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
Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff tutored Southwest Ranches commissioners on public records laws. They didn't learn, apparently.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff tutored Southwest Ranches commissioners on public records laws. They didn't learn, apparently.
Councilman Maines says the plan by Southwest Ranches officials to take over the new city of West Park is outrageous.
Colby Katz
Councilman Maines says the plan by Southwest Ranches officials to take over the new city of West Park is outrageous.

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.

Fisikelli, who knows the town and its government as well as anyone, doesn't like the mansions or the political machine. He's leading a group of vigilant villagers in a bid to take the town back. They say the town government has become little more than a shell game. And they want to bring something to their little western outpost that has been missing for way too long: a little law and order.


Fisikelli and his comrades in arms have a grave mission, but that doesn't mean they lack a sense of humor. It's evident in the name they've given themselves: "Ranchers for Better Government... and World Peace." In addition to the former vice mayor, there are about a dozen other hard-core reformers, most notably Holly Hugdahl, a freelance government consultant who serves as the group's financial expert. There's also organizer Fred Cox, a former Federal Reserve Bank employee and avid equestrian who recently hurt his back when he was thrown from a horse. Serving as the group's unofficial historian is Marcia Larkin, who was an enthusiastic town booster before realizing the experiment was going terribly awry.

In trademark tongue-in-cheek fashion, Cox states one of the group's basic gripes: "The Canadians have taken over the town."

He's not talking about invaders from the north. To understand what he means, you need only peruse a list of town employees. At the top is John Canada, the administrator. The clerk is one Shari Canada. And a Pat Canada serves as finance director.

Shari is Canada's daughter, and Pat is his wife. It's called nepotism, and it's against the law. Florida forbids public officials from employing a relative in "a position in the agency in which the official is serving or over which the official exercises jurisdiction or control."

John Canada, however, considers himself a private official, since the town contracts not with him but with the company he formed to run Southwest Ranches, John Canada & Associates. In effect, Canada's argument is that a private contractor hired to act in place of a governmental body is immune from the state's ethics laws.

It is a dangerous and apparently unprecedented notion. Bonnie Williams, long-time executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, says she's never heard another municipality make a similar case. "Nothing is ever cut and dried, but it's reasonable that the town should abide by the conflict-of-interest laws and that the arguments the town may have against it are spurious," the ever-circumspect Williams said. "If someone filed a complaint in this case, it could be decided once and for all."

But Canada doesn't stop there. The Florida Constitution forbids anyone from holding two distinct offices within any municipality. Yet John Canada & Associates, a single entity, is serving as both town manager and town clerk, two distinct offices. In other words, Canada checks and balances Canada.

This apparent law-breaking, however, may seem like only a minor transgression compared to Canada's colossal compensation. When he retired as the $125,000 budget director of Broward County to become the town's first administrator in 2000, his inaugural contract paid about $350,000 a year. Canada was doing quite well considering the small size of the town and the fact that, other than a single clerk, he was the company's only employee. (He hired his wife and daughter and a few additional employees, sans benefits, in 2002). By contrast, the average town administrator in the United States makes about $92,000, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). For a small town like Southwest Ranches, ICMA reports that the average pay is in the $60,000 range. Canada's windfall seems even more inflated when you consider that he was almost certainly making more than his former boss, Broward County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, who oversees a $2.5 billion budget and nearly 2 million residents. Desjarlais earns about $200,000 annually.

This year, the Southwest Ranches administrator's already rich plum got even sweeter. The council canceled the final year of his contract, which was supposed to pay $378,000, and replaced it with a four-year deal. In 2005, he'll receive $655,000, with healthy raises scheduled through 2008, when he's slated to bring in a whopping $759,000. For that giant pay increase, he agreed to hire a new assistant town administrator and two more employees. In other words, he has received nearly $280,000 in extra pay to hire three people (again without providing pension or benefits).

So how much is Canada really making? Well, he won't say -- and his secrecy is another clear violation of the laws of Florida, specifically the "Government-in-the-Sunshine" statutes. He won't even provide the information to the council. Last year, Town Councilman Don Maines, a guarded critic of the administration, asked the administrator to reveal his employees' salaries. "I said we should have the right to what he is paying out," Maines explains. "It would help to know what it really costs to run the town. But he basically told us that it's none of our business."

Canada, who has been publicly criticized in the past for failing to return phone calls, didn't respond to requests from New Times for interviews. But when questioned at a recent town hall meeting about his refusal to turn over the information on his employees, he said simply: "It's not public information because we're not a public corporation."

The Florida Supreme Court, however, has ruled otherwise. In an unrelated case, the court determined that any private company that "performs the public function in place of the public body" falls under the Sunshine statutes.

Pat Gleason, general counsel for the Florida attorney general, says it's clear that Canada is violating the law. "It's all public record," Gleason says. "If a private corporation is standing in the shoes of the government, then they must adhere to public records. It's unusual for that kind of situation to occur. Most of the time, the private entities are aware of their responsibilities under the law."

Canada also defended his nepotistic practices. "In traditional government, you can't [hire relatives]," he acknowledged. "But these are not traditional employees. We run our business just like any other business."

That, however, wasn't the original plan for Southwest Ranches. The town charter, which effectively stands as the supreme law for the town, has nothing in it about a company running the place. Rather, it states that an administrator should be hired not on a contractual basis but for an "indefinite" amount of time. In other words, Canada's own contract, which covers a specified number of years, violates town law.


Charged with making sure the town follows the law is Gary Poliakoff, who is known not quite affectionately as "Big P" by the Ranchers for Better Government. "Little P" would be his son, Keith. Neither father nor son, however, works for the town. Their 120-member legal and lobbying firm, Becker & Poliakoff, actually holds the contract.

Gary Poliakoff, who made his fortune representing neighborhood and condo associations, has been deeply involved in the town since well before its inception. As a leader of one of the most influential law firms in Florida, he was one of the few people in the Ranches who had any idea how to assemble a municipality. He wrote the charter, and his firm contributed to several council campaigns, most notably those of Fink, the town's first mayor, and Johnny Dollar, the first vice mayor, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2002. Fisikelli, the maverick ex-councilman, didn't receive any funds from Becker & Poliakoff and says he didn't want them.

"The town became a clique, and I was invited to join the clique," the former vice mayor says. "But I told them I wouldn't join. The whole scheme was based on the fact that there was a lot of money to be made on the town. Money changes people. It makes people lie, and I can't get behind that."

The townsfolk tried to bone up on the rules of government, but Poliakoff, even though he didn't practice municipal law, played the role of wizard. Any doubt that the lawyer was the man behind the curtain was extinguished at the first town hall meeting, which was held in the quaint setting of a school auditorium on August 8, 2000. The initial order of business was to name Poliakoff as interim town attorney. Mayor Fink, according to the Sun-Sentinel, then cried out hurriedly from the makeshift dais, "Gary, please come up here and help us!"

Poliakoff's law firm was then contracted by the town for up to $200,000 a year at a rate of $175 an hour. On top of that, the firm has received hundreds of thousands of dollars more in other fees, including from the proceeds of land deals it closes for the town.

Oh, and there have been many land deals.

Since incorporation, Southwest Ranches has purchased more than 200 acres of open land, ostensibly for public parks. Though its budget hovers at a minuscule $6 million annually, the town has borrowed roughly $5 million and obtained some $25 million in grants. The majority of the latter, about $18 million, came from Broward County's $400 million Safe Parks and Land Preservation Bond. The way all that county money was procured reveals the labyrinthine and incestuous nature of politics not only in Southwest Ranches but also in Broward County.

From the town's early days, the man behind the grants has been Poliakoff chum Richard Rubin, whom the Ranches hired to secure government money for its land-buying bonanza. Rubin had a bit of an advantage, since he's married to Diana Wasserman-Rubin, who won a seat on the Broward Commission shortly before her husband took the job.

A month after the town was incorporated, the Rubins bought a $305,000 home in Southwest Ranches (at the right time -- their house is likely worth $700,000 or more today). Wasserman-Rubin was then the clear front-runner for the commission seat. Managing her campaign was none other than Bernie Friedman, an influential lobbyist who works for the Poliakoffs' law firm.

The Ranches has not only provided Richard Rubin a free office in which to conduct his business but has paid him as much as $1 million for writing grants. If that sounds like an obscene amount of money for a part-time government gig, that's because it is. Most grant writers, even those working full-time for a big city, would consider themselves lucky to earn $75,000 annually.

From the start, Rubin pulled phenomenal coin from Southwest Ranches, in the ballpark of $200,000 a year, give or take 10 or 20 grand. He clearly had nothing to complain about, but things would get much better. And his fortuitous rise in compensation would occur simultaneously with his wife's political rise. In November 2002, Wasserman-Rubin was appointed for a yearlong term as Broward's first mayor. Just four months later, Southwest Ranches basically began to print money for the man, town records indicate. And it was done with a confusing string of contracts that the Ranchers for a Better Government say effectively hid the payout from the public's view.

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."

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."

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.

"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.

"John Canada is a liar," Maines says. "The truth has never come out about the deal that John and Alyn Kay had."

Fisikelli, who still considers Canada a strange kind of friend, says the town administrator is unlike anyone he's ever met. "You cannot understand this man -- he will tell you a bold-faced lie to your face and shake your hand when he's through," Fisikelli says. "I have never met a man like that. I guess he thinks telling lies is OK."

Fisikelli was basically the lone man on the council fighting Canada (though sympathetic, Maines usually voted with the majority). And the farmer realized he wasn't doing much good being on the losing end of 4-1 votes. So prior to the 2004 election, he made a bold move: He gave up his council seat and decided to run against Fink for mayor. It was the only way to fight the clique, Fisikelli decided.

Hugdahl also jumped into the fray, running for commission against rookie candidate Jeff Nelson, who was backed by the political machine (the Becker & Poliakoff firm contributed $500 to his campaign). Rounding out their unofficial ticket was Maines, an incumbent running for reelection. All three won Sun-Sentinel endorsements, but only Maines survived the March election, during which Fink and company trumpeted the town's acquisition of grant money. An example from Fink's campaign brochures: "She has added 173 acres of public green space at no cost to town taxpayers."

Even if you forget about the payouts to Rubin to obtain the grants (a definite "cost to town taxpayers"), Fink also overlooked the $5 million loan, which the town will be paying off for another 26 years.

Nelson, who handily beat Hugdahl, has since become Canada's most vocal critic on the council. He says the town's fiscal policies are almost impossible to decipher, and he believes Rubin has been grossly overpaid. When asked if it's been tough to criticize the people who supported his candidacy, he said simply, "I have to sleep at night."

The 2004 electoral defeat slowed down the Ranchers for a Better Government, but it hasn't stopped the group. "There is nothing they can do to make us roll over," Hugdahl says. "We don't need them for anything. They can't buy us. We're not for sale."


The question now is whether the newest city in Broward County, West Park, will be bought. Because that's where the whole gang that runs Southwest Ranches is planning to go next.

Call it Government Inc.

Mayor Fink tells New Times that she plans to retire from her $78,000-a-year job as the Broward County clerk of court, where she runs its public-access Internet site, to become the administrator of West Park, a south Broward town of about 13,000 that was incorporated in November. She admits that sitting on the Ranches council hasn't taught her everything about managing a town, so she's going to hire John Canada & Associates as a subcontractor. "We will not be partners," she says of Canada. "I will only subcontract work to Canada. I want control -- I want that professional level of control. I am doing this to earn a living for my family."

For the past several months, she has been campaigning for the job in West Park. She promoted the idea to commission candidates, and Canada has already begun "volunteering" for West Park. He worked up a feasibility study showing that the cost of an administration contract would be a mere $775,000 a year in West Park, about $100,000 cheaper than Canada charges in Southwest Ranches, which has about half the population of West Park.

The father-and-son Poliakoff team is also getting in on the action. Keith Poliakoff confirms that his firm, which has given thousands of dollars to West Park campaigns, is vying to become the city's official attorney at a yearly rate of $200,000.

The problems with the scheme are obvious. For one, as mayor of the Ranches, Fink is charged with evaluating Canada's proposals and job performance. If she is in business with Canada, her independence, such as it is, would become extremely dubious. It's also legally problematic because state law forbids a person from signing checks for two different towns because of the obvious conflict of interest.

"It's disgraceful," Maines says of the plan. "You can't serve two masters. She can't even run a Town Council meeting, so I don't know how she's going to run a city. She's been giving [West Park leaders] a good snow job, but all she'll be doing is riding on the coattails of John Canada."

West Park officials say they are considering Fink as city manager and Becker & Poliakoff as town attorney but won't make a final decision for at least a couple of months.

A fitting symbol of Fink's growing conflict between the Ranches and West Park came in the form of an empty chair. It was the mayor's seat at the March 10 Southwest Ranches Town Council meeting. Instead of doing her job for the town, she opted to go that night to West Park, where the new City Commission was being sworn in by none other than her friend, Diana Wasserman-Rubin. Keith Poliakoff, whose father was on vacation, had an attorney from his firm sit in on the meeting.

Fisikelli sat in the front row of the Ranches meeting that night and stood up several times to criticize Canada's proposals, including the administrator's motion to issue himself a town credit card (which passed by a 3-1 vote, with only Nelson dissenting).

Though no longer elected, the farmer is still filling the same role he's always taken on himself -- town conscience.

"It's hard to believe what's been going on," he says. "This town is heading for some real financial problems. And all I have to say to West Park is that before it makes a decision, it better look long and hard at our town."

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