Deck the Halls With Waste and Folly

Just don't ask too many questions about a sweetheart trash contract in Florida's most complacent city


Before Sunrise City Hall completed its renovation this month, commission meetings have for the past year taken place in the Sunrise Civic Centre Theatre. Commissioners and city staff sit along a dais, fitted with a black valance, looking out on the theater's 306 seats, nearly all of them empty.

Like most commission meetings, the first hour is an exchange of awards between the city and its employees and residents. The mayor, who steps off the dais to distribute the plaques, smiles reluctantly, briefly, and according to cues. He is not a charismatic figure. With a beard and darting eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, Feren's law career seems a more natural fit for his erudite demeanor than political office.

To fully understand how business gets done in Sunrise, you have to know the cast of characters.

To Feren's right sits Commissioner Scuotto, whose sanguine expression suggests he has a bit more faith in his own charms. Twenty-plus years in South Florida have done little to diminish his Brooklyn accent. Job is pronounced "jawb." Party is "pawty." Paper is "paypa." And figures are "figgers."

When he was appointed in 1997, Scuotto (pronounced "SCOOT-o") was one of the commission's youngest-ever members. He seems to always be looking for a punch line, to alleviate his boredom, perhaps, or to impress what little crowd has come to watch. He is the president of the Sunrise Italian-American Civic Association, and politics are a tradition in his family.

Commissioners Don Rosen and Irwin Harlem are the least flamboyant. As a candidate who campaigned for reform, Rosen was isolated from the beginning, and since earlier this year, he has labored under the weight of what passes for scandal in Sunrise: He may not have completed his bachelor's degree. Rosen has lately seemed sullen.

Harlem was appointed to the commission in 1993, and for a long period before that, his Sunset Strip hardware store provided the city with many of its tools — at a rate that, depending upon whom you ask, may have been a bit steep, though perhaps not so gratuitously as to spark an outcry from the city's docile watchdogs. Like Feren, Harlem seems better-suited to his original profession as shopkeeper, and in his remarks, he is a self-styled champion of common sense.

Against this all-male backdrop, Sheila Alu steals all the glamour. The commission meetings are televised, and Alu says she gets nearly as many comments from residents about her wardrobe and hairstyle (it went from blond to chestnut since November) as she does about policy. There's playful repartee between her and Scuotto, though it's almost entirely due to Alu's reflex for making a strained relationship civil. When Scuotto asks law-student Alu whether the bags under her eyes from long hours studying are permanent, Alu treats it as a good-natured crack, not a passive-aggressive shot at her vanity.

These bimonthly meetings in a near-empty theater are about the only glimpses the public — and the media — gets of Sunrise's elected representatives. Of the five commissioners, only Alu responded to an interview request from New Times. Longtime City Manager Pat Salerno and City Attorney Kim Register also failed to return calls.

Even at these meetings, one gets the distinct sense that the real action happens offstage — literally. Through eye contact and a subtle nod of the head, Salerno occasionally summons a commissioner off the dais, the two vanishing behind a black velvet curtain to the wings of the stage.

At the November 15 meeting, commissioners devoted the largest portion of their comments to lambasting their Sun-Sentinel beat reporter, Jennifer Gollan, who in the previous weeks had written two mildly critical stories, one that questioned the city's spending $85,000 on a holiday party for its employees and another that questioned the secrecy surrounding the city's use of a skybox at the Florida Panthers' BankAtlantic Center and whether it was a public benefit for residents or a private perk for city officials.

During his comment period, Mayor Feren reflected on how, when Gollan was first assigned the beat, the two had had an introductory meeting. "We talked about what kind of reporter she wanted to be: a good reporter or a hack," Feren said. "Unfortunately, it appears the reporter has chosen the latter course of action."

He continued: "As a result, I never have any communication with the reporter — which I warned her would happen if she was going to be the kind of reporter she turned out to be."

With a virtual media blackout and with only tepid participation from the locals, city business happens in a near-vacuum. At this meeting, it's worth noting that the officials Salerno took behind the curtain are the same ones who in a 3-2 vote struck down Alu's effort to make public the list of people who get free tickets to the city's BankAtlantic skybox.

Asked later why she backed down without more of a fight, Alu says she knew she didn't have the votes, even if she could have made a motion, which Feren would not allow in the first place. "When I first got elected, I would have sat there and argued with the mayor that he had no basis for denying my motion," said Alu, who adds that, after all, "I have gotten no calls from any residents regarding the skybox."

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