Broward News

Bahia Mar: Critics Say Developer Seemed to "Coach" City Commission Using Hand Signals

Fort Lauderdale is currently considering a proposal to redevelop the iconic Bahia Mar property, which would plunk two 29-story towers on a stretch of public land along A1A. Critics contend city officials are too cozy with the project developers.

Now, video from a recent commission meeting has caused quite a stir. It shows that the project developer made several gestures toward the commissioners as they discussed the project while sitting on the dais. Critics say the developer, James Tate, seemed to be coaching the lawmakers. But the mayor and developer dispute that interpretation. 

Vice Mayor Dean Trantalis, the only commissioner vocally opposed to the project, was sitting on the dais and noticed Tate's gestures. Tate, he says, looked like a "coach from the bullpen."

Mayor Jack Seiler, however, says he never noticed the gestures. "I'll state on-record that I never saw Jimmy Tate’s hand moving [in] any way, shape, or form that evening," he said. "And if Dean saw it, I’m very disappointed he didn’t bring it to my attention."

Tate admits he made the gestures — but insists there was no secret code involved. He just wanted the commissioners to get on with their vote. "I know people want something more exciting than that, but honestly, that is all it was. Plain and simple."

Here's the backstory: 

To move ahead, the project needs to be classified as an "innovative development" so it does not break local zoning laws, which cap buildings at 24 stories.

The proposed development has attracted controversy: More than a thousand people, concerned about increased traffic, long shadows on the beach, and a change of character that the development could bring to the beachfront, have signed petitions demanding the project be stopped. Multiple commission meetings included eight hours of public debate. Most of the commenters have opposed the project. Two different people have reportedly filed a lawsuit to stop it. Each sitting city commissioner has accepted between $5,000 and $6,600 in campaign donations from the Bahia Mar's development group, including Tate and his family.

At 12:29 a.m. on June 8, near the end of a five-hour public hearing on the project, Tate, who was in the front row wearing a blazer, cut his hand across his throat multiple times before eventually reaching down to adjust his collar. (The gesture occurs just after 6:19:00 of the video linked here.) Minutes later, at 12:35, Tate — staring directly at the City Commission dais — nodded his head "no" as he made a "cut" gesture below his neck with his fingers. Tate made the move just as the commissioners discussed delaying the vote for another few weeks. Ultimately, the commission postponed its vote on the project until June 21. 

Longtime activist and former New York Daily News journalist Cal Deal, who opposes the project, says, "There were people who were at the meeting who saw [Tate's gestures], and then the word got back to the people who have been active in opposing this thing. So I went into the video, and there it was."

Upon reviewing footage of the meeting archived on the city website, Deal edited and started sharing the following video: 

(The quotes in the clip above are Deal's, not ours, though Dean Trantalis echoed his statements to New Times below.)

Others in the South Florida development industry have reportedly used hand gestures to influence city government. After former Hollywood City Attorney and lobbyist Alan Koslow was charged with money laundering on June 2, the Sun-Sentinel reported that Koslow had a history of making "hand signals and facial expressions at some commissioners on the dais to indicate how they should vote."

Trantalis offered his interpretation of Tate's signals: They had come after public comments ended, and Commissioner Romney Rogers floated the idea of postponing the vote. "As far as I can recall, at that moment, [Tate] was wanting to cut off the debate, I guess, from his hand signals," Trantalis said. "It looked like he was directing his attention to the mayor, I guess. He looked like he wanted the mayor to stop Romney from continuing to talk." Trantalis stressed he never saw Mayor Jack Seiler actually notice any gestures from Tate.

"It was one of those things where, I don’t know what was planned, or what was discussed before the meeting," Trantalis said. "I don’t know if they had orchestrated a scenario of how the debate was going to go, or whether what Commissioner Rogers did was expected or not. I don't know."

Seiler claimed that accusing him of taking hand signals from a developer would be "tantamount to improper libel and slander."

The mayor also stressed it would have been impossible for him to see Tate from his seat on the dais. Seiler said his seat has a computer monitor and "control panel there, with lights and speaker buttons." He said he and interim City Clerk Jeff Modarelli appeared to be staring at the monitor in front of them when Tate made the "cut" motion.  He said the project's enemies "put this together as a way of trying to mislead people."

"I never saw the 'cut' sign," Seiler said. "You can print that five times. I'm not even sure why Tate would be sending a 'cut' sign to anybody on the dais." Seiler said that if he had seen Tate making hand gestures, he would have immediately called the developer out during the meeting and told Tate to stop.

But Trantalis complained about what he thought was unfair influence-peddling.

"Watching this whole thing, you want to laugh, but the stakes are so high that you can’t," Trantalis said. "It's very serious what’s going on here, and the future of the community is being decided with hand signals. It's not fair to people that live here, who think they’re being given a fair shake when it comes to these public forums."

But, he added, "every commissioner was entitled to his own vote, and every commissioner feels like he's doing the right thing."

Tate explained himself via email, writing, "In short, I was trying to tell them that based upon Romney's then current comments about deferring the hearing yet again, I did not think it was fair to all of the people within the community who have had to sit through another long drawn out meeting without ever reaching a conclusion on any of the issues," he said. "And therefore if he was not going to call a vote, we were done and ready to move on."

New Times has left messages for City Manager Lee Feldman and Commissioners Romney Rogers, Robert McKinzie, and Bruce Roberts.
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli