By Michael E. Miller
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Walking into Maurice Connell's office at Hollywood's Oakwood Plaza is like flipping through a book entitled Who's Who of Local, State, and National Politics and looking at the photos. Every inch of the walls is covered with framed pictures of Connell with political heavyweights.
Look, there are Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Over there is former U.S. representative Larry Smith. And there are Broward County sheriff Ken Jenne and Broward County commissioner Sue Gunzburger. Wow, invitations for Ronald Reagan's and Kennedy's inaugurations. And one can see awards such as Citizen of the Year, presented by former Hollywood mayor David Keating in 1975.
"Without your unrelenting efforts and loyalty, victory would not have been possible last Nov. 8," is handwritten by President John F. Kennedy on one photo.
Frank Sacco, chief executive of Memorial Healthcare System, signed his photo to Connell: "To a great guy and a great friend, it's been my privilege to know you and work with you over the years."
Obviously designed to impress, the walls of fame are Connell's lifeblood, representing his weighty connections in the political arena. Maurie Connell has made a career of having friends in high places -- and he's raised money to keep them there. The City of Hollywood's contract grant-writer for nearly three decades, Connell says he has traded on those friendships to secure millions of dollars in grants for the city.
But some city commissioners, legislators, and civic activists are questioning whether Connell, now 84 years old and so infirm he is virtually unable to leave his house these days, should be receiving $94,000 a year from the City of Hollywood. In addition, another $41,000 of taxpayer money goes for a full-time assistant, as well as $14,000 for office expenses. The critics wonder whether the deal -- dubbed a "contract for life" -- should be put out for bid or his job turned into an internal city position. They also question whether the city could be getting even more grants with another, more capable administrator.
Connell broadcasts to nearly everyone he talks with that he has obtained more than $40 million in grants for the city since 1992 and nearly $160 million since 1979. But a closer look at the grants Connell says he has obtained shows that many were written by city department heads or were automatic "pass-through" grants from the state and federal government for entitlement cities.
A host of politicos say they feel that it's time Connell considered retirement.
Yet just one month ago, the elected officials who run the city voted 4-1 to renew his contract for two more years, with a 4 percent raise. Why was the contract renewed, with barely any discussion by commissioners? In a word, fear.
"He can hurt you politically," says a Hollywood elected official who, like many interviewed for this article, was afraid to be identified. "He is an unbelievable political figure in the community. And he is very vindictive. It's known all over town, but it's kept hush-hush -- that he's getting paid for a job he's not really performing."
Says another city hall insider: "He's being greedy. It's time for him to take a graceful bow and step down. He's done a lot for the city, but he's resting on his laurels."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Hollywood city commissioner John Coleman decided it was time to deal with a political issue that couldn't be ignored. He picked up the phone and called Connell at home.
"Can I come by for five minutes?" Coleman asked. He had heard that Connell was miffed because the commissioner was going to discuss putting Connell's contract out for bid, so he figured it would be best to tell Connell about it "face to face."
"I thought that was the professional way of doing things," he said. "I didn't want to do it behind his back."
Coleman arrived at Connell's peach-color home in the exclusive Lakes section of Hollywood at about 1 p.m. and parked in the circular drive overlooking North Lake. Connell's wife, Carmen, let Coleman in. He found Connell watching a football game while sitting in an easy chair, his legs propped up and encased in white stockings. According to Coleman, Connell simply said, "I'd like you to support me."
Coleman says he told Connell it was nothing personal, he just feels all city contracts should be put out for bid. If Connell was the best choice, he would be chosen. He explained that Mayor Mara Giulianti challenged him to do this. When he pulled lobbyist Bernie Friedman's contract for discussion, she asked if he were going to pull Maurie's contract too. Coleman replied that Connell's contract hadn't been put before him. When it is, Coleman said, he would pull that one too.
Walking out of Connell's house, Coleman knew the effort he'd made to raise the issue hardly mattered. He knew Connell's contract would be renewed at that Wednesday's commission meeting, probably by a 4-1 vote. Was Coleman, who is running for mayor in February, worried that Connell could hurt his political chances?
"Most of my political advisers said don't do it, it will snap back on you," says Coleman. "But if you do the right thing, it will work itself out."