Telltale Hearts | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Telltale Hearts

Well-run cities are all alike; every corrupt city is corrupt in its own way.

Hollywood is a good example of the latter. Dragged by its dysfunctional mother, Mayor Mara Giulianti, the city keeps sliding further into the stinking sludge. I mean that almost literally, since the latest scandal centers on the city's attempt to find a company to treat and remove its biosolid waste (yes, that would be a polite term for shit).

You've probably heard the basics by now. In March, the commission chose a firm, Minneapolis-based Schwing Bioset, which had proposed a cost of $15 million more than the firm ranked best by a committee of experts. One explanation: Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom performs work for Schwing Bioset that financially benefits both him and his law partner, Stacey Giulianti, the mayor's son. Wasserstrom even represented the company before officials of his own city, including Public Utilities Director Whit Van Cott. Since I wrote about it (see "Ooh, That Smell," April 15), it's been in the daily newspapers, and the Broward State Attorney's Office has begun an investigation. Next week, the commission will decide whether to overturn the vote and take new bids for the job.

Now, I could write pages about all the irregularities in this Schwing Bioset deal, about the strange changes in the initial bidding process, about the environmental questions and the mysterious involvement of the Seminole Tribe, which has apparently promised to receive the waste on its land in the Everglades. I could talk about the suspicious sales commissions the city plans to pay to the company and Van Cott's contradictory attempts to smear any competitors. And I could describe the involvement of a fast-talking buffalo farmer from Oregon named Larry Wakinyan who coaxed Wasserstrom to join Schwing Bioset last year.

Those are all damning facts for the investigation, but what I'm interested in showing now is the powerful emotion and pathos displayed by the city's chief proponents of Schwing Bioset. The passion surrounding the contract is a telltale sign of malfeasance; it's the pounding of heartbeats under the floorboards.

It began with the March meeting, which included presentations by representatives of both Schwing Bioset and the top-ranked firm at the time, Florida-N-Viro. After admitting she had an apparent conflict of interest, Giulianti proceeded to lead the meeting anyway, interrupting and grilling N-Viro reps mercilessly while giving Schwing Bioset a free ride. Wakinyan offered an unsolicited denial that he'd bribed anyone, and Wasserstrom gave an impassioned speech about the "immense pain" Native Americans feel when raw human waste is transported in trucks.

It was weird, folks.

Two months later, on June 16, Commissioner Beam Furr, who cast the deciding "yea" for Schwing Bioset in March, told the commission he'd changed his mind. He had done some research and come to the conclusion that the best companies in the nation, including industry giant Synagro, had been excluded from the process by Van Cott's narrow bidding requirements.

So he made a motion to rescind the vote. What happened after he made the motion should be taught in civics classes to show just how depraved the democratic process can become. I'll describe it in rich detail. Enjoy the show:

With Schwing Bioset's deal in jeopardy, Giulianti quickly fell into full panic mode on the dais. Her eyes twitched uncontrollably. She nervously rubbed her chin and methodically stroked the back of her hair. As Furr spoke about the flawed process, she fidgeted for a while before loudly interrupting the commissioner in midsentence.

Addressing City Attorney Dan Abbott, she asked if her conflict of interest would preclude her from voting on Furr's motion. Abbott calmly informed her that she should not cast a ballot. Then Giulianti began rambling.

"I think it's just totally -- totally -- inappropriate...," she said of Furr's action. "I mean, there has been a lot of money spent, I would assume, and this could open us up to legal action."

"Legal challenge from...?" Abbott nudged.

"We have had people who have responded to, um, whatever we call it. RFP? Was it an RFP?"

"Yes," Abbott answered.

How reassuring. The mayor, while discussing a contract worth tens of millions of dollars over the next several decades, didn't even know it was based on a "request for proposal."

The mayor continued, referring to Schwing Bioset: "Then they expended money and God knows how many weeks flying back and forth. I am very uncomfortable... I want to ask your opinion if we are vulnerable in any way that you could see legally."

"No, I don't think so," Abbott said.

There went the legal card. For the next several minutes, Abbott and other commissioners explained the rules of government to the flustered Giulianti, who muttered things like, "It's embarrassing and upsetting."

Furr, a school teacher by trade, then addressed Van Cott, a burly man with thinning brown hair who looks younger than his 57 years. He asked a simple question about the process.

"I believe the confidence of this commission has left me...," Van Cott said in a loud voice teetering with emotion. "I don't know that I can continue to do this. I can't pull rabbits out of hats. You have gotten the very best of me during the last nine years. My real question is if you still have confidence in me as a utility director, because if you don't, I am leaving. OK?"

Here, the public utilities director, who is supposed to advise the commission, not bully it, was threatening to quit if Schwing Bioset lost the contract.

While his words were childish, the tone was one of an overwrought parent at the end of his rope with his kids.

"You want to privatize the water plant? Go ahead, I'll let you do it," he allowed. "Maybe you need to get burned to really understand what you're doing... It really doesn't matter. Hire a consultant. You aren't going to believe me. It'll be in the papers again tomorrow. I've spent hours with reporters. I've given you the best I got. I don't believe you believe me. There's rumors I'm going to be working at Bioset. Sorry, no way. There's rumors I'm corrupt. Sorry, no way."

He looked up at Furr and asked him angrily if he knew where the city's biosolids were treated at the city's sewage plant. Furr replied in the negative.

"How can you tell me what we should be doing and who we should be talking to?" Van Cott almost yelled back at the commissioner. "... I don't want to get emotional, and I'm breaking one of Whit's rules. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to go out for another RFP, you'll do it without me. I have given these people [at Schwing Bioset] my word. They have been patient."

His voice cracked on the last word, and he seemed near tears. He didn't bother to explain what in the world he was doing making promises to a private company, though.

"I've got 30 years, been on national boards, and you don't believe me?" he continued, sounding a little like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. "Who do you want to believe? I negotiated the best deal, I spent hours..."

Soon he was goading them to vote for another company. "You should do it. You should do it. But you will reap what you sow," he said with wrath in his voice. "And it won't be me at the helm. I promise you... I've had too many migraine headaches. I've had too much, and I'm done... If you don't have confidence in me, I'm outta here."

He glared at Furr.

"I'm not doing it again, Beam. I'm not doing it. How am I going to run that utility? I've prayed about it. I talk to my wife about it. And when I got the chance to read the newspaper article about it yesterday, I got a migraine headache over it. I've given you my heart. And I've given you every bit of my professional advice I could, and if you're going to stop taking it and you're going to go down your path, I'm out of here."

With that, Van Cott sat down, and a pall of silence fell on the room.

Commissioner Peter Bober was the first to administer some counseling. "The fact that I voted how I voted, you shouldn't take that to mean that I don't listen to your advice and that I've lost confidence in you," he told Van Cott gently. "Usually, everything you say at the podium is golden as far as I'm concerned."

Then the mayor addressed him like a soothing mommy, saying they both had "sludge thrown in their face" by their city-hating enemies. But she and Whit were good people, she said, adding, "They haven't caught you in nine years and they haven't caught me in 16 years doing anything illegal."

Not yet, anyway.

It was enough for Furr to delay the vote.

Fast-forward to last week's commission meeting. Furr again made his motion to rescind the vote, and after two hours of inane, at times surreal, discussion, the commission voted 3-2 (Giulianti and Wasserstrom recused themselves) in favor of putting out new bids. Because of a technicality involving notice given by Furr, the vote didn't count. Told you the place was dysfunctional.

There were more sparkling moments provided by the mayor. She ordered her colleagues, who worried they have lost the trust of the people, to "stop pussyfooting around what the public thinks." She also vouched for Wasserstrom, who wisely sat out the meeting. "He's incredibly naive," she said. "He's botched it every time he's been with the press because he's been so open."

There's the mayor's philosophy in a nutshell: Ignore the public's will, and hide the truth.

But there's an upside. This coming Wednesday, on July 21, they'll reconvene and do it again. Furr is set to again bring up his motion to rescind the vote. Bring some popcorn -- and a couple of aspirin. If you don't use them, Van Cott will.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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