Pompano Beach is a city of 80,000, but it's ruled by a tiny cluster of backroom dealers. At the top of the very short list of Tweed-like (or Hogg-like, depending upon your frame of reference) bosses are Mayor Bill Griffin and lobbyist Tom Johnston. You've seen those names before. Pompano is like a recurring dream -- every public deal follows the same pattern: Johnston represents the money, and the mayor gives the money what it wants. The problem for the Pompano populace is that nobody ever wakes up.
And the watchdog, John Countryman of the Broward State Attorney's Office, also seems to be asleep. Or barking up the wrong tree.
It's the little guys, meanwhile, who are getting bitten. Last month, I wrote about Ed Stanton, who uncovered wrongdoing by Griffin and wound up on the losing end of a city lawsuit. He paid with a $16,500 check and a taped mouth. Now it's Mike Horan, a Pompano resident who tried to fight a multimillion-dollar expansion of a marina in his neighborhood. Horan went up against Johnston and Griffin, and he's still standing -- but don't blow too hard or he might fall down. The man just finished the fight of his life. Horan says his mission was simple: He just wanted to protect his front door.
He and his front door lost.
A 58-year-old grandfather of three, Horan lives in a modest condo next door to Hidden Harbour Marina, a boat storage facility and launch located just off Federal Highway north of the 14th Street Causeway. Hidden Harbour was built by none other than Johnston's father, a general contractor, nearly five decades ago and has a colorful history. Johnston the younger remarked during a City Commission meeting a couple of years ago that he had intimate knowledge of the marina and that, in the 1970s, the boats were very fast and the tuna came in square bales. (That means drug smugglers frequented the marina.) During the late '80s and early '90s, it was a Mafia hangout owned by the grandson of Ettore Zappi, a Gambino crime family capo who has since died. Zappi, according to FBI reports, used to drink coffee every morning at the marina restaurant. One of Zappi's grandsons, Anthony Galgano, was indicted in 1995 and later convicted for his part in a boat-smuggling ring involving Hidden Harbour that spread to Canada.
In 1998, the marina and several surrounding properties were bought -- at a cost exceeding $5 million -- by a partnership managed by a businessman named Steve Dobrofsky; he then hired Johnston to help him win city approval to expand the marina from 100 to more than 400 boats. Nearby residents have since learned that it's not the smugglers and mobsters you need to worry about -- it's the lobbyists.
Horan's front door is about 15 yards from Hidden Harbour. He lives with the roar and scream of industrial boat lifters. But when he found out that Dobrofsky and Johnston were trying to persuade the city to give the marina a block of nearby NE 15th Street, he and some of his neighbors had had enough.
The city's zoning director, Reagan Yarbrough, determined that the roadway served no public purpose. Horan knew otherwise. NE 15th Street was an important relief valve for traffic from the 14th Street Causeway. In fact, a traffic study commissioned by Hidden Harbour showed that some 1500 cars used it each day. Without 15th Street, Horan and his neighbors believed, those cars would clog NE 16th Street, an important artery for the neighborhood.
At a commission meeting on October 26, 1999, Horan and a handful of neighbors voiced their dissent, but the commission dismissed their concerns and, at Johnston's direction, gave the road away. Sixteenth Street has been packed with cars streaming from the causeway ever since.
In November 1999, Horan sued Pompano Beach in a bid to persuade a judge to overturn the 15th Street giveaway. Hidden Harbour joined the city in fighting Horan's lawsuit. The marina hired the Fort Lauderdale law firm Ruden, McClosky (which does legal work for the city and routinely gives Pompano politicos big campaign contributions) to fight Horan.
He didn't stand a chance. This past July, Broward County Circuit Judge George Brescher ruled for the city and the marina. Then the city and Ruden, McClosky went after Horan for legal fees. "It was unbelievable," Horan says. "I didn't even sue Hidden Harbour and they wanted me to pay."
The commission, meanwhile, kept granting the marina favors -- to the neighborhood's detriment. The cornerstone of Dobrofsky's expansion was a proposed six-story, 71,170-square-foot storage building. Such a monstrosity, however, wasn't allowed in such a residential area; Dobrofsky needed a zoning change.
Horan and his neighbors came out in droves to fight the expansion, saying that the huge building would be an eyesore and a fire hazard. They also complained that Hidden Harbour didn't meet acreage requirements to warrant the new zoning status. Regardless, after Johnston's dogged lobbying, the commission voted 3-2 on December 12, 2000, to approve the expansion. Mayor Griffin cast the decisive vote, after which Johnston simply said, "Thank you."
By this time, Horan was just a little angry. So he called Countryman at the State Attorney's Office and complained about Griffin and Johnston. He didn't have any proof of crimes, but he told Countryman, who oversees investigations of public officials, that the commissioners were so unresponsive to residential concerns that they must be corrupt. He asked for an investigation. Countryman told him he would look into it. Thirty minutes after he made the call, Horan talked with Pompano City Manager Bill Hargett on the phone about Hidden Harbour.
"I understand you made another call too," Horan recalls Hargett telling him.
The city manager knew Horan had phoned Countryman. Horan was furious. To him, it was like the FBI telling John Gotti they were planning to bug his house. "I hit the roof," he recalls.
He called Countryman to complain and learned that the prosecutor had leaked Horan's complaint to Pompano Assistant City Attorney Mark Berman. "Countryman told Berman about my complaint 30 minutes after I made the call to the State Attorney's Office," Horan says. "Thirty minutes. Countryman was upset that I had found out, but he also seemed like he wanted to slough it off like it wasn't really important."
Countryman says he remembers the incident, particularly Horan's anger, but wouldn't discuss it in detail. He points out that it wasn't as if he'd tipped off an investigation into an actual criminal, like a bombing suspect. "There was no evidence in this case that anyone was taking bribes or had been induced to perjure themselves," Countryman says.
Ultimately, Horan found out that the cliché is true: You can't fight city hall. But he kept throwing punches. Last year, he appeared before the City Commission and complained about the city's hitting him up for legal fees. Finally, he won a battle. The commission voted unanimously on the spot to withdraw the court request. He also struck a deal with Johnston regarding Hidden Harbour. The marina would agree to a 50-foot setback from his condo building. Horan says the marina has since reneged on the deal.
And the issue over attorney's fees wasn't finished; Ruden, McClosky still wanted Horan to pay. During a court hearing this past October 8, Assistant City Attorney Bill Bosch volunteered his time to testify for the law firm against Horan. "That was a slap in the face by the city," Horan says. "Here I am trying to protect my front door and they do this to me?"
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Judge Brescher denied the law firm $19,000 in legal fees but ordered Horan to pay Ruden, McClosky $776 in costs. Horan paid the bill last month.
For some, the financial hit might have been the final insult, but Horan hasn't quit fighting, and construction of the giant storage building is still on hold. A developer of townhouses in the area, Jean-Louis Lacerte, sued the city. Lacerte's case is pending.
On Election Day March 12, Horan went to the polls and gathered signatures on a petition that has been circulating for several weeks to recall Mayor Griffin and Vice Mayor Herb Skolnick. The petition mentions Hidden Harbour among the grievances against the two politicians. Horan still hopes to make a difference. "I wouldn't be gathering signatures if I didn't think we had a chance," he says.
So maybe the cliché is wrong after all. You can fight city hall in Pompano. Unfortunately, the city will make you pay for it.