Deck the Halls With Waste and Folly
Sometimes, all it takes is a single, seemingly benign question to disturb the balance of a deeply complacent town.
So it is in Sunrise, a community that from all its outward appearances is just another sprawling west Broward County suburb where nothing as interesting as political scandal ever seems to happen.
Because it has no downtown, Sunrise feels smaller than its population of 90,000. Many of its residents are retired, not inclined to wander outside the peaceful, familiar environs of their condominiums, which hug verdant country clubs and man-made ponds, secluded by ten-foot-high walls from the city's wide boulevards, all cluttered with strip malls and traffic.
Hemmed in by the Everglades, traffic is as rhythmic and unhurried as the tide, moving always in the same direction, a formula that during rush hour can make the 13-mile trek to downtown Fort Lauderdale take 90 minutes. One can hardly blame harried Sunrise commuters if upon arriving home, they might be inclined to treat their bungalows like bomb shelters, their cul-de-sacs like fortresses. If they do venture back out, it might be to seek diversion in a Florida Panthers game at the BankAtlantic Center or for the sake of spending some of that hard-earned money in the shops of Sawgrass Mills. Soon, Sunrise will be the only Florida city that will have an Ikea, as it was the only Florida city placed on Barbra Streisand's fall concert tour.
Sunrise City Commission meetings cannot compete with such attractions, and the commissioners don't try. They conduct their business before an audience that by meeting's end dwindles to about a dozen and most of those are not activists or interested residents; they're political players: city workers, union officials, past and future politicians.
Nor can Sunrise residents be very easily coaxed into voting. The retired condo dwellers may be too concerned with their association's government to remember that the city also has one. Turnout in Sunrise's last municipal election, in 2005, was an anemic 16 percent, two points lower than the countywide rate, and even that was Sunrise's best effort in recent memory.
But no one in Sunrise City Hall seems to complain about citizen apathy; rather, they credit themselves with having governed so wisely as to have earned the residents' abiding trust.
And for their part, the residents may be pleased that for the past several years, they have not had to read many articles about official corruption in the Sun-Sentinel or Miami Herald. Surely, they appreciate the city's streak of having lowered the property-tax millage rate 11 years in a row. The streets are paved smooth. The grass in the parks gets mowed. And twice a week, residents' trash cans are emptied and hauled to an incinerator. Out of sight, out of mind.
If that last service the garbage tended to run a bit expensive, it was still only a few dollars more than most other South Florida cities. Hardly enough to provoke citizen revolt.
For the commission, renewing the All Service Refuse contract has always been a mere formality. The company has hauled trash in Sunrise since the late 1960s. For decades, it never had to go through a competitive-bidding process with another trash hauler. Sunrise is All Service's biggest contract. For Sunrise, All Service represents its most costly franchise.
This relationship has lasted for about the same period as another tradition, one that to a casual observer might seem unrelated: that Sunrise commissioners are almost always appointed before they are elected. That is, a sitting commissioner might retire or take another job or die, and the remaining commissioners would select a new one. In the election to follow, that commissioner would have all the advantages fundraising, for starters of being an incumbent.
For these reasons and perhaps because of the city's climate of unruffled complacency, the city's government enjoys a continuity rare in politics. For the past 20 years, power has been concentrated among a small group of men for whom the electorate is treated as delicately as a sleeping dragon.
But by happenstance, several contentious issues roused voters in 2001, and though turnout was a microscopic 13 percent, two nonincumbents were finally elected as commissioners: Don Rosen and Sheila Alu.
In 2005, Alu asked the one question no one had dared ask before: Why does the city not invite another garbage contractor to compete with All Service Refuse?
Even if a competitive bid does not produce cheaper service for Sunrise residents, Alu reasoned, it at least shows the citizens (for Alu presumes they care) that their government is acting in good faith, that it has nothing to hide.
What she didn't know was that Sunrise did have something to hide: In this city, the trash hauler enjoys major clout. All Service gets the Sunrise contract without competition and public officials get showered with campaign cash and favors, none more so than Sunrise Mayor Steven Feren and Commissioner Joseph Scuotto.
Since her query, Alu has seen the other side of the company. "I never in my wildest imagination thought that by simply putting the garbage contract out to bid, I would have to fear for my life and the safety of my daughter," she says. "I suffered severe emotional distress. [I sent] my daughter [away] for a month. I even had to buy a gun, and I never wanted to do that."
Since Hurricane Wilma inflicted damages to Sunrise City Hall, commission meetings have 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 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 was 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 on 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 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."
Alu, who blames the political isolation she felt the first years on her tactless stridency, has learned to "pick my battles." Pragmatism appears to have won out over idealism. "You don't move your agenda in Sunrise by shoving it down someone's throat," she says.
Later, Alu would corner Salerno and City Attorney Register for a tête-à-tête. "I told [Salerno] I didn't want to publicly criticize him," Alu says, "but I let him know I was disappointed."
Whenever Sunrise needs a little extra money, All Service Refuse is, like a rich uncle, ready with the checkbook.
Topping the city's wishlist in the mid-1990s was the annexation of Bonaventure, an unincorporated community lying just to the south of Sunrise, across I-75. Because its population is a bit more affluent, Bonaventure's tax base would be a boon for Sunrise. But Bonaventure residents would have to cast votes in favor of annexation. To that end, All Service paid $150,000, by far the largest contribution to the political-action committee that blanketed Bonaventure with mailers and television commercials. It didn't matter; Bonaventure voted overwhelmingly to join Weston, whose topnotch schools, elegant spas, and fine dining proved more persuasive than any ad campaign.
Around the same time, Sunrise was among a pack of cities lusting after the Florida Panthers' new stadium. Again, Sunrise could count on the generosity of All Service, which paid thousands for swanky banquets feting Panther executives like H. Wayne Huizenga, whose brother-in-law Harris "Whit" Hudson owned All Service, before it became part of Republic Services in 1998.
For $7,800, the company hired a polling firm to study the preferences of Broward County voters on the stadium location, and lo and behold, the firm reported a preference for Sunrise. This time, Sunrise won the derby, and construction began on BankAtlantic Center in July 1996.
All the while, All Service not only kept a contract unthreatened by outside bids but reportedly enjoyed the privilege of meeting in private with City Manager Salerno to hammer out the contract's details. No interference from the public, nor from an independent consultant, who for a nominal fee might have ensured that the city was getting a good deal. From 1993 to 1996, the trash rates increased by 20 percent, but Salerno emerged from the August 1996 negotiations boasting to the Sun-Sentinel that by playing hardball, he'd cut the trash-collection charges by an average of $4 per single-family residence, to around $18. "It's a major loss of revenue for All Service," lamented Harold "Butch" Carter, then the company's vice president.
But slowly, stealthily, the garbage rates climbed back to their previous heights and beyond, until by 2004, they were $23.21, a figure higher than in most other South Florida cities.
As if the company and the city weren't already chummy enough, All Services' owner, Republic Services, a trash-hauling conglomerate with annual revenue of near $3 billion, will move its headquarters next month from Fort Lauderdale to Sunrise.
All Service and its parent company are never more beneficent than during campaign season, at least if public records are any indication.
Of course, there's nothing especially unseemly about All Service's being listed on the treasurers' reports for the 2004-05 campaign (the most recent one in Sunrise) as having donated $500, the maximum amount under Florida law, to both Mayor Feren and Commissioner Scuotto.
But that amount is only the visible tip of an iceberg. One must investigate the other names on the forms to get a full appreciation of the scope of All Service's lobbying efforts in Sunrise. To Scuotto's 2004-05 campaign, Robert Hely, David Katz, and Ralph Trapani made individual contributions totaling $1,250. All three were at the time employed by Republic Services.
Other companies linked through Republic Services to All Service also displayed uncommon generosity: Envirocycle, Eastern Waste Systems, and Southland Waste contributed $500 apiece to Scuotto. Howard Kusnick, Andrew DiBattista, and Ericks Consultants all lobbyists who have worked for All Service each gave $500 too. Even Sky Industries and Superior Wash, companies that provide the truck parts and perform cleaning services, respectively, for All Service trucks, ponied up $500 apiece for Scuotto.
That's $5,750, and sources close to Sunrise government say there are more.
A look at Feren's 2004-05 campaign reports show donations from many of the same firms Sky Industries, Superior Wash, Southland Waste and many of the same lobbyists Ericks Consulting, Howard Kusnick, Robert Hely, Andrew DiBattista. Another lobbyist with past connections to Republic Service, Walter Gallant, gave $500 individually, then $500 more through Specialties by Gallant Graphics, the firm that All Service pays for printing. Another donation came from Mitch Ceasar, president of the Broward County Democratic Committee, who is also an All Service lobbyist.
Add another $500 courtesy of Charles Dean, who runs a debris-removal company that in 2005 was brought in by All Service to assist in the post-Wilma cleanup.
"Bundling," or the practice of collecting donations for a candidate among one's professional associates, is legal, but since it exploits a loophole in campaign finance laws, the bundlers rarely admit to it.
Will Flower, Republic Services vice president for communications, denies a connection between these donations and All Service. "Lobbyists have many different clients," Flower says. "They make those donations, and they don't get reimbursed for campaign contributions that they make."
Indeed, All Service executives and lobbyists seem to go above and beyond the call of duty.
On condition of anonymity, a source claiming close ties to the trash-hauling industry provided New Times with what he called an invoice. It was undated and signed by a former All Service manager, listing several registered lobbyists and next to each name was a dollar figure. Alongside the name Feren is the figure $50,000.
It was a payment, alleged the source, made by All Service to Feren in exchange for his lobbying services. It occurred in 1996, the same year he returned to the Sunrise City Commission.
Feren did not respond to several messages and e-mails inquiring about the $50,000 whether he received it and, if so, when he did so and what he provided in exchange. It is not clear from the invoice whether the payment represented a debt for services already performed or for those he might perform in the future.
All Service spokesman Flower gave this response to questions about the relationship between his company and Feren: "Thus far, we have determined that Steve Feren was engaged by former managers at All Service in 1996. I believe his engagement for services was prior to his appointment on the Sunrise City Council in late 1996. He has not been engaged by All Service since he has served as an official in the City of Sunrise." As of this week, Flower said All Service had not yet located records that specified the services Feren provided to the firm.
Florida law bars a public official from accepting private payments from companies that stand to benefit from that official's past or future decisions.
Scuotto's ties to All Service are more personal. As recently as 2000, his private catering company, Scuotto Coney Island Treats, ran company picnics for All Service employees, according to multiple sources who attended the picnics. Flower also confirmed this business relationship but refused to say how many events Scuotto's firm hosted for All Service, nor would he say when the most recent event took place.
Two relatives a brother and a nephew have landed jobs at All Service since Scuotto's election to the commission. Flower says that both those relatives, brother Michael Scuotto and nephew Nick Marziliano, started their employment in January and February 2005, respectively. But a source close to the Sunrise garbage industry told New Times that both started work before 2005. It's an important distinction: Joey Scuotto had been casting votes on the All Service contract up until 2005, and if his relatives were employed there, he was obligated to recuse himself and file conflict-of-interest documents.
Michael Scuotto did not return calls to his Sunrise home. Marziliano, who is All Service area manager, was reached on his cell phone, but he refused to tell a reporter when he started working at the company. "You'll have to ask All Service about that," Marziliano said, and then the line went dead.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the Sunrise garbage business say that Joey Scuotto is a close friend of John Ferguson, who until recently was area president of All Service, overseeing its entire South Florida operation.
Indeed, one source close to the city's trash industry showed a New Times reporter a video, with dates from January 2002, that showed Scuotto cavorting with Ferguson and other All Services executives, high in the mountains of Montana. They're shown joking around at a ski lodge dinner, climbing onto horses, and snowmobiling through picturesque portions of Yellowstone National Park.
When asked if the company paid Scuotto's expenses, Flower said, "We have no information that would indicate that any employees of All Service took any Sunrise public officials on vacation trips or paid for vacation trips."
Only two months before the dates on the Montana video, Joey Scuotto had cast votes in support of the All Service contract another apparent violation of state law.
There is also some mystery surrounding Scuotto's past work with a small waste company called 3 Js. In financial disclosure forms, Scuotto lists the company in the category reserved for those in which he has an ownership interest. In the company's filings with the state, it does not list Scuotto as an officer. It lists only the names of a husband and wife, John and Janice Lembo. Reached at her Fort Lauderdale home, Janice Lembo refused to grant an interview, explaining that the company was to be sold anyway. She would not say to whom. And in a subsequent conversation, she denied even that.
"No, I didn't give you any information, sir," Lembo said. "And I won't give you any information, so don't try to get it out of me now." Then she hung up the phone.
Like Feren, Scuotto did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting more information about his relationship with Ferguson, the manner in which his relatives landed jobs at All Service, or whether 3 Js has ever worked with the city directly or as a subcontractor with All Service. The Sunrise Finance Department reported finding no disbursements by the city to 3 Js, and All Service claims that it has no record of ever having paid the company.
John Ferguson is certainly qualified to shed light on the subject. But after he was reached on his cell phone, Ferguson said, "I'm not in the garbage business anymore." Then he hung up.
All the while that All Service dangled carrots before Alu's colleagues, she would learn firsthand with what force the company can swing the stick.
In late June 2005, a few months after telling All Service lobbyist Howard Kusnick that she was going to make a motion that All Service's contract with Sunrise be put out to bid, Alu had a series of harrowing encounters. It started with a gold Ford Taurus that one afternoon followed so close to Alu's back bumper that she was finally forced her to pull over and, in a panic, call police.
She received phone calls from a man who wouldn't identify himself and hurled obscenities, like "bitch" and "fucking cunt." Then a black SUV appeared, driving slow past Alu's home while her daughter played in the front yard.
She also learned of an ethics complaint filed against her with the state, alleging that she received thousands of dollars in free legal services from her divorce attorney, gifts that she was ethically bound to have disclosed. Copies of the complaint were mailed anonymously to the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel. The Florida Commission on Ethics found no violations.
Out of respect for Florida Government-in-the-Sunshine statutes, Alu did not contact fellow commissioners about the harassment. But she was in almost constant communication with the Sunrise Police Department and with City Manager Salerno, among other city staff, and given the speed with which gossip travels though City Hall, Alu assumes that her fellow Sunrise commissioners would have heard secondhand about All Service's tactics. Those commissioners, of course, could have put pressure on the company to rein in its strong-arm tactics.
Alu, whose ex-husband had been a Plantation police officer, still had friends on the force, and those officers took turns parking in her driveway, where they'd write their reports. She'd wake in the morning to find their business cards tucked between her front doors, a gesture that helped her sleep, she says.
In addition, the media came to Alu's rescue. The packet of incriminating documents sent to the Sun-Sentinel landed at the desk of former political columnist Buddy Nevins, who had first met Alu through her advocacy of the Alu-O'Hara Public Safety Officers Health Benefits Act in the mid-'90s. To Nevins, Alu's story had more credibility than the story told by the anonymous packet.
By requesting the original complaint, Nevins found that the fax stamp said "All Service." Alu, who was in law school at the time, did her own sleuthing, and since she knew that the packet also contained files from her divorce, she asked the clerk of court to provide her with the names of people who had requested access to those files. This turned up only one name: that of Kusnick, the All Service lobbyist.
For all its personal cost, Alu's opening of the contract to competition succeeded in All Service's submitting a bid of $15.6 million, $1 million lower than its previous contract with Sunrise and $3 million cheaper on an annual basis than the only other competing bid, by Waste Management. So for all the discord, All Service still won the Sunrise contract, earning even Alu's grudging vote.
"My job as a commissioner is to make legislative decisions that are in the best interest of the residents, regardless of my personal feelings," Alu wrote in an e-mail to New Times. "All Service submitted the best bid, so I voted to award them the contract."
Since being harassed by the company's operatives, Alu had a meeting with Republic Services CEO James O'Connor, who apologized for All Service's behavior and described an internal investigation that coincided with the departures of All Service executive David Katz, lobbyists Vinnie Grande and Howard Kusnick, and area President John Ferguson.
All Service spokesman Flower would say only that the company's investigation led to "personnel changes," not necessarily firings. Flower declined to share the company's investigation with New Times or to be more specific about its findings.
In mid-November, Flower told New Times that Republic Services "demand(s) the highest ethical behavior" from its lobbyists, and judging by Flower's remarks nearly a year ago in an article by Nevins, that excluded Kusnick. "We are not making any commitment" to use Kusnick in the future, Flower said.
But now, Kusnick, the lobbyist who played a role in the intimidation tactics against Alu, remains on the company payroll. Kusnick did not return calls seeking comment.
Alu says that O'Connor, of Republic Service, told her that just before Ferguson was forced out of the company, he inked Kusnick to a new contract. She doesn't know whether to believe it. "It was their money that paid for the attacks on me that's hard to swallow," Alu says. "But I feel in my heart that they've rectified things. One bad employee" presumably she means Kusnick "does not ruin a whole company."
Despite Kusnick's continued presence, it appears that since Ferguson's departure, All Service has cleaned up its act. Alu even says that her garbage men who occupy a low place within the company hierarchy are doting enough to bring her trash cans all the way back to her garage, a service her neighbors don't receive and that seems to her a weekly show of remorse.
A town tipped off its balance, as Sunrise was a year ago, sways for a while before finding equilibrium, not necessarily in the same place as it had been before. The city's new configuration of power won't be settled, perhaps, until after the municipal elections on March 13, 2007, when two commissioners face reelection.
Between the November 16 meeting and the commission meeting of December 12, the momentum shifted between the old guard and the new. Suddenly, there seems to be critical mass forming around the idea that this town needs drastic reform.
One of those voices belongs to John McNamara, president of Local 3080, the union for the city's police officers and firefighters.
"The reality is that this community needs two things," he says. "They deserve accountability from people they elect. And they should have a right to be to told when things are going wrong."
But McNamara, who says he hasn't missed more than a dozen commission meetings in the past five years, says it's also the residents' job to be active. Merely spectating at a meeting might be enough of a catalyst. "If you came to a meeting and watched what occurred, you could make your own decision and realize: This ain't being done right," he says. "This city is notorious for people who don't know what's going on. [The commissioners] want to keep it that way."
The police and firefighters' union is one of the city's most precious endorsements, not just because it is active at the polls but because its sheer numbers and organization boost turnout around the community. The union had supported each member of the current commission, but as of mid-December, the union members appeared to support the challengers.
During the public comment period of the December 12 meeting, Roger Wishner, who was a Sunrise commissioner for 14 years, then the area's state representative for four years, hit upon a parodox. Despite all the spending on a refurbished City Hall and despite high fees from the building department, not to mention the fact that commissioners in Sunrise are among the best-paid in the state, there ought to be money for the Police Department, which before the meeting had been negotiating a new contract with the city.
"Where is the money going if it isn't going to them?" Wishner asked. "This is the time to send a message and say, 'We care about you. '"
The crowd, half of which was police officers dressed in their union's black shirts, roared their approval. Earlier, another contender for commissioner, James DePelisi, had received a similar ovation for expressing this same sentiment.
During this December meeting, the three-member bloc of traditional power on the commission looked lethargic. Scuotto and Harlem hardly talked, and Feren's voice was hardly audible. He kept his elbows on the dais, looking down at the base of his microphone or sideways at the other commissioners but never out at the audience.
The commission's minority members, Alu and Rosen, appeared galvanized. Alu put Feren, Scuotto, and Salerno on the defensive, demanding to know why they would be against listing the identities of businesspeople who use the city's luxury suite at the BankAtlantic Center.
"We need to make full disclosure of who is using the skybox," Alu said. "And that outweighs any benefits that may come from economic development." Rosen backed her during his remarks, which seemed to give Alu even more confidence, even if she lacked the votes to pass her motion.
"I'm not going to be kept silent any more... when I don't know what's going on. You will see although I'll be professional a different Sheila. Because I want answers. And I'm not going to play any more games."
With Harlem's vote against, her motion failed.
The luxury box was a symbolic issue but a significant one. As with the city's relationship with All Service Refuse, it strikes at fundamental differences between the way one side governs and the way the other side believes it ought to govern.
But considering it was Wishner who last month dared the commissioners to make that list public and since he will be running for election against Harlem next spring, it seems he, Alu, and Rosen could form a new majority on the Sunrise commission.
That possibility, however, presumes an even more fundamental change: not only that the city's voters learn of this clash of styles in their otherwise torpid commission but that those voters go to polls to express their preference.
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