Broward News

Southwest Ranches Mayor, CCA, and ICE Honchos Dodge Accusations at Public Meeting; Pembroke Pines Officials Stage a Revolt

Mike Machak, who has the unenviable job of public affairs manager for prison contractor CCA, stood at the door of the Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines, looking at the line of opponents gathered on a cool Saturday morning. A few held signs, many wore stickers, but the crowd was quietly waiting for admission to the building.

"I expected... more," said Machak.

And more is what happened once the crowd was seated in the conference room for a meeting requested by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first time officials have spoken publicly about the pending immigrant detention facility in Southwest Ranches since it was all but greenlighted under a "cone of silence" by local and federal officials.

Here's the rundown: Southwest Ranches wants this thing built so they can get some shared revenues and taxes from CCA. That's the whole reason they annexed the godforsaken plot of land between a county jail and a dump, even though it doesn't connect with any of the rest of Southwest Ranches. The would-be facility's closest neighbors live in Pembroke Pines. 

So it was Pines residents who were most vocal at the meeting, demanding to know why they hadn't been consulted while schools were built near the site and Southwest Ranches rolled ahead with courting CCA, and CCA rolled ahead with courting ICE, and Pembroke Pines quietly approved a last-minute agreement to provide infrastructure and emergency services to the facility.

​CCA had three warm bodies up on the dais, while ICE sent its executive associate director of enforcement and removal, Gary Mead, who just about admitted that he wanted to go home. Meanwhile, Southwest Ranches Mayor Jeff Nelson endured the most boos and hisses, especially when he recited long accounts of the deal's 15 years in the making.

A couple of things were clear: CCA is running the show at this point, and it's dead-seat on building the facility in the next 18 to 24 months.

A few weeks ago, Southwest Ranches Town Attorney Keith Poliakoff told the Pulp that the facility "could be built today," since an agreement is already inked with CCA, which owns the property. 

Today, Nelson said he believes that the facility will be built. Lucibeth Mayberry, a vice president with CCA, defied any implication that local opinion could sway the company's desire to proceed. 

Regarding recent criticism of the company's rental of cows to allow an agricultural tax exemption, she said, "We have done everything we are allowed to do and take advantage of exemptions as any business would." Even if the deal to provide water to the facility is rescinded, she said, "We will have the option to do on-site [water] treatment, and we will do that ourselves."

"Is it set in stone?" asked one resident. Nelson, fresh off a "fact-finding" trip to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with federal officials, seemed satisfied that it was. 

"As of Monday morning, there isn't anything that any of us can do," he said.

Why does Nelson personally support the facility when so many of his constituents appear to be against it? The mayor alluded to the financial benefits to the town and said there were plenty of residents in support of the facility.

​Somebody asked for a show of hands by those who supported the facility. One guy raised his hand. He spoke well but without support.

The meeting devolved into a sideshow. Not even the presence of former Attorney General Bob Butterworth as elder-statesman moderator could bring much civility to the residents who felt they had been spurned and left out until the project was as good as done. Many of the crowd's questions were actually angry statements, and attempted answers were met with boos and jeers. Residents had been warned not to complain about national immigration policy (out of the purview of this meeting), but a couple did. Unsettlingly, whenever an audience member identified herself as an immigration advocate, the NIMBY crowd let out a groan.

One major topic was schools: namely, the handful of public schools within a couple of miles of the site. People asked about escape statistics (not provided), and Mead, the ICE director, seemed uncomfortable with a question on why ICE had approved a site near schools. He started a game of "pass the buck": "You need to have the appropriate dialog with the mayor in terms of the thought process there..."

Pembroke Pines residents interrupted. "He's not our mayor!"

Mayor Nelson chimed in at that point, saying that in the 1990s, Broward County had decided to build those schools. "I suspect they needed to take a look at what was planned" for the site, he said.

Turns out, the Pembroke Pines mayor, Frank Ortis, was sitting in the front row. After a little more of this, he made an appearance that rocked the house. Butterworth introduced Ortis, a handshaky guy wearing glasses and a city-issued shirt, who was not smiling. The crowd booed him as he took the microphone.

"The longer I sit in this meeting, the angrier I'm getting," said Ortis, surveying the ranks of his citizens who were rankled by what Wasserman Schultz last month called a "paucity of information" from Ranches officials. 

"This is what happens when you don't go to the people first," he said. Before he finished the sentence, the crowd was standing, applauding, screaming in agreement. 

"All the roads you're talking about using are in Pembroke Pines," he said. "I don't see any Southwest Ranches houses right there. With all due respect," he said, looking at Nelson, "I can't applaud that."

Nelson glared down at Ortis. "Mayor, you're being disingenius [sic]," he said. "It's a clear public record that this has been thoroughly vetted."

In response, a woman stood up and read a printout of the Pulp post from last month containing an email from Poliakoff, in which the town attorney said that "the less we say, the better off we will be."

The Pines government wasn't done publicly chewing out Southwest Ranches -- in fact, it looked like they had been waiting for this opportunity for some time. Pines Vice Mayor Iris Siple took the microphone.

She explained that a recent agreement, approved by the Pines City Commission to provide water and sewer services to the site, had been changed without public notice just before it was voted on by commissioners. She seemed to regret that they had voted for it.

"I just sent a text to our city clerk," she said, "asking to add an item to the agenda for our next meeting, where I will ask my fellow commissioners to consider using the agreement's nine-month termination clause." She was threatening, maybe promising, to withdraw the city's pledged support for services to the facility.

Even the well-groomed CCA bosses looked a little haggard at this point. Nelson glared into the distance.

"Personally," said Siple, "speaking as me, it doesn't seem that any time we've entered into a contract with Southwest Ranches, it's been good for our city."

Butterworth mentioned the time he took over as Sunrise mayor in the wake of a political scandal there in the late '80s. He looked around at the fuming local officials. "It doesn't seem like anything's changed," he said.

Nelson and the other folks on the dais were escorted out the back entrance by a phalanx of BSO deputies once the meeting concluded. Meanwhile, the anti-jail folks gathered with bright signs chanting "CCA, go away" for the television cameras out front. Machak, the corporation's PR guy, stood there watching. He's seen it all before.

Stefan Kamph is a New Times staff writer.
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Stefan Kamph
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