The Mayor's Trial

Did one of Broward's biggest developers rip off Parkland residents and pay off the mayor?

In the court of public opinion, Parkland Mayor Bob Marks is charged with violating the people's trust. He stands accused of accepting financial favor from the biggest developer in his town, WCI Communities, and then voting on dozens of issues that benefited the company.

In effect, it is being alleged here today that the mayor struck a corrupt deal that fattened his very private wallet.

Mayor, your opening statement, please.

"I agree that a case can be made against me. But the problem is that when you're innocent, people are still going to think what they think may be bad. I can only tell you the truth, and it's going to be up to everybody else to believe me or not."

Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Now it's time for the prosecution's opening remarks, which will be presented by nouveau-activist Michael Hollander, a successful restaurateur and Parkland resident whose outrage has driven him to lead the charge against Marks. "The fucking guy is a crook. WCI wanted to pay off people like the mayor, and that's what they did. And if you let one guy fuck you, there's going to be more. You know how a whore is -- they'll fuck anybody."

With that bit of hardened human logic, our little trial begins. It's not set in some banal courtroom but right on the edge of the Everglades, in one of the few remaining open spaces left in northwest Broward County. The place is Heron Bay, a community with a PGA-caliber golf course and homes that go for $400,000 to $4 million. About 2,300 houses are there today; when the bulldozers and construction crews leave, there are expected to be some 3,700 dwellings with more than 10,000 people living in them.

Back in 1999, WCI decided that all those people needed a place to play, so the firm had a clubhouse, Heron Bay Commons, built. That's when the mayor got a piece of the action. His Pompano Beach-based company, ACT Janitorial Services, won the contract to clean the clubhouse in October of that year. Marks' firm answered to WCI, which managed the facility.

Here's the rub: WCI came before the mayor and the rest of the Parkland commission often for project approvals and fee waivers while Marks was on the Commons payroll. And Marks cast votes for WCI every time -- several of them in favor of the expansion of Heron Bay.

This past November, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, acting on an anonymous tip, began investigating the mayor's work at Heron Bay. After FDLE questioned Marks, the mayor promptly ended his contract with the development. But he claimed in subsequent articles in the Sun-Sentinel that he didn't do anything wrong. The crux of his defense has been that even though WCI ran the clubhouse and he billed the company for his services, Heron Bay Commons was owned by another entity that actually paid him.

It will be up to you, dear jurors, to decide if that defense drains your doubt. But before you do, it's incumbent upon this court to allow into evidence a fact that has yet to be publicly revealed: Official records show that a WCI executive played the lead role in hiring the mayor's company at Heron Bay. That would appear to be a financial favor, and for Marks, that could be a serious problem, since profiting from your public position is a felony in Florida.

But the mayor's former gig is just one example of the controversy surrounding Heron Bay Commons, an $8 million, two-story building with a heated swimming pool. It also has a small gym, tennis courts, and, as its coup de grâce, a second-floor conference room that has a veranda overlooking the pool and the Everglades in the distance.

Funny thing, though, WCI didn't pay for the clubhouse. Instead, the suckers -- er, I mean, citizens -- did. It was financed by something called the North Springs Improvement District (NSID). NSID was never meant to build private palaces; it's a special water and drainage district that has taxing authority. Its three-member board of supervisors is elected by landowners but receives little public scrutiny.

"WCI, which owned almost all the land in Parkland, got to build what it wanted, and the public pays the bills," says Parkland Commissioner Michael Udine, who was elected to office last year and lives in Heron Bay. "It's a neat little trick if you can pull it off. Why did a water and drainage district finance a private development?"

Good question. The only hint in public records comes from a November 2, 2000, board meeting. According to the minutes, which can be gleaned from NSID's website, former NSID Commissioner William Bell recalled during the meeting that financing the clubhouse was a "feel-good thing."

And, darn it, the clubhouse -- which provided an excellent showpiece to lure prospective homebuyers -- did make WCI feel good. NSID allowed WCI to manage the place, and company executives quickly turned the Commons into their own little playroom. They regularly enjoyed the conference room and the veranda free of charge. None of it was free for the residents, however. NSID assessed each home about $720 a year to pay for the clubhouse. In all, homeowners will pay $20 million over 20 years to pay off the $8 million bond used to finance the Commons.

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