Elections

Commission race sparks a new round of bad behavior in scandal-prone North Bay Village

North Bay Village candidates from left to right: Laura Cattabriga, Brent Latham, Julianna Strout. Candidate Robert Alvarez did not respond to the Herald’s request for a photo or comment.
North Bay Village candidates from left to right: Laura Cattabriga, Brent Latham, Julianna Strout. Candidate Robert Alvarez did not respond to the Herald’s request for a photo or comment.

Despite universal calls for change and professionalism, less than a month before the Nov. 6 election, the race for three open seats on the North Bay Village Commission has devolved into the political equivalent of a bar brawl between those who support the current administration and those who oppose it.

Already, one candidate, Kokoa Woodget, was disqualified from the race for not properly filing paperwork. Her only opponent, Marvin Wilmoth, was automatically elected, cutting the election down to two races.

Another candidate used the village clerk in a campaign video, and the State Attorney’s Office is investigating whether Florida campaign law was violated. Amid the uproar, the village clerk resigned.

A candidate for mayor has been accused of living outside the village. He denied it and accused his opponent — who currently sits on the commission — of stalking him.

Another last-minute filer is all but unknown in the small town. He does not appear to be campaigning, and was the only candidate to fail to respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.

While there are no official slates on the Nov. 6 ballot, at least three of four candidates for contested seats fall into one of two camps: those for the current administration of term-limited Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps, and those against it.

It’s a divide that has plagued village politics for the past year and the factions are responsible for a series of mini-scandals, including accusations that the mayor’s allies blackmailed a sitting commissioner (the state attorney found no evidence of this); two whistle-blower suits filed by fired police personnel against the village; several costly separation agreements with disgruntled employees; and so many firings that the village now has an interim police chief, an interim manager, an interim city clerk and several other high-level vacancies.

Four of five votes on the current commission are solidly in line with the current mayor’s agenda and support the current department heads. The fifth commissioner, Eddie Lim, who has often opposed the mayor, is prevented by term limits from running again.

The Nov. 6 election could tip the scale if the opposition — Brent Latham, candidate for mayor, and Julianna Strout, candidate for the at-large seat — takes both seats. A friend and collaborator of Strout, Wilmoth, who is 38 and works in community development, would likely be the third vote, though he has not publicly stated his allegiances.

Commissioner at-large Laura Cattabriga, who is now running for mayor, supports many of the initiatives of the current administration. Robert Alvarez, who has granted no interviews or made any public statements, remains a wild card in the race against Strout.

The following is a voters guide to candidates and charter amendments that will be found on the North Bay Village ballot in November.

Candidates for mayor

Laura Cattabriga, 49

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Cattabriga is the only candidate currently on the commission and has supported Leon-Kreps on many issues. A consultant to several Miami-based businesses, Cattabriga was appointed to the at-large seat in January after Douglas Hornsby was removed from the post when it was revealed he wasn’t eligible to hold office at the time of his own appointment due to a decades-old drug charge. (He later claimed he was blackmailed with that information.)

While her opponents see her as a continuation of the status quo in Village Hall, Cattabriga objects to that designation.

“I am not the current mayor. I’m not a junior Connie. I am my own person,” Cattabriga said. “I really long for a North Bay Village that moves away from the personalization of politics to a better discussion of issues that matter to residents. I think we do a disservice to everyone when we are nasty and hurling personal insults.”

Cattabriga said the firings and resignations in the past six months in Village Hall — which even the mayor called an effort to “clean house” — have gone a long way toward setting the village back on track.

“I think that we are building a team,” Cattabriga said. “We are putting together a group of people who are working well together.” She named current City Attorney Norman Powell as one person in particular who she believes has done a lot to professionalize the village.

In a Facebook post, Latham accused Cattabriga of stalking him to show he didn’t live in the city limits.

Brent Latham, 43

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Latham holds a master’s degree in international relations from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and speaks four languages. He spent the first years of his career serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras and has a background in diplomacy. More recently, he worked in sports communications, both at ESPN and then at FIFA. He says he is currently taking time off to run his campaign.

Latham, who has owned a home in North Bay Village for five years, said he witnessed a lack of leadership in the village that inspired him to run for mayor. “I feel like we have a small enough town where a small amount of people can make a difference,” Latham said. “What I want to do is right the ship. We are a village manager-run city. So we need a strong staff. A strong manager.”

Opponents have accused Latham of not living in the village, which would disqualify him from the race if true. Latham points to the homestead exemption on his Beach View Drive home as proof that he lives in the village, though he admits to owning an additional home outside the village, closer to where his two children attend elementary school and his wife chairs the PTA.

Candidates for commissioner at-large

Julianna Strout, 32

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Strout used earnings from the 2010 Miss America pageant where she competed as Miss Rhode Island to pay her way through Dartmouth College. She holds an MBA and works for private equity firm GACP. Her grandfather, John Pierce Lynch, served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. “I came from a family that was very involved politically,” Strout said. “It really instilled within me the idea that you have to do something bigger than yourself.” She volunteers for many organizations, including those that support abused and battered women.

Strout’s own political aspirations began several years ago in Boston, where she ran for City Commission, only to have her campaign put on hold by the Boston Marathon bombing. (Her launch party was interrupted by the bomb a few blocks over and locked up most of her campaign materials in the investigation.) She then transferred to South Florida for work and began to attend village commission meetings in North Bay Village, where she lives. She also served as chair of the Charter Review Committee and sat on the Budget Committee.

A campaign video put Strout in the spotlight of the State Attorney’s Office because it featured the village clerk as she handled Strout’s paperwork. State law prohibits a candidate from using the services of an on-duty public employee to further their campaign and prohibits a public employee from participating in “any potential campaign for an elected office” while on the clock. The village clerk has since resigned. Strout says it’s part of the current administration’s effort to undermine her campaign and get her disqualified. She maintains the video does not break the law.

Robert Alvarez, age unknown

Alvarez did not respond to the Herald’s attempts to contact him, even after one reporter stopped by his home and left a message with his wife who also serves as his campaign treasurer. On his financial disclosure forms, Alvarez reported raising only $420, but did not name his contributors. The village clerk formally requested he resubmit the paperwork as it was filed incorrectly.

Harbor Island commissioner

Marvin Wilmoth, 38

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Wilmoth was uncontested in the race for Harbor Island when the qualification period closed, and Woodget, his only opponent, was disqualified. He will be the next Harbor Island commissioner in North Bay Village and will not appear on the ballot. Wilmoth holds a master’s degree in real estate development from Columbia University, and currently works in community development. He is co-founder and managing principal of Generation Development Group.

CHARTER AMENDMENTS

The Nov. 6 ballot will also include 16 proposed charter amendments — the most of any Miami-Dade municipality — for voters to consider. The amendments were crafted by a citizens review committee that meets every six years. The process was not exempt from the palace intrigue of recent months and several amendments appear to address specific circumstances within the current administration. This guide was created after speaking with several people involved in the process and attempts to summarize their answers to give voters context for understanding each amendment.

  • Referenda 1, 4, and 16 update or clarify language or procedures outlined in the current charter.

  • Referendum 2 would establish a Citizens Bill of Rights, spelling out rights such as access to public documents and speaking at public hearings, shown in the document below. The village currently doesn’t have a Citizens Bill of Rights.

  • Referendum 3 would increase the salaries of commissioners from $525 per month to $750 per month and of the mayor from $650 to $875 per month. Proponents say it will help attract better candidates and point out that the current salaries are much lower than those of many other municipalities. Opponents say the village has other more pressing financial needs.

  • Referenda 5, 6, 7, and 10 strip various powers of the village manager, an appointee, assigning them instead to the elected commission. (Note: North Bay Village does not have a strong-mayor type government, though the idea was floated in the charter review committee but later dismissed. The village manager is its chief administrator.)

  • Referendum 8 would hold the village manager personally accountable for making sure code violation citations are issued. Strout, the committee chair, said this was a response to problems caused by unauthorized Airbnbs.

  • Referendum 9 is a green initiative to reduce paper waste.

  • Referenda 11, 12, 13, and 14 would change the qualification period and requirements for candidates in future elections.

  • Referendum 15 would prohibit nepotism in village administration. The amendment defines nepotism as “any person related up to the second degree of consanguinity or affinity to an elected or appointed Village official.” Those that fall under the designation would be prohibited from holding office in Village Hall. However, the word “affinity” is not defined, leaving this language open to broad interpretation by the sitting village attorney at the time the language is applied.

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