What's more, Abbott says, Berman-Miller's employment status with the city does not affect her development proposal for the Dixie Highway Project because it was submitted to the CRA, a separate legal entity. "Berman-Miller's city employment has no ethical bearing on CRA contractual issues," Abbott says.
Not every city works like Hollywood. In municipalities from Hackensack to Honolulu, city employees must adhere to a strict ethics code that prohibits employees from doing private business with the city for as long as a year after ending employment. The code is intended to prevent former employees from using contacts and relationships to win business that they otherwise would not have won and to avoid appearances of impropriety.
Hollywood residents with a vested interest in the Little Ranches neighborhood say that, even if Berman-Miller's proposals adhere to the city's ethics code, the whole deal smells foul.
"It ain't right," says Andre Brown, a retired city public works employee and Little Ranches resident. "She has absolutely no experience in development. She's just an insider. And they want us to trust her with cleaning up the neighborhood? I don't think so."
Two months after submitting a proposal with MG3 Developer Group for the Dixie Highway Project, Berman-Miller split with MG3 for the CRA project and submitted an almost identical proposal with state Rep. Ken Gottlieb, a Democrat. "This was a business decision," Berman-Miller explains, saying of Gottlieb: "We're acquaintances and prospective business partners."
To persuade the city to give her millions of dollars in incentives, "Cynthia had to hook up with somebody reputable who was Ken Gottlieb," Commissioner Russo says.
A former Hollywood city commissioner, Gottlieb and his family have been involved in Hollywood business and real estate for generations. Gottlieb did not respond to several phone calls to his law office and a list of e-mailed questions.
For the Dixie Highway Project, no other company submitted a proposal for the project, giving the appearance that the whole thing was rigged for two political insiders.
Additionally, Berman-Miller and Gottlieb asked the city for an incentive package worth $8.2 million, which includes giving away the land that the CRA purchased for $6 million. The proposal estimates a net profit of $7.5 million, not including about $2 million in real estate sales commissions. In an e-mail to resident Maria Jackson, Berman-Miller confirmed that NewStar Realty would likely be the listing agent. She declined to discuss the $2 million in commissions with New Times.
"We don't feel there are any conflicts of interest in this proposal," says CRA Director Neil Fritz, whose responsibility it is to negotiate final terms with Berman-Miller and Gottlieb.
Fritz claims that the CRA asked 14 developers to submit proposals for the Dixie Highway Project. They received just one proposal, from Berman-Miller and Gottlieb, he says.
"I really feel like I tried and failed," Fritz says. "I wanted more proposals."
But it's not hard to see why he didn't get a better response. Five of the 14 companies are associated with Berman-Miller or Gottlieb. Four of the companies Brenner Real Estate Group, Cornerstone Development, Lennar Partners, and Pinnacle Housing Group specialize in projects much larger than the CRA land can accommodate. And though one company contacted by the city now admits that it simply declined to submit a proposal for the project, another company claims it was never even contacted.
"Definitely, no one from Hollywood ever contacted me about this deal," says Tim Hernandez of New Urban Communities in Delray Beach. Hernandez says he always takes close looks at projects in which a city or CRA is willing to give away land or offer incentives. "Put it this way: Free land always gets my attention," he says.
There could have been some confusion about who was contacted, Fritz says. That's because the Dixie Highway Project was already in the works when he took over for Jim Edwards, who left the CRA to work for the private developer who purchased the Publix plaza on Young Circle. "There was definitely some miscommunication," Fritz admits. "This list is my impression of who was contacted by the CRA."