Best Of :: People & Places
The best new building in Palm Beach is 89 years old. And it's been on life support for 13 years. That's how long local preservationists have been struggling to save the 1916 County Courthouse on the corner of Banyan Boulevard and Dixie Highway. The neoclassical building was practically buried in 1972, when it disappeared inside an ugly "New Brutalist" wraparound expansion; Corinthian columns and gewgaws were chipped away, carted off, and in some cases scattered to the four winds (West Palm Judge Marvin Mounts scored the courthouse steps, which he kept in his garden). Still, the original building remained mostly intact beneath it all -- you could spot the old roof if you happened to be an airborne seagull. Last year, the Palm Beach Historical Society and the Palm Beach County Commission -- which kicked in $18.5 million for the project -- finally went ahead with plans for the great striptease: That nasty concrete shell has now been stripped away. The courthouse will be restored, columns, pediments, and all, to house county offices and an 8,000-square-foot History Museum. Stop by and see what the lady looks like in her skivvies. For an old broad, she ain't bad.
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.
After 15 years at the Broward Public Defender's Office, Assistant Public Defender Bill Laswell -- whom many people refer to simply as "Laz" -- is this month giving up a profession that has made him among the best-respected barristers in South Florida. A gruff, no-nonsense 65-year-old with a gray, grandfatherly beard, he ran a lucrative private practice in his native Indiana and then in South Florida for more than two decades before taking a comparatively low-paying job at the Broward Public Defender's Office. "I came here to die," he admits. "My kids were out of college. My folks were dead. When you're in private practice, you're too hesitant to take time off." Laswell has defended some of the area's most vicious murderers, including serial killers Lucious Boyd and Eddie Lee Mosley. But he remains a fierce critic of the death penalty and an ardent protector of constitutional rights. "Guys like me, when they get up in the morning to defend a Lucious Boyd, generally look themselves in the mirror and say, 'Damn, I shouldn't have drunk so much last night,'" Laswell says. "But then they look again and say, 'It's another day where I'm going to do what needs to be done to make the constitution work. '" But Laswell, an unpretentious lawyer who generally prefers four-letter words over Latin, finds himself increasingly frustrated at the twilight of his career. Overworked judges, trapped in a judicial system cash-starved by legislators, now push complicated cases through as if they were working on a production line.
"What I do and the way I do it are passing history," Laswell says. "I'm like an old range bull with nowhere to turn. The law is going right out beneath me."
For now, Laswell will trade killers and courtrooms for lines and lures. But even in retirement, a hardened criminal defense attorney can't shake his cynicism. "As long as I don't have to deal with lawyers and judges and sociopathic, homicidal assholes, I'll be pretty happy."
Joe Major is on top of things in Broward County's black community. He's keeping an eye on county commissioners and their developer friends, who are intent on cashing in at the expense of the people who call the area home. He also works tirelessly to convince city commissioners to annex less fortunate areas, which is desperately needed. And, like any activist worth his salt, he sometimes goes too far. His e-mails are rife with accusations that certain officials, including Josephus Eggelletion, have "house slave" mentalities. He believes that some black people are literally bred to be peons to the corrupt white power structure. And if you listen to him long enough, you start to believe it. What's beautiful about Major is that he's a free thinker who goes where his mind takes him. Sometimes he's wrong, but he's always interesting. Unfortunately, people like Major are an increasingly rare commodity in America. So we should celebrate Joe. Nobody has ever accused him of being too quiet. Thank goodness.
Before we begin discussing this 21-year member of the commission, who has pushed purchase of beachfront land for the public, let's get one thing straight: If the Scripps Research Center goes where the commission wants to put it, Palm Beach County is screwed. Putting Scripps, which ultimately will be the equivalent of a small city of about 50,000 people, way out west will create sprawl, cost taxpayers some $1 billion for little in return, and sully the $8 billion Everglades cleanup project. Marcus recognizes that fact, and unlike the majority of the commission, she's not a moron or a greedhead. Few listened to her, though, as she tried to save the county by moving the project eastward to the urban core. But even when it's hardly heard, a sane voice in the wilderness is nice to have. Besides, Marcus has been a big advocate of schools. And in 1999, she received the Nature Conservancy's Grassroots Leadership Award.
It's damned hard to find a decent politician in Broward County. They all seem to be getting their greedy pockets stuffed, often by unscrupulous developers (yeah, that means you, Ilene Lieberman and Josephus Eggelletion). But Ben Graber, a doctor by trade, has not only resisted the big money from special interests but has had the guts to criticize those who accept it. That didn't sit too well with Lieberman, who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars while shilling for Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group. Last year, when it was Graber's turn to be vice mayor, she led a campaign against him, remarking in the unquestioning Sun-Sentinel, "The vice mayor needs to be a team player who understands the importance of being part of a collegial body." Here is what she meant: "Shut up and let us be the corrupt pigs we are, Benny boy, or we'll shut down your ass." Though Lieberman threw her support behind the abysmally unethical Eggelletion, Graber was named vice mayor anyway. Hopefully the good doctor will remain steadfast against the swine in office, especially since Lieberman's team is one that no decent, self-respecting homo sapien would ever want to join.
Yes, you can spend hours discussing the ins and outs of South Florida's escort business on here. Many do. Indeed, this is a site you should keep away from junior. It's rich with porno. But for those who do not choose to partake, the IndiBoard is still the best way to take our area's pulse, to see exactly what condition our condition is in. Hours before the daily newspapers' websites had the story, this page broke the sordid Bill Kamal tale and kept it buzzing for days. Hunter S. Thompson's suicide and the South Asian tsunami all generated threads that unspooled for weeks, revealing our region's great and miniature minds thinking and typing. Bitching about local real estate prices, the produce section of the neighborhood grocery store, the horrendous hurricane season... it all happened here. Of course, if you just want to dive into man's oldest, most important debate (blond, brunet, or redhead?), there's no better cliff to jump from. The busiest place in regional cyberspace (one typical Monday afternoon's traffic -- 6,788 topics generating 137,094 replies), rest assured that the IndiBoard has something you want to yammer about, be it making fun of conservative dumbasses, skewering lefty liberals, or off-topic rants like "Surgeons Reattach Severed Penis."
"The Bone" was nicknamed in high school for his skeletal frame. At this site, he offers a pleasant mix of politics, cultural observations, and whimsy. It's a winning combination in a blogosphere filled with the raspy screeds of right- and left-wingers and the idle musings of 14-year-olds about school activities. The Bone is a 32-year-old teacher from Fort Lauderdale who keeps things light even when the subject is contentious. In a recent post, he reasoned that the religious argument against homosexuality is flawed because "the universe is a hell of a lot bigger than that." He illustrated his contention with excerpts from God's Palm Pilot: "6:30 a.m. -- Turn off chirping seraphim and cherubim alarm clock. 7 a.m. -- Form new comet on the far side of Arcturus. 10:45 a.m. -- Collapse large star to initiate formation of new galaxy. 2 p.m. -- Sit in judgment of Bruce Miller (West Hollywood, California); condemn him to an afterlife of shrieking agony because he occasionally put his penis in another man's mouth."