Cash Cow

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

Poliakoff, whose firm has made nice profits on the land deals, often vacations in Aspen (where he owns a condo assessed at $1.5 million) and declined to comment for this article. But when New Times spoke with him last October, he was aglow about the town's future. "We've obtained nearly $25 million in grants to build some of the most amazing parks in Broward County," Poliakoff said. "It gives Southwest Ranches a chance to preserve some beautiful open space and create tremendous parks for all the people of Broward County."

His son, Keith Poliakoff, admits that the parks are going to be expensive. "You have to have confidence that the town administrator is not leading you astray and, in this case, that the town administrator can satisfy all the requirements within the grants without burdening the public," he says. "You can only tell over time."

The Ranchers for Better Government don't subscribe to blind trust, however. They point to other apparently shady deals, like the town's attempt to circumvent state housing requirements. Because the council didn't want affordable housing in the town (Mayor Fink once remarked that someone would have to put a gun to her head before she'd allow it), Rubin came up with a plan to pay $900,000 to nearby Pembroke Park to build the town's required affordable units. Ultimately, the money was slated to go to Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group, a politically connected development firm that is represented by Poliakoff's law firm. The scheme, however, died when the Pembroke Park project fell through due to a lack of financing.

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

"To pay another town for affordable housing might not be a bad thing," Hugdahl avers. "But playing a shell game and converting it to $900,000 to Pinnacle -- that's not what the people agreed to."

Hugdahl and her compatriots have fought hard for the past three years against the machine but have had only nominal success. During one particularly bitter fight in 2003 over the town charter, the group railed about the nepotism, extravagant pay, and other problems. Gary Poliakoff became so ticked off -- or perhaps threatened -- by the group that he typed an open letter to the town. "I am deeply troubled by the smear campaign of lies and deception being waged by some residents and their financial backers," he wrote in the letter, dated October 14, 2003.

Yet Poliakoff, in his three-page screed, clearly engaged in lies and deception himself. "Do you know that the Town does not pay the salaries of Pat Canada or Shari Canada?" Poliakoff wrote. "Not a dime is paid to them by the town."

Perhaps that is technically true, but it's essentially false. In fact, the Ranches pays the money to John Canada, who then distributes it to his wife and daughter.

Poliakoff, who touted the "unbelievable achievements" of the town and "creativity of John Canada and Richard Rubin" in the letter, also mentioned a new equestrian park that was being built, saying it "will open in November without a single cent coming from our Town."

That was untrue. In fact, the town spent more than $500,000 on the park. When it received a county grant to buy the land, Southwest Ranches had to ante up $150,000 in matching funds. And budget records show the town spent at least $400,000 to build it.

But the town has never seemed very honest -- or smart -- about money, critics say. Take the case of Christine Lupo. She is a full-time code enforcement officer for the City of Pembroke Pines, where she earns roughly $45,000 per year. In 2003, Lupo formed a company called Wolf Tech Inc. and was given a contract to also serve as the Ranches' part-time code officer. That agreement paid her firm a whopping $70,000 a year for 20 hours of work a week and allowed Lupo to keep her full-time job in the Pines.

This year, Lupo got a nice raise. Wolf Tech now receives $99,000 a year. The new arrangement calls for the firm, however, to provide 40 hours a week, rather than 20. Yet Lupo is still holding down her job in the Pines. How does she do it? Predictably, Lupo has hired her son to do the Ranches' work.

And then there's the Alyn Kay saga. Kay is a politically active landscape architect who helped run several campaigns, including Fink's. His apparent payoff for politicking was a part-time job as landscape inspector for the town. How much he got isn't clear, since Canada never gave him a contract for the work.

In 2002, as Fisikelli scoured the town's checks, he saw that Kay had received thousands of dollars. An ensuing controversy included allegations that Kay was extorting money from homeowners. So he stepped down from the apparently secret job. Funny thing, though: Kay kept working for the town, helping to landscape the new equestrian park.

Councilman Maines says he asked the town administrator what Kay was doing. "Canada promised me for a year and a half that Kay had no connection to the town and was only volunteering his time," Maines recalls bitterly.

This past March, however, Canada admitted during a council meeting that he had made a "verbal" contract with Kay and that the town owed him $105,000, which it duly paid. When asked about the mess, Canada called it a "misunderstanding" and said he had made a mistake.

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