April 02, 2019

Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola files to run for re-election



Miami Beach’s November ballot will be full of familiar faces.

On Tuesday, Miami Beach City Commissioner Ricky Arriola filed to run for re-election. He joins Mayor Dan Gelber and former Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez in seeking another term. Former state Rep. David Richardson has also thrown his name into the race for the fourth commission seat on the November ballot after incumbent John Elizabeth Alemán decided not to run again.

There are seven seats on the City Commission, including the mayor’s, but only four are up for election this year. The deadline to file election paperwork isn’t until September, but candidates can start raising money after they file.

Arriola, who was first elected in November 2015, is the founder and CEO of Inktel Holdings Corp., a call center outsourcing company. He has also served as chairman of the board of the Adrienne Arsht Center and was previously appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities by President Barack Obama.

“I think the next four to five years are critical for our city for decades to come and I think if we do things right we’re really going to elevate the city to another level,” Arriola said. “We’re really doing a lot of good things but a lot more still needs to be done and I want to be a part of it.”

Read more here

March 19, 2019

The oldest freshman in Congress gets back to basics in Miami


@NewsBySmiley and @Kyra Gurney

Donna Shalala is an analog politician in a digital age.

Not one to talk in 280-character soundbites, the 78-year-old congresswoman is reconnecting with her constituents after two months in Washington in an old-fashioned way: face-to-face conversations.

On Monday, for the second time since she became the second-oldest freshman in U.S. history, Shalala stood in front of a room of constituents from Florida’s 27th Congressional District during a town hall and fielded questions about guns, anti-Semitism and Donald Trump. The Miami Democrat will host five more gatherings before the end of May, including another Wednesday at the Palmetto Bay Municipal Center.

Shalala, who billed the event as a town hall on guns, touted legislation she’s supported to strengthen gun laws, including a bill passed by the House last month that mandates federal criminal background checks on all firearm sales.

Read more here.

March 04, 2019

Two veteran Miami Beach politicians file to run for City Commission



Former Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez didn’t stay away from local politics for long.

On Monday, two months after stepping down from the commission, Rosen Gonzalez filed to run for her old seat. She was forced to submit her resignation last year when she ran for Congress in order to comply with an expanded state resign-to-run law, but she did not have to leave office until January.

“I’m back,” Rosen Gonzalez, who was first elected in 2015, announced in a press release. “I am returning to fight the special interests who threaten our quality of life with overdevelopment.”

Former State Rep. David Richardson is also jumping back into local politics.

Read more here.

February 27, 2019

Miami Beach Rep. files first bills to legalize recreational pot

Associated Press

Miami Beach Rep. Michael Grieco made the first go at legalizing recreational marijuana in Florida Tuesday, filing two separate bills that would legalize personal pot use and create an excise tax on the drug.

HB 1117, co-sponsored by Orlando Democrat Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, would make recreational marijuana legal. The bill specifies that only those 21 or older could purchase the drug in no more than 2.5 ounces at a time and restricts smoking the drug to private places only. If someone were to smoke in public, according to the bill, they would face a $100 penalty.

In the 58-page bill, Grieco and Smith also addresses the highly criticized vertical integration model, which by law requires medical marijuana treatment facilities to grow, process, market and sell their own goods. The bill says if passed, retail stores could buy, sell or deliver marijuana from another marijuana cultivation facility.

The bill also mandates that 5 percent of the recreational marijuana revenues be given to the Department of Health to provide grants for peer-reviewed research on marijuana's beneficial uses and safety.

HB 1119, which Grieco filed separately, creates an excise tax to charge growers $50 an ounce for marijuana that is sold or transferred from a marijuana cultivation facility. It also caps the application fee for a marijuana establishment license at $5,000.

Considering the amount of pushback medical marijuana bills have already faced this session, these bills will likely face an uphill battle. House Speaker José Oliva has openly criticized smoking medicinal marijuana, and said efforts to legalize it was just “some cover” for getting access to recreational use.

He pointed out that the drug is still illegal under federal law, and is still a concern because of its “highly marketable” quality.

The recreational use of marijuana is currently legal in 10 states, with New Jersey soon to be the 11th. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana for adult use through the legislative process.

Grieco said even though he and Smith expect pushback on the bill, the language is "consistent with the will of the majority of Floridians." 

"We're going to see next year a majority of Floridians voting on this," Grieco said, referring to potential ballot initiatives. "Even if we get pushback, it continues the conversation. It’s a conversation that’s being had nationally. I expect some movement to be had federally, prior to the presidential election next year." 

In 2016, Grieco received $20,000 from marijuana entrepreneurs Rustin and Evan Kluge for a mayoral campaign fundraising operation the then-Miami Beach commissioner denied involvement with. That committee, called People for Better Leaders, raised more than $200,000 from Miami Beach developers, lobbyists, city vendors and residents in the run-up to the 2017 mayoral election.

"Rep. Smith and I worked tirelessly to try to get the bill language perfect to ensure access, protect local decision making and create a revenue-generating structure for the state," Grieco said.

Smith, who serves on the House Health Quality Subcommittee and has been vocal about legalizing smokeable medical marijuana, said he co-sponsored the bill because criminalizing adult use "just doesn't make any sense." 

"There’s no reason cannabis can’t be regulated in ways similar to alcohol," he said. "No one is dying from cannabis overdoses but they are getting arrested and being given criminal records for no good reason ... We expect that it’s always going to be a tough legislative route, but that’s not a reason to stop advocating for it." 

Gary Stein, of Clarity PAC, said while the bills do important work like move the program under-regulated industries and separate it from the medical program, it still has issues Stein says could be roadblocks.

Stein points out that the excise tax imposed “far too high” and that the term “recreational” is a misnomer. He also thinks the Legislature needs to fix the medical marijuana program before it can move in this direction.

“This is a good legislative start and a way to open the discussion for the future,” he said. “But we still have to fix the medical program before we can move in this direction. Other states have hurt their med programs by rushing to adult use, and we need to be cautious that it doesn’t happen here.”

February 22, 2019

Dark money fueled ballot initiative debates in Miami, Miami Beach

MB Connect Park View

@joeflech & @KyraGurney

In Miami’s political scene, money doesn’t just talk. It screams — in English, Spanish and Creole, filling the airwaves, flashing on TV and computer screens, crowding email inboxes, text messages and snail mail.

The push to sway votes is expensive, and the true source of the dollars that pay for the ads can be a mystery. Whether it’s candidates or ballot measures, moneyed interests use political groups that can receive and spend unlimited, untraceable “dark money” to influence elections and pay for attack ads. Florida’s lax campaign finance laws allow donors to seed thousands into committees that can donate to one or more other committees.

Read more.

February 14, 2019

Miami Beach elections heat up as Mayor Dan Gelber announces he’ll run for re-election



Miami Beach’s elections are still nine months away, but the ballot is already filling up with familiar faces.

On Thursday, Mayor Dan Gelber announced that he’s running for a second term. Gelber, a former state legislator and federal prosecutor, was first elected in 2017 and is eligible to serve two more two-year terms as mayor.

“It’s been my greatest privilege to serve the only hometown I’ve ever known,” Gelber said in a statement. “I’ve tried to serve honorably and openly, and would like to continue to help make our City the best version of itself.”

Former Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who resigned last year to run for Congress, told the Miami Herald that she plans to run for a commission seat in November, but hasn’t yet decided whether to run for her old seat or challenge Commissioner Ricky Arriola for his.

“Right now, I am observing the field and considering my options,” Rosen Gonzalez said in a text message. “A lot of residents have asked me to run against Ricky Arriola.”

Read more here.

February 13, 2019

Miami Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán will not seek re-election



Miami Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán will not seek re-election when her four-year term ends in November.

Alemán announced the decision at a City Commission meeting on Wednesday, citing a desire to spend more time with her family.

“While I may consider a future role in public service, the timing is right for me now with both sons in their teens to focus on their needs and see them successfully launched on to college and their own adult lives,” Alemán said, reading from a letter she wrote.

In another surprise announcement, former State Rep. David Richardson said later Wednesday that he plans to run for Alemán’s seat in November.

Read more here.

January 23, 2019

Right to grow veggies in the front yard takes root in the House

Tom Carroll and Hermine Ricketts stand in front of their home at 53 NE 106th St., Miami Shores, Florida, in November 2013, when the couple maintained a front-yard vegetable garden. Walter Michot Miami Herald file

The House tended to the “vegetable garden bill” for the first time Wednesday, as the bill made it through the first of three stops on its way through the Legislature.

Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff presented her amended version of bill to the House Local, Federal and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, which prohibits a county or municipality from regulating vegetable, fruit and herb gardens on residential properties and voids any existing ordinance of that nature.

The bill passed with dozens of questions, but only one “no vote.”

At the beginning of the month, the Senate Community Affairs Committee unanimously backed the measure, which was first filed by Sen. Rob Bradley. The Senate passed the Fleming Island Republican’s bill during the 2018 session, but the clock ran out and a House version was never filed.

The vegetable garden proposal stems from a legal dispute about a Miami Shores ordinance that banned the gardens from being planted in front yards. Village residents Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll kept a garden, and were charged $50 in daily fines.

They eventually had to dig up their 17-year-old garden, which they kept because their backyard didn’t get enough sun to support their beets, kale, tomatoes and Asian cabbage. The couple sued, and in November 2017, an appeals court upheld a ruling that they do not have the right to keep a vegetable garden in their front yard. They appealed the ruling to the Florida Supreme Court, which declined to grant review.

“They were trying to have a healthier living situation and provide their family with vegetable and fruits,” Fetterhoff said. “This is a property rights issue. It’s not a home rule issue.”

The DeLand Republican added that limitations also curb possibilities for reducing food deserts, supporting the long-suffering bee community and teaching children about how vegetables grow.

The bill does not include rules set by homeowners associations and does not affect other properties like schools and churches.

The main opponent to both vegetable garden bills is the Florida League of Cities. The group’s legislative counsel, David Cruz, argues that each city in Florida is unique, and much of the unique aesthetic is brought about through code enforcement. That’s why Coral Gables looks different from Perry, Florida, he said.

“There’s the ability at the local level to come up with solutions,” he said. “We’re not against vegetable gardens. Our members are not against vegetable gardens. But local solution could be crafted.”

Cruz said bills like this one preempt local laws, and gave the example of a 2013 Orlando ordinance that allows residents to use 60 percent of their front yard as a vegetable garden.

“This bill would void that ordinance,” he said. “It would undo the good work of a city to compromise on this issue.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani was the only member of the subcommittee to vote down on the bill. Home rule is her “north star,” she said, and the smallest level of government understands their community best.

“We worked together at the local level to pass an ordinance that did the people good,” the Orlando Democrat said. “City officials and county officials should bring this up at town halls, on Facebook, talk to their constituents. If there’s a rumbling that folks want this, make it happen on a local level.

She said she would support a bill with amendments that provide clarity on what constitutes a vegetable garden and give local power to defining its size and aesthetic.

“I think the legislature can do its part to help smooth the process out,” she said. “But does it have to rip away ordinances that are already in place across 67 counties? That’s something I don’t subscribe to.”

Fetterhoff said she plans to keep working on the bill as it moves through the process, but fundamentally believes the vegetable garden restrictions in places like Miami Shores step on citizens’ constitutional rights.

“I really feel that private property rights need to be protected,” she said. “When cities start to step on those rights, then we need to step up for the citizens of Florida.”

The bill will be heard in the House Commerce Committee and State Affairs Committee, but the dates have not yet been set. 

January 14, 2019

Alex Diaz de la Portilla files to run for Miami commission



Former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla will make a third run at returning to public office.

On Monday, the political consultant filed to run for the Miami City Commission. Diaz de la Portilla filed paperwork with the city of Miami to open a campaign account, confirming a rumored run for the District 1 commission seat, which is being vacated by Wilfredo "Willy" Gort. Gort is term-limited this year.

Diaz de la Portilla's most recent foray into Miami City Hall politics was 2017, when he worked on Commissioner Joe Carollo's campaign. A state representative in the 1990s and state senator during the 2000s, Diaz de la Portilla has worked as political consultant in recent years and has unsuccessfully run for office twice since 2017. That year he lost a bid to return to the state Senate, where he once served among the senior leadership of the Republican majority. When former county commissioner Bruno Barreiro resigned his seat to run for Congress in 2018, Diaz de la Portilla ran for his seat in a special election. He placed third behind Zoraida Barreiro, Bruno's wife, and Eileen Higgins, who was elected in a run-off.

Diaz de la Portilla joins four other candidates who have already opened campaign accounts for the District 1 race: Horacio S. Aguirre, chairman of the Miami River Commission; Michael Hepburn, a former University of Miami academic adviser who ran in the Democratic primary for Florida's 27th Congressional District; Miguel Angel Gabela, a businessman who has twice lost to Gort in past elections and has already contributed $100,000 to his campaign; and Yanny Hidalgo, an attorney.

The District 1 race will be one to watch in Miami, particularly in the context of one high-profile City Commission vote on the horizon. David Beckham and his partners are expected to negotiate a lease of public land to build a soccer stadium and retail complex on Miami's only city-owned golf course -- a lease that would require four of five commission votes. Commissioner Manolo Reyes has said he's a firm no, and Gort has opposed the idea in the past. The stadium deal could be a major issue in the election.


January 03, 2019

Ken Russell appointed new chairman of Miami commission; mayor hires new chief of staff



New year, new faces and titles at Miami City Hall. 

Mayor Francis Suarez has named a new chairman of the City Commission and hired a new chief of staff. Fresh off his first year in office, which featured a mix of legislative and political wins and losses that included a failed bid to expand his powers by becoming a "strong mayor," Suarez has used one of his few powers to name Commissioner Ken Russell as the new commission chairman. Russell represents District 2 along Miami's coast stretching from Morningside to Coconut Grove. His vice chairman will be Commissioner Willy Gort, who is entering his final year in office representing District 1, which includes Allapattah and Grapeland Heights.

This mean Russell, considered a Suarez ally who is running for re-election this year, will control the flow of legislation for Miami's decision-making body and run commission meetings. Russell has served as vice chairman for Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who served as chairman for three years.

Russell will hold the gavel as he vies for a second four-year term after dropping his bid for Congress nearly last spring. He already has a challenger — Javier Gonzalez, a Coconut Grove real estate agent who ran in 2015. Russell also a war chest. After refunding donors who wanted their money back and donating to nonprofits and other Democratic organizations and campaigns last year, Russell moved $100,000 from his Congressional campaign into a political committee backing his commission campaign, a group called Turn the Page. Two donors complained they never heard from Russell before the transfer, gripes that Russell considered political potshots from folks who've been angered by his votes in the past. The District 2 race could be a lively one.

Suarez thanked Hardemon in a memo this week announcing the appointments, saying Hardemon "effectively and efficiently presided over the City Commission." Hardemon, the District 5 commissioner representing Overtown, Liberty City, Wynwood and the Upper Eastside, was known for keeping meetings moving along, thought he drew some critics with the way he organized public comment periods. He held public hearings at the beginning of morning and afternoon sessions during commission meetings instead of allowing comments before votes on individual items. Hardemon developed a reputation for capably steering the sometimes-heated conversation among commissioners without inciting their ire and using his position to make speeches about race relations in Miami.

On Wednesday, Russell told the Miami Herald he is not planning on any substantive changes at this point, but he generally wants to work with city staffers to improve the resident experience for those who come to City Hall and wish to address the commission.

Suarez also named a new chief of staff: Jeremy Schwarz, an attorney at K&L Gates, Harvard Law graduate and Navy veteran. In other personnel news, city communications director Eugene Ramirez is leaving to join national public affairs and communications firm Kivvit. A former television journalist, Ramirez joined the administration in spring 2018 as a new hire under City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, a Suarez appointee. Ramirez worked with Stephanie Severino, deputy communications director, who has now been promoted to director.

Jeremy Schwarz