Snake Bit

John Coleman's dance with developers lost him popular support. But will that stop him from spoiling the mayoral race?

After initially approving the plan, the city ultimately thought better of it and killed the deal. Coleman is still rankled. "What better developer than Michael Swerdlow?" he said unapologetically. "Swerdlow owns half the city. He's the biggest taxpayer in the city. I was behind it because I believed in it."

Others suspect he believed in the green paper that came along with it. Swerdlow paid him a still-unspecified amount of money for his help in pushing the plan. "He paid me gas money and cleaning bills," Coleman insisted, while refusing to give the amount. "I didn't even want to get paid. Swerdlow said, 'I need you around for a few months until we get over the hump. I need you to help make this work. How much do you want?'

"It wasn't anything like what people talked about. I heard that I got $1 million. Another person said I got half a million. They lied behind my back. But none of these little baggers thought about giving children a place to swim."

Those little baggers, unfortunately, happened to be Coleman's political bread and butter. After Hollywood fell through, Swerdlow and Freas took the plan to Pompano Beach, where former Mayor Bill Griffin pushed hard for it. Then it was learned that Swerdlow had helped Griffin land a job with a construction company that was bidding to build the swimming hall. The Miami Herald cited that scandal (which, this columnist adds immodestly, was first exposed in New Times) as the chief reason Griffin lost his re-election bid this past March. Perhaps Coleman should get out of the matchmaking game.

Coleman's ties to Swerdlow alone were enough to destroy his credibility as a defender of the barrier island. But a new injection of venom came a couple of months ago. In January, Coleman's SOS group sued the city and Broward County over another development on the beach, a giant 38-story condo project called Island Palms. The suit was filed by Coleman's long-time companion, Brenda Chalifour, a lawyer who runs SOS out of the high-rise condo the couple shares on the beach.

The commission approved Island Palms to have far more units than allowed by city and county law, Chalifour alleged. She also wrote that the Palms would impede evacuation efforts in a hurricane, "lead to increased air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, over-burdened infrastructure," and "chip away at the very fabric of our landscape."

On May 15, 2003, those concerns apparently evaporated. Chalifour withdrew her lawsuit after settling out of court with the Palms developer, whose attorneys at Gunster, Yoakley, & Stewart didn't return my calls. While suspicion abounds that they sold out to the developer for big money, neither Coleman nor Chalifour would discuss the settlement. "You'll have to ask Brenda about that," Coleman told me.

"I will not comment on that at all," said Chalifour, a hard-driving environmentalist who is also challenging the proposed expansion of the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport. "That is sealed."

Has she ever profited from SOS, which accepts contributions from members? "Not a dime; not a penny," she said.

Chalifour, who was out of town last week, said she takes no salary from SOS, and the nonprofit group's 501c3 tax-exemption form listed no settlement amount. "We have followed the law to the letter," she said of reporting requirements. "We have met the threshold."

Coleman was equally defensive. "I've never received a dime from Save Our Shoreline, and for ten years, I've put in all kinds of time to save North Beach Park," he said. "They never helped save the shoreline, these goddamned detractors. They are sitting on the sideline yapping together on the phone."

Perhaps, but they also vote, and most don't ever want to cast a ballot for Coleman again. Yet some inevitably would, and that is why Coleman's jumping into the race would be the political equivalent of a murder-suicide. The opposition would be split between Coleman and Mintz, and Giulianti would surely pop the champagne on a Tuesday night in March.

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