By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
When Bill Bucknam pulled into the parking lot of Bill Scherer's law firm one Friday morning, he was alarmed to see two people sitting some distance away in a car that had been backed into place. The car's two female occupants were trying to maintain low profiles. As he walked, Bucknam saw that one woman in the car was holding a camera with a long lens. As the pair watched Bucknam from the vehicle, the woman with a camera aimed it his way.
The round-bellied Republican lawyer was worried. So were the others he was meeting clandestinely that day last fall, an unusual Broward County mix of about 20 behind-the-scenes politicos. The group included lobbyists, lawyers, blacks, Hispanics, Republicans, and Democrats. They were political friends and political foes. And they didn't want attention brought to their efforts.
Bucknam wondered if his secretive group had been found out, on that day as he rode the elevator up to the meeting, located in a paneled conference room on the eighth floor of the Equitable building in Fort Lauderdale.
He gathered the cabal of political plotters near the windows, where a striking panorama of west Broward County unfolded below them. So did a bird's-eye view of the parking lot, which they studied through dark, tinted glass that veiled insiders from public view.
The women were still there, camera at the ready. Were they spies from the group's designated political enemy, Sheriff Ken Jenne, Bucknam wondered?
Encouraged by his compatriots who remained behind at an invisible distance, Bucknam marshaled his courage and rode the elevator back down. He walked up to the car and confronted the women.
"It was Beth Reinhard from The Miami Herald, on a very amateur stakeout," Bucknam recalls on another Friday morning recently, just after another secretive meeting. "I asked her what she thought she was doing. She said she'd heard that two county commissioners were meeting out of the sunshine. They weren't."
So Reinhard and her photographer left, and Bucknam rode anxiously back upstairs to get down to work with a group of political allies probably never before seen in Broward County, at least not gathered at one table.
Operating under the old saw that "the enemy of your enemy is your friend," they began plotting. Their goal: put Sheriff Ken Jenne permanently out of the business of becoming Broward's strong mayor once and for all. Their fear: that if they fail and Jenne becomes mayor, he will hobble their lucrative business interests at the county, and he will control commissioners positioned to dispense contracts or favors to them.
One obvious example is Scherer himself, a well-positioned Republican lawyer. Scherer hires Commissioner Ilene Lieberman's husband to do legal work for the firm, he represents clients who have business with the commission, and he has a stake in New River Village, a development on the south bank downtown. The development owners pay less than the general public for tenant parking spaces in a nearby county parking garage.
That could stop if Jenne becomes mayor.
Members of the group frequently express a concern: Whether Jenne wins or loses, he could put into practice his reputation as a politician with a long memory and an ability to exact retribution.
"I think the perception of that occurring is what makes him so powerful -- the legend exists, and that may be stronger than reality," says Russ Klenet, a lobbyist helping direct the group's effort to bring down Jenne.
Candidate for sheriff Lionel Stewart puts it another way: "I don't care what they say, Jenne's going to come after us. Win or lose. So they're going to have to put him down good."
Bucknam tries to shrug off a Jenne threat, perceived or real. "This isn't about Ken Jenne," he says, "it's really about business. Some people want to consolidate power and business, and that's all we really object to."
Jenne declines to comment, but Russ Oster, his hired political consultant, calls the allegation "ludicrous. We're here to reform government."
Officially the group resisting Jenne's version of reform is the steering committee of Broward Citizens For Good Government, a political action committee. Members have raised roughly $100,000 as of mid-January to fight the ballot referendum asking Broward voters if they desire a "strong" mayor. Should voters agree to the concept in March, candidates will seek the office in the November general election.
Critics say the winner arguably would gain more power than any other elected official in Florida's 67 county governments. A strong Broward mayor could hire and fire employees, veto legislation, and dispense contracts at will in this county of 1.5 million residents.
The members of the group working against Jenne have names that range from the well-known to the obscure in Broward's ranks of the powerful and privileged. Their interests and even their personal lives are sometimes tied directly to the county commission.
The group includes lawyer Stuart Michelson, who is married to Commissioner Ilene Lieberman; engineer Tom McDonald; former Fort Lauderdale city manager George Hanbury; and Hispanic advocates Rich Sierra and Louis DeRosa. Others holding seats at the table are lawyers Bernie Friedman, George Platt, Sidney Calloway, and Earl Hall, who is part of Lieberman's reelection campaign staff; lobbyist Russ Klenet; Republican activist Ellyn Bogdanoff; and Lionel Stewart.