Best Of :: People & Places
It's Friday night at 11:30 or so, and the first of the alcohol-induced quarrels is under way in downtown West Palm Beach; a feuding 30-something couple causes a small commotion outside O'Shea's Irish Pub on Clematis Street. Just as the conflict looks as if it might get physical, a third party intervenes and a truce is called. But the mediator isn't a bartender, bouncer, or even a cop. He's a bum. Not just any bum -- he's the colorful street character known as Flippin' George. Proudly boasting a name most people won't say aloud in public (he prefers the n word as a middle name and insists on hearing it repeated), the short, stocky, would-be gymnast has been a fixture of downtown street life for more than half a decade. George is one of those bums with a gimmick -- front flips -- and he's got it down to a science, performing just the right number of flips and moving on before his shtick gets old. Since his debut six years ago, George has turned lots of heads and, not surprisingly, earned a few bucks along the way. But even if the money stops flowing, George says he'll continue flipping. And Clematis Street will be a more amusing place because of it.
In five years on the Broward County Commission, Ben Graber has developed a reputation as a fresh-air guy. When the room stinks, Graber's usually the one to open the window. That goes all the way back to his outspoken criticism of the commission's choice of an inept company to run the county's 2002 election (resulting in widespread goof-ups and cost overruns) to his attack on the sleazy practice of awarding "minority" contracts to politically connected companies who simply take a cut and funnel the work elsewhere.
Graber loves a circus or a carnival. "Shooting galleries, clowns running around, food that gives you heartburn," he revels. "It's a vast stimulation of the senses in one place. You can't seem to get enough, until you get exhausted and go home."
Come to think of it, there are similarities to his job as an elected official. "Sometimes it reminds me of the old song: 'Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...' Yeah, sometimes you feel like you're stuck in a carnival. Sometimes it becomes a circus. It's not necessarily good or bad. It's just theater."
It was around this time last year that the Broward Sheriff's Office, the sixth-largest in the country, reported that it had solved more than 50 percent of the crimes committed in 2003. That was more than twice the national average. It was also a lie. Some of the "solved" crimes were pinned on people who had airtight if highly inconvenient alibis: They were incarcerated or dead when they were supposed to have broken the law. Other crimes were demoted (e.g., burglary became "trespassing") to keep them out of official reports. The culture among commanders at BSO, prosecutors found, encouraged fudging numbers. A former aide to Sheriff Ken Jenne revealed that the sheriff had urged him to smear the Miami Herald's police reporter, who had been hammering BSO over the scandal. Two Weston detectives were charged with criminal misconduct for falsely clearing cases. When the true numbers shook out, they showed that crime was actually on the rise across much of Broward County. The BSO morass, years in the making, just keeps unraveling, this enigma wrapped in a riddle inside, well, bullshit.
Appointed in 1985 by then-Gov. Bob Graham, Sylvia Poitier -- a cousin by marriage to actor Sidney Poitier -- was the first African-American to take a seat on the Broward County Commission. She served several terms and then made the unfortunate decision to vote for a deal that forced Broward taxpayers to purchase land worth $40 million from developer Michael Swerdlow in 1997 for $120 million. And that's not all. One year later, when Poitier sought reelection, she accepted $2,250 in contributions from Swerdlow... before even opening her campaign account. Ultimately, Poitier lost her seat to political neophyte Kristin Jacobs. But as Poitier's political career illustrates, you can't keep a bad girl down. This past January, she announced her candidacy for Deerfield Beach City Commission. During the campaign that followed, more of Poitier's dirty laundry aired. It was reported that Miami-Dade Community College had no record of an associate's degree Poitier claimed to have and that she owed $9,000 in county back taxes. But Deerfield Beach voters nevertheless elected the 69-year-old politician on March 8, rejecting the challenge of 52-year-old political novice Wendy Knowles, who happens to be (no joke!) another of Sidney Poitier's cousins. The good news in all this is that Poitier should make Deerfield Beach politics interesting again. One of her first actions as a city commissioner: threatening to pull the plug on the popular Mango Festival if a political rival, former Commissioner Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, didn't resign from the festival committee. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a new regime, and she's not a part of my team," Poitier told the Sun-Sentinel. Ah, welcome back, Sylvia! All hail the new regime!
Help Wanted: Top administrator for Fort Lauderdale, a city plagued with millions of dollars in debt, poor worker morale, and overgenerous pension plans. Qualified applicants should have more brain cells than former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson, the ability to brush off criticism from the press and cops, and a willingness to do dirty work. Salary is not competitive. In fact, this is a volunteer position.
That's pretty much the job description Alan Silva accepted in October 2003, when he agreed to become Fort Lauderdale's interim city manager. America's Venice had amassed millions in debt during some of the hottest economic expansion the region had ever seen. A 54-year-old former director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Silva worked more than 80 hours per week for ten months as Fort Lauderdale's top bureaucrat. He cut expenses, slashed services, made layoffs, and changed the culture of incompetence at City Hall. Silva wasn't interested in playing the popularity game. By the time City Manager George Gretsas took over in June 2004, Silva's voluntary hard work had paid off. Fort Lauderdale was well on its way out of debt. "It was time to give back to the community," Silva says of his volunteer post. And he's not finished. He continues to volunteer for the Broward Democratic Party and the gay and lesbian Dolphin Democrats Club.
One of the greatest acts of bravery in South Florida is to say no to a developer. This is a real-estate-brokering, condo-tower-building, home-razing madhouse, and standing between the wrecking ball and the next doomed edifice isn't an easy -- or common -- stance. That's why Diane Smart, a founder and vice president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation, is such a standout. She's become the face and voice of the trust, which sprang up a few years ago in response to the demolition of Fort Lauderdale's Art Deco and mid-century modern architecture. Smart led the battle to save part of the Art Deco-style Lauderdale Beach Hotel, which the Related Group intended to replace with a condo tower. Under pressure, the company last year agreed to preserve the north, east, and south façades of the building. Smart certainly has her work cut out for her, but perhaps she'll inspire fellow residents to join the fight.