Hollywood No!

Hollywood lost last fall's referendum by siphoning cash to political cronies, sending out armed cops, and failing to win over the Broward sheriff

Had you just fallen off a turnip truck or driven in from Quebec, you would have thought last November's battle between Hollywood and Dania Beach for a 307-acre chunk of unincorporated land was a no-brainer: Hollywood by a landslide. After all, Broward's second-largest city has more cultural clout, cops, and firefighters and sports one of the prettiest, funkiest beaches in Florida. Who wouldn't want to be part of that?

Nevertheless Hollywood lost three of the four districts up for grabs by a two-to-one margin. The city not only forfeited the chance to expand, it also gave up a $200 million addition to its tax base, which could have generated more than $5 million per year in tax revenues. How Hollywood failed is a kind of civics lesson in reverse -- that is, cities looking to win annexation fights in the future would do well to avoid the strategy.

By state and county decree, all unincorporated areas in Broward County must either join an existing city or form a new one by 2010. That deadline has touched off a mini land grab, with cities vying for the best (read: most valuable) parcels. Some 109,000 people reside in still-unincorporated areas of Broward, so the issue is far from resolved.

Even when Hollywood loses, Mayor Mara Giulianti's supporters win
Even when Hollywood loses, Mayor Mara Giulianti's supporters win

Hollywood and Dania Beach last year tussled over the parcel roughly bounded by Stirling Road, State Road 84, Ravenswood Road, and State Road 7. The area has a population of 7500 living in everything from pricey houses to trailers. It also happens to be home to Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, who lives in a place on SW 56th Court assessed at $270,000.

This past May the state legislature approved a referendum of the residents on annexation. Over the summer Hollywood and Dania Beach began planning strategy.

Dania Beach's city commission earmarked about $20,000 for its campaign, says assistant city manager Jason Nunemaker. "We'd go and make presentations to community groups, and we took our management team out and pitched small-town ambiance. There was no negative campaigning."

Contrast that with Hollywood's effort, which featured uniformed police officers going door to door, Mayor Mara Giulianti personally stumping for the issue, taxpayer dollars funneled to political cronies through a political action committee, and attack ads penned by one of Broward's slickest political consultants, and you get a glimpse of how Hollywood's campaign backfired.

Hollywood's effort got off to a shaky start. In June commissioners unanimously approved $15,000 to fund an already established political action committee, Hollywood Yes!, headed by former city commissioner Dick Blattner. By aligning themselves with a PAC, Hollywood officials believed they would have several advantages: A PAC is not a governmental entity, so it's not bound by the same open-records laws as the city; volunteers would be free to meet behind closed doors; and the PAC could solicit money from anyone who supported the cause.

At least one Hollywood commissioner had his doubts, though. "I think it is important to understand what we are getting into here," said Peter Bober, who represents District 6, before the vote. "Basically we are taking an important issue and outsourcing it to a PAC, which none of us really know that much about. We don't know who is running the show, we don't know who is making the decisions, we don't know how the money is going to be spent. We are basically hoping the money is going to be spent properly."

Nevertheless city commissioners approved funding the PAC with $15,000 in seed money. The idea was that PAC leaders would find more cash to take their message to the people. It didn't work out that way. Hollywood Yes! never raised another dime. It did, however, earn 82 cents in interest from a Union Bank account, according to campaign reports filed with the supervisor of elections' office. The same reports show some of the money went to friends and supporters of the Hollywood political machine.

Reahl Publishing, for example, banked about $3300 in PAC money -- less than half of which is properly accounted for on the expense sheets. Reahl is best known as publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, which could charitably be called a newspaper but is more accurately characterized as a cheerleading sheet for Hollywood's political status quo. Typical editorial offerings in the Reporter include a piece by editor Frank Yamout headlined "The difference between and [sic] activist and a nay-sayer." Yamout's definition of that dissimilarity, apparently, is whether or not you support Giulianti, who appears in the paper's masthead as a contributing writer. "God bless our Commissioners and Mayor as they lead our city to progress and prosperity," Yamout writes in a line that practically invokes a salute.

Guy Roper, a former Hollywood city commissioner and Giulianti ally, was paid $850 for an expense listed simply as "food." Roper owns Stratford's, a bar and restaurant near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Hollywood Boulevard. (Neither Yamout nor Roper returned calls from New Times.)

Another $3000 went to political consultant Ron Gunzburger, who describes himself as a centrist when it comes to Hollywood politics. Gunzburger, son of Broward County Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger, is one of several people inside the campaign who question the way it was run. "They came to me literally two weeks before the election and with the view that they were already losing," he says.

Being a professional and smelling a paycheck, however, he did his best. He came up with a particularly nasty mailer, sent out around Halloween, which depicted a skeleton holding a bomb. His message: Dania Beach will raise taxes. "Dania Beach could soon be your worst nightmare," the mailer intoned. (It remains to be seen whether the contention is true, because the annexation won't be finalized until September.)

Blattner did a poor job of running Hollywood Yes!, according to a campaign source who asked not to be identified. "We would do polling, and when Dick didn't like the answers we got, he said we asked the questions wrong," the source says. "Every time we gave him advice, he ignored it."

Blattner says he did his best but just wasn't provided enough money to mount an effective campaign. He was trying to raise money during a presidential election, he adds, and everyone he approached was already tapped out. "There was so much else going on," he says.

At the outset he put his chances of winning at 50-50. Jenne's residence in the area proved a big factor. Dania Beach is under contract with BSO for police service, notes Blattner, and there was no way Jenne was going to live in an area patrolled by Hollywood cops. "The sheriff made it very clear he would never support his area going to Hollywood," recalls Blattner. "He said, "If this area votes to go to Hollywood, my house will be up for sale the next day.'" (Jenne did not return phone calls from New Times seeking comment.)

As for the Hollywood cops canvassing the area, Blattner says he welcomed the help. "When our police chief [James Scarberry] asked if we wanted volunteers, we were delighted to have the help," he says.

That proved to be another poor decision, according to a campaign insider. "It backfired on them," the source says. "If any [resident of the unincorporated area] was sitting on the fence before, that got them off real quick. How would you like armed police showing up at your door?"

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