Our Mayor, the Lobbyist, Part 4

She visited Hollywood the same day as the developer. Now residents fear for their homes.

Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman has insisted that she can keep her two identities, politician and lobbyist, completely separate. But several months ago, her personas collided at a Hollywood City Commission meeting -- and a neighborhood that was largely forgotten in all the political posturing that followed will likely pay the price.

Lieberman, acting as mayor, addressed the seven-member board on December 17, 2003, to promote the financial help her county government had given the city. Shortly after her talk, commissioners voted on two housing projects worth about $60 million planned by the mayor's employer at the time, Pinnacle Housing Group. The meeting evidences another example of Lieberman's straddling the ethical line -- and at times crossing it -- in her work for the Miami-based developer. She quit the job in September after New Times began an investigation that has documented how she has used her influence to help Pinnacle bring home more than $100 million worth of projects in Broward (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist," parts 1, 2, and 3).

Lieberman's relationship with the company wasn't spelled out to the public before she walked up to the podium at the December meeting. First, she told the commission of a $5 million county grant to help build the Arts Park project in Young Circle. "And we know this will be a showplace," she raved.

The mayor's lobbying conflicted with her public duties, which last week included assisting Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes (pictured).
Michael McElroy
The mayor's lobbying conflicted with her public duties, which last week included assisting Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes (pictured).

There was the $650,000 the county gave the city for its Swim Central program and $850,000 more to build a public pool. And $441,370 for a city park and the YMCA. Then $750,000 for mass transit.

Lieberman wasn't finished: "I know you all have a strong and passionate desire to see beach renourishment happen as quickly as possible...," she told the commission. "We're going to spend about $5.1 million on a beach restoration project from Port Everglades to the south county line."

Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, who represents Hollywood, then joined her colleague at the mike. "We want to be seen as a partner to the cities... and your friend," Gunzburger said.

"And understand that sometimes, even though we're partners, there will be issues we are not going to agree on," chimed in Lieberman. "I love my sister. I'm not allowed to tell you how old she is. She had a birthday on Monday, and she has sworn me to secrecy. But I can tell you, she and I disagree from time to time. I'm sure some of you have similar relationships. The bottom line is that the county has finally begun to come to the table and put some money into programs to help the cities."

Then it was the board's turn to address Lieberman and Gunzburger.

"We have an item on the agenda today that I think we're going to be looking for your support on at some point with the Broward County Housing Authority and Pinnacle," Commissioner Beam Furr said. "We're looking to really profoundly change the look of our area..."

"I'm signed on," piped up Gunzburger.

"Excellent," Furr said. "I'm looking for that support, and we need another one."

He looked directly at Lieberman, who beamed a smile at him. Furr apparently took that as a yes.

"Great," he said.

Then Gunzburger, who stands about a half-foot taller than the diminutive Lieberman, muttered to her colleague, almost under her breath, "I don't know -- you're not able to vote on it."

Lieberman replied discreetly, "I'm not able to vote."

Gunzburger ended this uncomfortable little aside by loudly proclaiming to the commission, "I'm signed on, and I'm one of the cheerleaders."

Of course, Lieberman couldn't vote as a county commissioner to approve the projects. She was employed by Pinnacle. And this wasn't a novel situation: The mayor had recused herself 15 times in 14 months on votes that dealt with Pinnacle, which has received millions of dollars from county government in grants and tax-exempt bond financing.

Soon after Lieberman left the meeting, Pinnacle President Michael Wohl, who was the mayor's boss at the time, took the podium to talk about his company's dual projects in Hollywood: the $20 million redevelopment of the low-income, federally subsidized Crystal Lakes apartments in Liberia and the building of a massive, $40 million housing and commercial "village" near the Sheridan Tri-Rail station, just west of Interstate 95. "The central theme this afternoon is Pinnacle loves Hollywood...," Wohl gushed. "It makes my toes tingle."

Lieberman says she never lobbied any city commissioners regarding either project. Further, she says that county officials scheduled her visit to Hollywood that day and that it was a coincidence the Pinnacle votes were on the agenda. "There was nothing improper about my presentation to the city," she wrote in an e-mail response to questions from New Times.

Whatever her involvement, the commission quickly passed the conceptual plan for that $20 million Crystal Lakes redevelopment. But Wohl had a more difficult time pitching the Sheridan Tri-Rail project, which involves 450 new apartments in seven-story buildings, commercial space, a parking garage, and possibly even a charter school near residential areas and the already headache-inducing traffic on Sheridan Street.

Sal Oliveri, whose district includes the Tri-Rail station and surrounding neighborhoods, didn't seem to like the idea. He said he'd been blind-sided by the proposal, since the company hadn't met with him before publicly announcing its plans on December 16. He angrily complained at the meeting that Wohl had met only with commissioner Keith Wasserstrom and Mayor Mara Giulianti. "Sheridan Street is the worst street that you can have any access to...," Oliveri said, citing the horrendous traffic. "I don't need a traffic study because I live there."

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