Cash Cow

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

First, on February 10, 2003, the council approved a yearlong contract with Rubin for $78,000. A month later, it spiced up the deal by approving an additional $175,000 for Rubin. Three months after that, the council gave Rubin a $15,000 performance bonus. Then, in November 2003, Rubin was awarded another $155,000 contract.

Then, during a town meeting on April 8, 2004, Canada asked the board to approve an emergency outlay of $29,999 to Rubin for a month's worth of work, saying his contracts had all been paid. The council approved the money, with Maines casting the only nay vote.

That adds up to some ludicrous lucre -- $452,999 in a maze of contracts during a 14-month period. "Does it look unethical, and does it look bad the way Canada goes about things?" Maines asks. "Yes, but the town has benefited."

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 councilman says that Rubin's puffed-up pay is earned not so much for filling out applications as for using his county links -- a.k.a. his wife -- to bring the money to the Ranches. "His value comes from his connections," Maines opines. "He uses his influence. He does whatever lobbying needs to be done to benefit the town."

When reached on the telephone at home and asked about his pay, Rubin was unrepentant. He said he deserved even more money. "I've brought $25 million to the town, and what I've been paid is less than what any professional consultant would be paid," he said. "The only reason I'm doing it for less is that I'm a resident of the town, and the town means a lot to my family and to me."

As he began to elaborate, his wife suddenly got on the phone and explained that Rubin couldn't speak because he'd been having health problems, had just come from the hospital, and was still under anesthesia. Wasserman-Rubin, apparently, is accustomed to taking care of her husband in more ways than one; she's also served as an enthusiastic supporter on the County Commission for her husband's grant requests.

She has not only voted for each one of the town grants authored by Rubin but has added successful motions to the commission agenda directing county staff to help the town acquire property and shift funds to Southwest Ranches coffers. Wasserman-Rubin even gave the town $482,500 of the $1 million allotted from the county parks bond to her office for discretionary spending.

Rubin takes credit for that money in his $25 million boast -- though the actual figure, according to town records, is more like $20 million -- and some of his wife's actions have helped him earn performance bonuses from the town.

Rubin and other town leaders, often dressed in Western attire to dramatize the rural character of Southwest Ranches, have made periodic pilgrimages to County Commission meetings to lobby for grant money. During one such gathering last June 22, Wasserman-Rubin asked then-Mayor Ilene Lieberman: "Can I just recognize the members of the town that are here?"

"You may certainly do so," Lieberman answered.

"...We've got Mr. John Canada, town administrator, and we have town grants writer Richard Rubin," Wasserman-Rubin said.

What was amazing about the exchange was that she didn't even note that Rubin was her husband, though county staff and her fellow commissioners were surely well aware of that fact. Shortly after her introductions, the commission voted unanimously to give the town more than $1.1 million.

In Florida, it's a second-degree felony to use one's governmental post for personal financial gain. Wasserman-Rubin strongly denied that her actions on behalf of Southwest Ranches and her husband were a conflict of interest. She said she asked then-county attorney Ed Dion about the matter, and he assured her it wasn't a problem, since she didn't sit on any boards that actually evaluated her husband's grant applications.

"I'm very paranoid about these things," Wasserman-Rubin says. "I am very fearful about those things, and I will not put my career on the line."

Since Richard Rubin was hired by Southwest Ranches (he's currently being paid $156,000 for the year, with the potential of another $90,000 in bonuses), the commissioner's net worth has nearly tripled to $460,000 (though that figure seems terribly low considering the rise in value of their house). In 2002, the couple bought a condo in Davie near a golf course as a second home for $121,000 cash.

Call it a fringe benefit of public service.

It's not so much Rubin's exorbitant pay that rankles Ranchers for a Better Government as it is the way Canada seems to intentionally obscure it with a confusing trail of contracts. The group says that shady financial practices have become the town's hallmark and that Canada and Co. have stripped the Ranches of any semblance of integrity.

They point to the land purchases as the premier example of the town's indecent dealings. Holly Hugdahl, who moved to Southwest Ranches in 2000, has spent months trying to decipher the grants and land deals and says they are rife with "bait and switch" tactics. And Hugdahl isn't just any activist -- she's a certified pubic accountant who contracts with municipalities, most recently Miami Lakes, to troubleshoot their finances.

Hugdahl points out that town leaders like Poliakoff, Canada, and Fink routinely champion the grants coming into the town but always fail to mention the $5 million bond issue that the town approved to finance its land empire. They're also hush about the strings attached to the money. For instance, Southwest Ranches has already agreed to build three museums and a canoe-rental facility, according to Hugdahl's research. Yet the town, which is forbidden to profit from the land it has acquired with grant money, has barely begun to maintain the property. "If people knew how much this is going to cost down the road, I'm not sure they would support it," she says. "I actually have a very selfish motivation: I don't want my taxes raised. This is going to cost us a fortune in the long run."

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