Cash Cow

A group of political opportunists is cashing in on the rural town of Southwest Ranches

Tall and thin,Alfred Fisikelli walks on his land with a slight tilt of the head and a slow, respectful gait.

"Watch that," he cautions, pointing to a thin electrical wire running along the white PVC fence surrounding his cow pasture. "It's hot."

Fisikelli, who goes by Freddy, is a 74-year-old son of Italian immigrants, but you'd swear there were at least three generations of Florida rancher in him. He speaks with a Southern twang, loves nothing more in the world than to hunt, and he's so thin that the blue Rustler jeans he wears drape around his legs. The work he's done is imprinted on his worn, leathery hands, which seem more a part of his farm than of him, battered by decades of subtropical sun and dirt to a mottled, river-rock reddish brown.

Alfred Fisikelli (pictured) says the town of Southwest Ranches is being ruined by the unethical and reckless government run by John Canada (following picture).
Colby Katz
Alfred Fisikelli (pictured) says the town of Southwest Ranches is being ruined by the unethical and reckless government run by John Canada (following picture).
John Canada
Colby Katz
John Canada

The pasture is empty but for one black, big-horned cow. Fisikelli, who wears a hearing aid in each ear, suddenly breaks into a loud, high-pitched call: "Come out, come out, come out, come out -- hey!"

Beyond a nearby fence, they call back with big, guttural "meeeaaaaaaggh"s. Then a small herd of brown and black cows comes running through a tree-lined opening in two near-perfect lines. They surround Fisikelli, who is closer to his cattle than most ranchers. He has names for all 19 of them. Blondie, a big brown one, walks right up to Fisikelli, and he gives her a good pat. "The brown cows you can touch," he explains of his stock. "The black cows you can't. They're a different breed."

Fisikelli has been farming this land in southwest Broward County since 1965, when he and a couple of friends from Southern Bell, where he worked his day job, cashed out their stock plans and bought 40 acres at $775 each for a total of $31,000.

That modest purchase has made Fisikelli a millionaire. Those 40 acres would now go for $275,000 each, or a total of about $11 million, which amounts to 355 times what he and his partners paid for them. After an ill-timed selloff and a gift of an acre and a half to his son, Fisikelli still holds 8.5 acres, or about $2.4 million worth of land.

""They tell me I should sell, but why? This is my home," says Fisikelli, the town's conscience. "People say, 'You could do anything you want. Why don't you go on cruises?' Well, if you can't fish off the boat, I don't want to be on it."

And Southwest Ranches -- a rural haven made up mostly of two- to three-acre home sites -- is his town. He helped found the edge-of-the-Everglades municipality five years ago to save it from being consumed by the soul-sucking sprawl of neighboring suburbs like Pembroke Pines and Weston. When its 13 square miles and 7,000 residents were incorporated in 2000, Fisikelli ran for council and not only won a seat but garnered the most votes of any candidate in the five races. Appointed vice mayor, he was determined to create a simple town that focused on much-needed road improvements and repair of serious drainage problems.

But the parasites and profiteers got in the way of that practical notion, and the place was taken over by a political machine. The Ranches seems to have gone a bit too far with the Old West tradition it celebrates (the town hall comes complete with a hitching post). It has become, literally, an outlaw town, blatantly violating Florida's Code of Ethics and public disclosure laws. Under the guise of saving money and avoiding unions, Southwest Ranches contracts all its services to private companies. While privatization has long been controversial, the town has taken the concept to the extreme, using it as an excuse to subvert the staples of decent government.

The Ranches' boss is Town Administrator John Canada, a former Broward County budget director who runs the place like a family business. He's bolstered by Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff, who is managing partner of the powerhouse legal and lobbying firm Becker & Poliakoff. Owner of a 6,500-square-foot Southwest Ranches mansion, Poliakoff "volunteered" to help form the municipality before he and his son Keith became two of its well-compensated officials. The public face of the machine is Mayor Mecca Fink, a town booster who religiously supports Canada and Poliakoff. And then there is Richard Rubin, the town's extravagantly paid grant writer, who happens to be the husband of one of Poliakoff's top political allies, Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin.

The machine, hard-wired into the Broward political power grid, has rustled up contracts to cash in mightily on the taxpayers of Southwest Ranches and Broward County. And, like some kind of civic viral infection, it's replicating. Canada, Poliakoff, Fink, and Rubin are poaching into West Park, Broward's newest city. They plan to take over that town, which just elected its first commission March 8, even as they retain control of Southwest Ranches.

If successful, the machine's profits would be staggering. But hey, everybody's getting rich in the Ranches. With land prices skyrocketing across South Florida, it's boom time in the boonies. The rich and famous -- from corporate bigs to professional jocks like Miami Dolphins star Jason Taylor and former Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez -- are flocking to the Ranches and covering the open space with gargantuan homes. Most Ranchers are content to go along for the ride, happy to be land-wealthy and hoping for more.

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