Axis of Influence
The audacious bid to gain control of government money and media coverage began with a strange but simple equation: a quarter a head.
That's how much the downtown developers and businessmen who formed the Broward Alliance in 1998 felt they deserved from your local tax coffers. Twenty-five cents for every man, woman, and child. With about 1.6 million people, that would be about $400,000.
Using this quarter-per-person formula, prominent downtown developer Terry Stiles, construction magnate Bob Miller, and other business bigs sent out reps to peddle the alliance to city governments. They claimed they'd help create jobs and generate billions in revenue.
By and large, our esteemed public officials ate it up. By 2000, the alliance was being compensated some $225,000 a year by cities and $1.1 million a year by Broward County, the latter through occupational license fees. It's money that has helped pay for soirées where the business elite rubs shoulders with government officials, influences their decisions, and greases the wheels for winning big public contracts. It also helps pay the $250,000 a year in rent for the alliance's offices on swank Las Olas Boulevard.
As the Guinness beer guy says, "Brilliant!"
But the alliance didn't stop at government officials -- it also reeled in the Sun-Sentinel, which is represented on the alliance board and pays at least $10,000 in dues each year. The newspaper regularly publishes positive reports on the organization and the alliance's number-one issue -- expanding the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport -- in its editorial section.
Purely a coincidence, I'm sure.
In the most recent edition of the alliance newsletter, a front-page color picture includes Sun-Sentinel Vice President Howard Greenberg. With dark slicked-back hair and a fecal grin, he's hamming it up with Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman, among others. Greenberg, who has served as circulation chief and development director for the newspaper, is currently the alliance's vice chairman and has long sat on the group's board. The Sun-Sentinel is also a member of the Alliance's Investor Council.
It gets worse. In the newsletter, Greenberg is quoted about his recent meetings with county officials on behalf of the alliance. The meetings are "allowing us to gain the trust and respect of each commissioner," Greenberg says, adding that they are also "putting all of us on the same page from a priorities standpoint."
Wait a second -- is the Sun-Sentinel supposed to be on the "same page" as our elected officials? So much for the Fourth Estate.
This match made in journalistic hell doesn't guarantee that the alliance won't get any bad ink in the Sun-Sentinel. That's just the way it has worked out. Take this April 16, 2003, editorial (please): "The Alliance is jettisoning go-it-alone efforts in areas such as small business development and international business. Instead, it plans to aid similar efforts by the chambers of commerce and groups like the International Business Council... The Alliance... simply does not have the resources to be all things to all people."
It's true, little Johnny, it can't be all things to all people. Now buck up, wipe those eyes, and always remember: The good people at the alliance are always on your side.
Greenberg didn't return my calls, but Kevin Courtney, the Sun-Sentinel's communications director, insisted that the V.P. has nothing to do with the editorial board. Courtney insisted there is a firewall between the circulation and editorial departments that is as steadfast as the one between church and state.
Well, with the president's faith-based initiatives, that's not saying much anymore. And here's a fact: The Sun-Sentinel has never criticized the alliance or examined its public funding. Worse, the Tribune Company-owned newspaper seems to blindly promote the same projects as the alliance.
The premier case in point is the $1 billion airport expansion, which is expected to be one of the largest public works projects in Broward history. It's no wonder the Broward Alliance is pushing for the expansion -- its members will make a killing on the wellspring of federal and local contracts.
Some type of airport growth is probably necessary, but it's a damned complicated issue. It will be incredibly expensive, displace thousands of residents, sully precious wetlands, and make life a lot louder and less pleasant for folks in southern Broward cities like Dania Beach and Hollywood. But don't let those little details get in the way of the Sun-Sentinel editorial board, which has been as loud and one-sided in its support of the expansion plan as the alliance. In the process, the newspaper has been dead wrong.
"Last year, 16 million passengers passed through the airport. By 2020, that figure is expected to double," the Sun-Sentinel warned in a July 2002 editorial titled "Rev Up the Economic Engines."
"Without the second runway to handle this huge increase in air traffic, the result will be lengthy delays on the ground and overhead."
What the newspaper didn't tell you is that there is no substantiation for the county's contention that the number of passengers will double -- in fact, federal agencies have predicted it will increase much more moderately [see "A Flight of Fancy," New Times, June 28, 2001]. The Sun-Sentinel also called for immediately building a 9,000-foot runway and urged commissioners not to study the issue any more.
Well, since the newspaper's ill-conceived missive, the commission did further study the issue -- and now it's generally accepted that an 8,000-foot runway would do the trick and cost millions less.
"Fortunately, airport supporters are beginning to organize and apply pressure of their own," the anonymous Sentinel editorialist wrote. "Fort Lauderdale's Downtown Development Authority has endorsed the south runway concept, and a new organization called Friends of the Airport is fashioning a coalition to push for it as well."
Guess what the Sun-Sentinel forgot to disclose? The Friends of the Airport is based at the Broward Alliance's headquarters and run by alliance members, including good old Stiles, who serves as the Friends of the Airport vice chairman.
Which makes the Sun-Sentinel's Chicken Little routine nothing less than deplorable.
Despite the newspaper's faithful support of the alliance, many cities have broken ties with the group during the past couple of years. Dania Beach, the city that will be most adversely affected by the expansion, quit giving its $10,000 last year. What had the alliance done for Dania during the past five years? "Not a hell of a lot -- but they were good at collecting dues," Vice Mayor Bob Mikes quips.
Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti has also criticized the group and stopped paying dues. In her 2003 State of the City speech, she asked rhetorically: "How many of us feel that the Broward Alliance has done much in the way of economic development for Hollywood up to this point?"
The skepticism is well-founded. In 1998, the group claimed it would create 63,000 jobs and spur $2 billion in capital investment over five years. Them's big promises, but it didn't come close. After five years, even by its own estimates, the alliance has drummed up about half of what it said it would. But even the reduced claim is ridiculously misleading. Those new jobs and dollars spent would have been added to Broward with or without the group. Alliance officials don't deny that. All the group did was obliquely assist a few companies that were moving to sunny South Florida.
As the newsletter indicates, the alliance is usually out promoting... the alliance. Especially members like Stiles, who acquired a building in Miami, won a "prestigious safety award," and opened a condo sales office, according to recent editions.
So it's not surprising that Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Coconut Creek, Sunrise, and several other municipalities have also dropped the alliance. In fact, only a handful of cities -- Coral Springs, Plantation, Deerfield Beach, Lauderhill, and Miramar -- still cough up dues, Executive Vice President Joan Goodrich says. And the alliance doesn't try to charge them a quarter a person anymore. Now the group generally asks for a $10,000 contribution. Why did they change the formula?
"The old one didn't make any sense," Goodrich explains.
It sure did back when they were raking in serious coin.
Vice Mayor Mikes likes to say alliance developers and builders would promote anything the government pays them to build, whether it be runways or pyramids. The group can talk about leadership and vision and other gobbledygook, but it's after only one thing: public contracts. And the airport expansion is the Big Kahuna.
So who needs those lost cities? Stiles and his boys still have county funds and the Sun-Sentinel cheerleading for them. And a cool million and a muted press can go along way when you're pulling one over on the public.
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