Volsky on “Mayor Slesnick and the Truth”

GEORGE VOLSKY

MAYOR SLESNICK AND THE TRUTH

Like many politicians these days, Mayor Don Slesnick has a pet  aversion: he shuns facts, not to say the truth.  It is not  a new trait. Early in his career as Coral Gables’ top gun, he assured his colleagues on the  City Commission – on two consecutive occasions –  that not a single not-for-profit entity was interested in the JCI building.  He “forgot” that presidents of two non-profits, Alliance  Francaise and the city’s Chamber of Commerce, had asked him several times for help to buy the LeJeune property, in which the city has some residual rights.

Let’s skip the following eight years because this column would become a lengthy litany of the mayor’s misstatements, misrepresentations, exaggerations, or other nouns cited in Roget’s under “Falsehood.”

On January 26, the Miami Herald, on its editorial page published a long letter by Slesnick asserting that under his leadership the city has gone “to great length to make meaningful information available about their finances and operations.” The paper’s  Editorial Page Editor who inserted the letter titled it affirmatively “Coral Gables makes information easy to access.”

Most professionals had found the decision by the Herald’s editor to publish the latter and give it a positive head journalistically  objectionable. The missive was clearly a self-promoting political statement of a re-election candidate and it was reportedly done without checking its veracity or asking Slesnick’ opponents for comments. (The paper’s coverage of Coral Gables, also without fact-checking, basically reflects the views of Slesnick and his partisans.)

The letter’s veracity was contradicted a couple of days later. That was when  Slesnick and the other four city commissioners were  privately briefed, reportedly at the mayor’s request  under a code of silence, by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.  A national accounting firm,  PWC is  investigating the city’s financial relations with Seaway Corp. Seaway, the  Biltmore Hotel’s management company, is contractually obligated to pay rent to Coral Gables. The Biltmore has not been paying the city for almost two years and as of January 1, its debt was about  $4 million, accruing daily.

While kept secret from the public, the controversial issue (in which the U.S. Department of Interior is also involved)  was  well known by Slesnick for at least four years. It became subject of a discussion by the City Commission last  June when  Seaway  requested to present its case together with a financial solution proposal.   But even then residents could not speak nor ask questions; Slesnick has never held a public forum since.

Neither the public nor the media were provided access to last weekend’s PWC briefing. Moreover, as attorney Tom Korge – who with former diplomat James Cason opposes the mayor’s re-election- revealed in the first mayoral debate earlier this month, the “easy access” Slesnick and his erstwhile crony, the disgraced former city manager David Brown, almost four years ago had swept the Biltmore problem under the rug and kept It there for well over a year.

According to Korge, who spoke during the Jan.  17 debate at the Congregational Church and was not contradicted by Slesnick,  at that time two Seaway executives advised the mayor and Brown that the  hotel’s higher than expected maintenance costs and lower revenues were making it difficult to pay rent, and requested a revision of their contract.  According to Korge, the duo pooh-poohed the issue and only when Slesnick and Brown failed to respond for over a year, the hotel stopped paying rent.

None of this was known to our residents. The disclosure of the city’s serious financial  problem coincided with the arrival of the new city manager, Patrick Salerno who reportedly discovered that the Biltmore file was Brown’s jealously guarded secret private domain and asked PWC to investigate.

At the same time, another aspect of the issue was revealed. It was that the U.S. Department of Interior faulted the city for its failure to submit to the Federal government a status report on the historic preservation of the Biltmore, the building on the nation’s list of historic monuments.  The city official  duty-bound to prepare the status report was Kara Kautz,  the Historic Preservation Officer.  With scant professional preservation background, but according to several sources with close ties to the Slesnick family, Kautz had been hired by  Brown. (Her salary, increased this fiscal year by about $7,000 to $94,000, belies  Slesnick’s Jan. 17 statement that this year salaries were not raised in the city. So far, Kautz has not been reprimanded for her inexcusable blunder.)

Code of silence or not, the news about the PWC briefings is filtering out. The news is not good, in fact it is very bad for the city and Slesnick. According to various sources, the accounting firm has told the commissioners that the city can forget about the $4 million Biltmore debt and that it should not count on any income from the hotel and the adjacent golf course, also a city property, in the foreseeable future.  It isn’t clear what PWC has recommended that the city do in view of this dire situation.

The Biltmore revenues are cited as receivable in the city budget. Thus the $4 million loss, plus to $1 million that Coral Gables must return to the Federal government for Brown’s FEMA double-billing, and the loss of $1 million that the Coral Gables Museum Corp. had pledged toward the Museum’s construction and never gave it, appear to prove that the city’s modest reserve of some $6 million has evaporated. This in turn provides an unimpeachable proof to the argument that the 10-year-old Slesnick mayoralty had wreaked enormous financial damage to the “City Beautiful.”
(A future column will explain, with official data, how Slesnick boondoggled the Museum, including his recent flagrant museum misrepresentation.)

The PWC secret verbal briefing – it seems not even a one page memo was offered the commission – raises very serious concerns, alarm even.  It is a given that PWC’s final report – and the firm that could charge the city more than $250,000 has to present it in writing – will be financially devastating for the city and politically for Slesnick.

But it is also known that the mayor is making every effort that the report is not submitted before the April 12 election and become inexcusably a public record – in affect bureaucratically delaying a revelation of unsavory truth. Something similar took place two years ago, facilitating the re-election of one commissioner, Slesnick’s acolyte.

Thus rather that trying – according to a Herald reported less successfully if not ridiculously – to become an actor and dancer at the Actors’ Playhouse a week ago – Slesnick should come clean about what PWC has told him.  According to one knowledgeable resident, secret briefing could be legally unsustainable: “What’s happening between this city and the Biltmore is not national security, nor are we suing the hotel.”

Will Slesnick come clean on PWC? Most observers doubt it. And did he garner any votes with his Playhouse “spell-sing-and-dance” act?  Even the Herald reporter was dubious. “His only repertory comes from the political stage…He was finally stamped and sent packing.”

Will this also happen on April 12?  Unfortunately for the actor-politician it increasingly appears  possible.

 

 

 

About Stephen E. McGaughey
International consultant in economic development programs and projects

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