Who Crowned Michael Brown?

If there is a driving force behind Riviera Beach's $2.4 billion redevelopment project, if there is one person who is imprinted on the effort like a cattle brand, it is Michael Brown.

The city's "weak" mayor.

Brown's post is meant to be largely ceremonial — he doesn't even have a vote unless there's a rare tie on the five-member commission. But he's used his nonvoting status as an excuse to ignore laws that govern all other elected officials. And it seems the further he treads into legally and ethically dubious territory, the more powerful he becomes.

Since he was elected in 1999, Brown has steamrolled the beachfront redevelopment plan through his city. He's brought in consultants and construction contractors, negotiated the terms of numerous development deals, and held sway over a majority of the five commissioners.

"It's called leadership," he told me last week. "If I had not stepped into the city, the city would have been bankrupt. It would have been a disaster."

In May, Brown engineered the passing of the giant redevelopment plan, which hinges on Riviera Beach's buying hundreds of people out of their homes through a dubious eminent domain scheme that will benefit private developers. The town's public beach space on the more affluent Singer Island is also slated to become home for a giant hotel and condo development.

Everyone seems to agree that the largely impoverished city needs new development, but a growing number of citizens is questioning whether Brown is doing it the right way. In essence, he's selling out the beach and selling short homeowners in favor of developers, including the family of billionaire Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who stand to cash in on the deal.

But Brown is king of the city, and his way goes. How has he amassed that power? For one thing, he may be the only mayor in Florida who freely admits that he operates outside the state's Sunshine Laws, which prohibit elected officials from discussing government business with one another outside the public eye.

Brown believes that since he doesn't vote, he can speak with individual commissioners about his plans whenever and wherever he wants, whether on the dais or in a dark alleyway. "It allows me to pitch ideas and get things done," he explained.

There hasn't been a legal opinion based on his unorthodox stance, but I told him I thought he was violating the law.

"You have your legal opinion, and I have mine," countered Brown, a Florida native who is a lawyer by trade. "And if I was a betting man, I would bet on mine."

It's not just Sunshine Laws that he plays loose with — Brown also ventures into dicey legal territory when it comes to mixing his private law business and public duties as mayor.

In 2003, the City Commission voted to approve a Winn-Dixie shopping center in Riviera Beach. Brown was City Hall's biggest proponent of the grocery store, promoting it on the dais and helping to expedite the project through the bureaucracy.

Here's what has never been reported: As a private attorney, Brown also represented Byram Properties, the company that provided the land for the Winn-Dixie. And Brown readily admitted to me that the $1 million sale, on which he was paid a commission, was contingent on the city's approving the grocery store.

"And I single-handedly negotiated the deal through the city," he boasted.

Brown insisted there was nothing wrong with what he did. Why? Because he didn't vote, of course. Florida's unlawful-compensation statute forbids public officials from profiting on their elected positions. But Brown countered that Byram Properties was a longtime client and that he would have represented the company in the land sale whether he was mayor or not.

"I detest public corruption, and anybody who knows me will tell you [I'm] squeaky clean," he said. "I have made numerous sacrifices in my professional life. I could have taken the easy way out and taken the money, but I knew I wanted to help my community."

He's on undeniably murky ground, though, as he is in his longtime close relationship with Kimley-Horn and Associates, an engineering consulting firm Brown brought to the city shortly after he was elected mayor in 1999.

The firm has been paid huge sums of money as a consultant for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. But a million dollars that the city paid to the company really stands out.

The check was in the amount of precisely $1,005,917. It was dated September 19, 2003. And Mayor Brown admits that he personally intervened on behalf of Kimley-Horn engineer Paul Cherry to make sure the city paid it.

"Kimley-Horn contacted me and said the check is approved; can you make a call to see what's going on?" Brown explained. "People call me all the time and say, 'Hey mayor, can you help me with the bureaucracy.' And in that case, I made a call to the administration."

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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