Hollywood Tattler

A sinister tale of how the mayor of Broward's number two city displaced her number one critic

Joe Schneider is a Hollywood lawyer. But he's a cool guy nonetheless, judging by the '79 Fender Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall amp that he keeps in his office on the 18th floor of the Home Tower on Young Circle. Then there's his handmade knife collection hanging on the wall and the stack of Guitar Collector magazines on the floor next to his desk.

Vocationally he spends his days as a "general practitioner" of law, meaning he does everything from shepherding real-estate transactions to arguing trials. He doesn't say how much money he earns annually but acknowledges "the law has been good to me."

Avocationally he's a Hollywood activist (and resident) with a 13-year history of involvement in city politics. The 47-year-old Schneider has been the vice president of his local civic association and a member of the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency board. He has also sat on the city's budget advisory board and its homeless committee task force, and is now chairman of a Housing and Urban Development loan committee.

All of that stood him in good stead for a task that, until recently, was his other hobby: writing the "Hollywood Watch" column for The Digest newspaper. For six months Schneider afflicted the comfortable with squibs on Hollywood politics. Like all good columnists, he nurtured a healthy sense of indignation. He dispensed gentlemanly jabs to the mayor and city commissioners on issues ranging from conflicts of interest to public handouts for private businesses, but he was also quick to offer praise when praise was due. Readers were treated to the insights of someone who knew the turf and wasn't afraid to express his opinions. "Maybe I see things too much in terms of right and wrong," he says, "but I see a lot of things that are just plain wrong, even downright insulting. Over the years things have happened that have gone unreported and have continued without anyone questioning them."

His column was popular, and he wrote for free. The perfect employee? If not, close to it, which makes his recent dismissal -- not to mention his replacement -- all the more perplexing.

Schneider penned his first column for The Digest in April, his last in October. Depending upon who tells the story, the paper's editors either never explained why they fired Schneider, or he never asked for their motivation. He believes he may have pissed off the wrong people. "The column was commandeered," he says, smiling as usual. "I say that tongue-in-cheek, but it reminds me of Mel Gibson taking someone's car to chase a bad guy in the Lethal Weapon movies."

It's easy to understand his logic. Two weeks after Schneider's last column, a new offering appeared in its slot: "Watching Her City," penned by none other than Hollywood mayor Mara Giulianti. "I got a surprise call from The Digest last week," Giulianti wrote in her debut column November 2, "with an offer to write a column to "share the good news about Hollywood.'" In the second paragraph, Giulianti laid the "ground rules": "Anyone who would like to share their information about a Hollywood Happening with the readers of The Digest should send me their positive stories, with their name, address, phone number and title or position."

Now, Schneider has no hard evidence that the choice of his successor is anything but bad journalistic judgment. "It just looks very suspicious," he says, "when "Hollywood Watch' disappears and "Watching Her City' appears." But he's a consummate nice guy, not about to jump to conclusions -- at least not for the record. "I'm just glad they gave me the opportunity to write," he says.

Schneider never discussed his firing with The Digest's executives, but New Times did. According to publisher Dan Bluesten, Schneider used the column as a bully pulpit to bash his enemies. "He was really popular with the anti-Mara movement, that's for sure," says Bluesten.

Although he praises Schneider's work, he says his former columnist simply would not tone down the writing. "I told him to cool it and try to be more objective," says Bluesten. "The whole purpose of the column was to make things more positive."

Issue after issue, "Hollywood Watch" hammered Giulianti and City Commissioner Cathy Anderson, Bluesten says, and that wasn't acceptable. "If you are going to be controversial, try not to pick on the same person week after week." (Neither Giulianti nor Anderson returned calls from New Times for this story.)

To the question of why he hired Giulianti, Bluesten answers there simply wasn't anyone else around to take the job. "I was looking for an objective columnist for Hollywood coverage," he reports. "I couldn't come up with any names, so I got the mayor. I can't say she keeps it objective, but she doesn't write too much about politics."

Yes, he's aware that the timing looks bad. "I'm not worried about that," he adds. "Joe Schneider doesn't pay the bills."

Schneider says he spoke to his editors four times in six months, and only two of those conversations had anything to do with the column's content -- once when he wrote about his friend Mark Hanna, whom he unsuccessfully tried to get elected to Cathy Anderson's commission seat; and once when he described the local chapter of the American Jewish Council's denunciation of Hanna during the campaign. Both times the editors asked him to avoid the topics in the future, and both times he complied.

Otherwise Schneider expended ink writing about the numerous follies and foibles of political life in Hollywood.

One of his columns involved a deal between the Diplomat Hotel and the city. Commissioners gave the hotel $663,000 to put more sand on its own beach. He wrote: "Just picture our tax money flowing through their fingers, like grains of sand." Prior to the September 5 election, he noted that Giulianti had a war chest of more than $150,000 to win a $14,000 per year job and asked the rhetorical question, "Could anyone become the mayor of Hollywood, in the future, without raising that much?" He accused Giulianti of making tactless attacks on her critics at public meetings and of playing favorites when the time came to award a contract for bus-bench advertising.

Schneider was in high dudgeon before he got canned in October. Watching the commission meetings on TV one Wednesday night, as was his usual practice, he was shocked to hear Anderson verbally attack him from the dais. "... [H]e doesn't get anything right," she said that night, "but we're saving his columns, and after a year we know it's public harassment."

Of course any middle-school student who has studied the First Amendment understands the press is free to criticize public officials until the cows come home. Schneider couldn't believe what he was hearing. When he tried to double-check the comments by tuning in to a rebroadcast of the meeting, he found that nine minutes of the meeting were missing -- the time when Anderson spoke about him. Coincidence or Hollywoodgate?

A call to the city's director of TV and video production, Dennis Pellarin, provided evidence the gap was an accident. The cable company AT&T Broadband normally records the meetings for rebroadcast, Pellarin says, but a storm knocked out the company's power, and it couldn't make a tape. So AT&T staff borrowed a recording of the meeting made by the city clerk's office, which turned out to be the one with the missing minutes. Apparently someone in the city clerk's office forgot to put in a fresh tape when the old one ran out, and no one noticed for nine minutes.

Schneider had some fun with the situation, urging his readers "... not to send in any bail money at this time" on the public harassment charges. Nonetheless he cleared up the issue, declaring in print that he believed the gap was a mistake. He sent the column to The Digest, but it didn't run. Then he sent a toned-down version the next week with a note to his editors asking that he at least be allowed to defend himself against Anderson's comments and bid adieu to his readers. But that column never ran either.

When Giulianti's mug appeared in his old space, he knew he was just another victim of Hollywood politics. So he gave up. "I'm surprised it went as long as it did," he says. "The politics in Hollywood are so strong in favor of the people in power."

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