president and chief executive officer, Frank Nero, on Monday in what Bell described as a contentious meeting.

“I was treated very rudely and disrespectfully, insulted — as was my chief of staff,” Bell said.

Nero and Pallot, who did not attend Tuesday’s committee, said in an interview before the meeting that they were concerned by Bell’s proposal, which they said they learned about only shortly before sitting down with the commissioner.

“My fear is that if our contract — and by extension our existence, our structure — is opened up, we’re going to chill all of the wonderful efforts of One Community One Goal,” Pallot said, referring to the five-year plan for the county’s economy. One of the people chairing that initiative is Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Pallot quickly added that he doesn’t think Bell wants to do away with the Beacon Council. But he said the agency and the commission could make some of the changes Bell proposed without renegotiating the entire contract.

The key proposal in Bell’s measure would delete the automatic renewal to the Beacon Council’s contract. Bell and other commissioners said they would prefer a contract set for a certain number of years with an option to renew.

Nero said he was “dumbfounded” by some of the specifics in Bell’s proposal. Her resolution suggested that the Beacon Council hold an annual meeting with commissioners to discuss its economic development strategy, set up an advisory board of regional development organizations and allow the commission to appoint a voting member to its executive committee, among other things.

“I dare say there’s no other organization that is audited, monitored and reports the metrics that we do to the commission and the mayor on an ongoing basis,” Nero said. “My biggest frustration is, I don’t think they’re read. I don’t think they’re looked at.... I don’t know what other information we could give.”

Some commissioners have long worried that the Beacon Council doesn’t give enough attention to small businesses. At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Barbara Jordan recalled hard feelings over county money once set aside to help minority businesses that was later funneled to the Beacon Council.

“I would like to see more businesses being directed to my district, as well as more jobs,” said Edmonson, who faces reelection next month.

Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo also said he has heard complaints from small-business owners in his Hialeah-based district.

While emphasizing the Beacon Council’s “narrow” focus to market the county, Nero defended the agency’s work for smaller businesses.

“We work with companies as small as two people,” he said. “We quite frankly have not touted our successes in what we do here locally.”