With Election, Casino Boat Foes Cry, "Chips Away!"
For the first time in years, when Steve Welsch awoke last Wednesday morning he saw sunshine in the future of his North Beach neighborhood.
It was the day after Hollywood's special city-commission election, and the candidate Welsch supported, John Coleman, had won decisively. To Welsch, president of the Beach Defense Fund, it seemed residents suddenly had new hope in their thus-far losing struggle against the 165-foot SunCruz casino boat, docked about two blocks from his small hotel and residence.
With Coleman on the commission, Welsch now sees "light at the end of a very long political tunnel" -- without a gambling boat blocking the view.
Since the boat arrived at Martha's Supper Club on the Intracoastal in 1995, Welsch and other North Beach residents say they have endured countless sleepless nights, kept awake by the boisterous clamor of disembarking passengers.
After leaving the boat, hundreds of SunCruz customers -- some tipsy after five hours at sea -- hunt for their cars, which are often parked illegally in empty lots, private residences, and along the road.
Sometimes the disruptions are worse. One recent afternoon Welsch walked outside his hotel, the DeSoto Oceanview, and pointed down the road toward the site of a late-night shooting. Two bullets were fired into a neighbor's car, Welsch says, by a gunman robbing a SunCruz passenger of his evening's winnings.
"You really have to live here to understand it," Welsch says, "but when you get woken up night after night at 12 or 1 a.m. with car alarms, people complaining that their cars are blocked in and getting into fist fights, people urinating on your lawn, trucks going by, it's a phenomenal impact on the community -- and on the quality of life I think we deserve."
Before Coleman was elected, neighborhood residents vigorously fought the boat, bringing the problems to the attention of the chief of police, the Broward County Sheriff's Office, and the city commission.
But no dice.
The commission did nothing, Welsch says, because the anti-SunCruz faction had only Commissioner Sal Oliveri firmly in its corner. Two of the other commission members -- Mayor Mara Giulianti and Commissioner Dick Blattner -- ignored residents' demands that the city find a legal way to remove the SunCruz vessel, which is owned by influential Hollywood developer Gus Boulis.
Neighborhood leaders believe that the election of Coleman, who strongly opposes the boat -- in combination with Oliveri's support and intensified pressure from beach residents -- can force a political sea change on the commission. Their next objective: winning over Commissioner Cathy Anderson, whose vote would give them a 3-2 majority to take official action and potentially force out the casino boat.
"Nobody wants the boat on the beach," Welsch argues. "I'd like her to be an advocate for the community. I think she can do that with the help of John Coleman and Sal Oliveri."
In earlier attempts to sway Anderson, Welsch called her at home at 11 p.m. so she could hear through the telephone the noise made by the boat and the disembarking passengers. She was annoyed but remained noncommittal on helping the neighborhood.
"Her power was pretty well controlled by the sitting commissioners," Welsch contends. "I think they brought so much clout, so much influence to the table that she wasn't ever really able to be her own person."
Before Coleman's victory, neighborhood groups faced another political obstacle, added Tom Lander, president of the Park East Neighborhood Association. "Up until this time," he said, "incumbents on the commission have gotten very good financial support from the people involved with the boat."
Whatever the reasons, neighborhood leaders say city staff and commissioners appeared willing to make all sorts of concessions to SunCruz.
At the end of April, for instance, City Manager Sam Finz tried to "solve" the parking problem. At a private meeting with Boulis' SunCruz representatives, Finz made an arrangement with the company: If SunCruz promised to build a garage, Finz said, the city would stop ticketing SunCruz patrons who parked illegally. It was a sweet deal for Boulis. Three years earlier he had already promised to build a garage but had made no visible progress.
Three weeks after Finz held the private SunCruz meeting, beach residents protested to the city commission. At the residents' request, Commissioner Oliveri directed City Attorney Jamie Cole to review the opinion of the state attorney general's office, which in a St. Johns County case had stated that casino boats are illegal in Florida because of a 1937 state law prohibiting slot machines.
Two weeks later Cole told the commission that he had determined that if Hollywood litigated against SunCruz based on the state law, the city would probably lose.
At that meeting, which was well attended by cruise-industry lobbyists from Tallahassee and SunCruz representatives, Oliveri asked for more information and requested that the issue be put on a subsequent agenda for discussion. Mayor Giulianti quickly shouted Oliveri down, told him he had already put too many items on the agenda, adjourned the meeting, and scurried upstairs to her office.
In that meeting neighborhood leaders saw an encouraging sign: Anderson kept an open mind. She too asked for more information, and she too was shouted down by the mayor, who told her there was plenty of information available already, so proceeding further was a waste of time. Undeterred, Anderson told Cole to get a more in-depth legal explanation of the attorney general's opinion.
In a New Times interview after last week's election, Anderson said that until she receives the new report, she cannot make any decision about the casino boat. "I don't wish to discuss that issue," Anderson said. "I'm waiting for Mr. Cole to come back and give his opinion. I asked for the information. I haven't received it."
The forces battling the boat are willing to wait.
"I think Cathy needs time to make a real decision," says Joe Schneider, president of the Coalition of Hollywood Citizens, noting that until now the casino boat has been viewed as a legal issue. "If the question came up, should the boat be there as a quality-of-life issue, then Cathy Anderson would have addressed it differently."
As Coleman takes his commission seat, he too believes he can benefit from Anderson's open mind. Coleman calls the casino boat a "high priority" and says he is committed to finding a legal way to remove the boat from its current location in the middle of an otherwise quiet neighborhood.
Anderson "has always had one foot on one side and one on the other," Coleman says referring to the casino boat. "I hope to move one of those feet. I know that's a simplistic way of putting it, but there are ways of making Cathy Anderson move. She can vote with me on certain issues, and I can vote with her on others. That's politics.
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