Forget the supposed midsummer South Florida exodus. Last week's Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting was packed. Crowds spilled onto the sidewalk, others were sequestered on the eighth floor to watch via TV. The reason for this sudden upsurge in civic engagement? Free money.

Got your attention, didn't it? It seems the city has somehow built up a reserve of $5.6 million in community-development block grant funds. If at least $1.5 million of the surplus isn't spent by January 1, 2000, the feds will take their loot elsewhere. All of the money has been allocated for one project or another but for various reasons has never been spent. Apparently the economically blighted areas in the Venice of America didn't really need the extra tax dollars. In addition, the commissioners were setting funding priorities for the coming year's grant dollars, so speaker after speaker after speaker approached the podium pleading for his or her own special project.

But the overwhelming majority of those present were there to lobby for improvements to North 13th Street. Dozens of residents from the area showed up in red Tshirts with "Save 13th Street" emblazoned across the front and decried the state of the four-lane thoroughfare. Proving once again that whoever shouts the loudest in Fort Lauderdale will get what he or she wants, the commissioners appeared ready to accede to the group's demands. A final decision was tabled until the next meeting.

If it's not too late, New Times would like to offer its own suggestion on how to empty the city's coffers. We vote for a large public art project that will make everyone feel proud of their hometown. Perhaps six-foot-high marble letters spelling out "POLITICAL BOONDOGGLE." It would look quite nice in front of city hall.

Before the New Times issue that exposed Sako Leasing Company's relationship with car title expert Randolph Williams was even off the streets last week, Sako had cleared out its showroom and left town with its cache of luxury and classic cars.

Hmm. Naturally we wanted to know why Sako, which was located at 731 N. Federal Hwy. in Fort Lauderdale, had folded its automotive tent. Did it have anything to do with us showing how the company had -- wittingly or not -- gotten possession of several very expensive cars with fraudulent titles? Could it have anything to do with the fact that U.S. Customs Service officials said in the article that they were going to investigate Sako's importation of cars from its massive dealership in Canada?

Absolutely not, said Robert Miller, who was just laid off as Sako's general manager. Miller said owner Sarkis Liberian, of Quebec, decided months ago to close the dealership for the summer because of slow business. After "reevaluation," Miller said, it may reopen.

After repeatedly refusing to speak with New Times prior to publication, Miller finally gave at least a limited version of Sako's side of the story. In a nutshell, Miller now says that he had no idea that Williams was obtaining fraudulent titles on cars Sako was bringing in from Canada; or that Williams was holding phony auctions on the cars; or that he was writing bogus bills of sale for them; or that he was getting around emissions inspections by declaring that Sako cars were "inoperable."

"Bottom line is, we're an innocent party," Miller claims.

Innocent of intent to commit crimes, maybe. Innocent of losing track of important aspects of his business? Probably not. We hope he takes that hard-earned lesson to his next job, wherever that may be. -- as told to Tom Walsh

Got a tip? Call 954-233-1581, fax 9542331571, or e-mail [email protected].

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