(SS) Look up at the skyline of Fort Lauderdale and you’ll see a city far bigger and glitzier than the shadow of Miami it was just a decade ago.
But look down, at ground level — or worse, below the surface — and you’ll see signs of a city whose foundation is crumbling.
For while focusing on the horizon, today’s leaders have failed to keep an eye on the ground, despite a chorus of citizens raising concerns about failing roads and bridges, pedestrian and bicycle deaths, a flawed streetcar plan and broken pipes that have spewed millions of gallons of raw sewage into roads, lawns and waterways.
On Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale voters will go to the polls to choose a successor to Mayor Jack Seiler, who faces term limits after three three-year terms. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face a runoff on March 13.
Seiler is a popular mayor who has focused on economic development and holding the tax rate steady. He’s also been criticized for not listening harder to everyday folks.
Three candidates — City Commissioners Dean Trantalis and Bruce Roberts, and former Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom — hope to replace Seiler. The job is part-time and one of five seats on the city commission. But the mayor, working with the city manager, gets to set the agenda and run the meetings.
All three candidates are upstanding people with a strong record of public service. But of the three, we believe Dean Trantalis is the best choice.
Like his opponents, Trantalis, 64, a real estate attorney, is smart and personable. He’s also accessible, responsive and committed to smart growth. And he’s self-aware — the only candidate at the South Florida Sun Sentinel debate willing to acknowledge a mistake or regret.
Trantalis also has a sense of humor. When asked at the debate about an attack ad from a PAC supporting Bruce Roberts — an ad some viewed as homophobic because it depicted Trantalis, a gay man, wearing lipstick and rouge — he began: “Aside from the fact that these are outfits I would never be seen in …”
Trantalis has a deep knowledge of the city from having twice served on the commission. Today’s stint began in 2013, after Rodstrom stepped down, weeks after winning re-election, to run for the Broward County Commission seat being vacated by her husband. She lost, and quickly entered the special election to regain her city seat. Though popular and hard-working, she lost to Trantalis, in part because people were upset that she’d forced the city to hold a costly special election. She made another stab at the County Commission in 2014, and was prepared to move out of the city if elected to the county's north-central seat, but lost to Mark Bogen.
The argument against Trantalis
The rap on Trantalis is that he has been on the losing end of a lot of 4-1 votes, so he must be unable to influence others or build consensus. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see he is often the commissioner who asks the questions on the minds of people in the audience or watching at home. For that, he’s faced blowback that borders on bullying and whispers that he doesn’t understand budgeting.
Consider an August meeting, when the commission was set to shift millions of dollars away from a needed upgrade at the Fiveash Water Treatment Plant to cover another batch of emergency sewer repairs.
The shift had been previously discussed, and so was listed for approval without discussion on the consent agenda. But several citizens, including Rodstrom, wanted to be heard. People are worried about the drinking water system, too, because of far-too-often water main breaks and boil water notices. In fact, a consultant’s report says needed repairs to the city’s water, sewer and stormwater systems could cost as much as $2.5 billion over the next 20 years.
You’ve got to wonder why the city’s infrastructure is in such bad shape, given all the new development going on and a tax base fueled by rising property values.
But clearly, infrastructure — the defining issue of this year’s election — has not been a priority for today’s commission’s majority. Indeed, when City Manager Lee Feldman shared his top priorities at the Fort Lauderdale Forum last May, his list began with improved insurance benefits for city employees and a new night-time code enforcement team.
And when voters were asked to raise the sales tax for infrastructure last November, the city’s top priority was a new police station on Broward Boulevard.
Far more than a new police station, the city needs to solve its chronic water, sewer and stormwater problems. In the last three years, more than 20 million gallons of sewage have spilled into lawns and waterways. Yet the commission sweeps about $20 million a year from the water-sewer fund for other city expenses, even as it raises water fees at a clip of 5 percent a year.
Trantalis gives voice to citizens
Given everything, the citizens wanted answers that night. Trantalis stood alone in asking the questions. In doing so, he demonstrated the kind of leadership and financial acuity we expect in a mayor.
The city manager said the shift would not affect the water plant because the money was coming from unrestricted dollars in the water-sewer enterprise fund. In that case, Trantalis responded, why does the agenda say $3 million will come from abandoning a water distillation upgrade at the plant? Feldman said the city charter requires him to use the word abandoned for changes made in the capital budget.
“Abandoning does not mean abandoning,” Roberts added. “We’re going through the same hyperbole again.”
Commissioner Robert McKinzie called the discussion a “waste of time.”
And Seiler accused Trantalis of trying “to score points with the crowd.”
If you were in the crowd, you would have appreciated Trantalis’ questions. From our vantage point, things weren’t adding up.
Trantalis continued. He asked where the water-treatment money would come from if today’s budgeted dollars are spent somewhere else.
“The ratepayers,” Feldman said. In fact, the city manager plans to ask the commission this month to borrow $200 million for urgent repairs. He expects to make the payments with that annual hike in the water fee — a tax by another name.
Feldman takes issue with the consultant’s report on infrastructure. He cites another assessment that says the city’s systems are well-maintained and well-funded to meet future demand.
Seriously? Does the city manager seriously think today’s systems are well-maintained and well-funded? Did he not see those vacuum trucks sucking sewage from one manhole and pouring it another — at a cost of $12 million so far? And how about the state’s order to stop spilling millions of gallons of sewage into waterways or else pay fines?
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board members talk about the upcoming primary elections in Fort Lauderdale.
Commissioners who don’t listen
Maybe you, like Trantalis, have found yourself among people who don’t want to listen. If they’re unmovable, does that mean you’re unable to build consensus?
Remember, a majority of today’s commission used a technicality to ignore the message behind a petition drive — signed by more than a thousand verified voters — that requested a one-year moratorium on construction pending a citywide study of traffic and infrastructure.
Sometimes, it’s easier to go along to get along. And on occasion, Trantalis has done so. We’ve also heard he’s voted in ways other than what he’d led people to expect, which is concerning.
Trantalis says the vote he regrets is the one that approved another high-rise — this one for an assisted-living development— on downtown’s riverfront. He says he’s not against growth, but with 6,000 approved housing units yet to be built in downtown, he (like Rodstrom) is willing to hit the pause button while infrastructure catches up.
The rap on Roberts
Bruce Roberts, who was the city’s police chief before joining the commission, doesn’t like the idea of a moratorium, even short-term. He says he’d evaluate projects case-by-case. He’s backed by the business community, whose leadership fears any mention of a moratorium.
The rap on Roberts is his unwavering support for development and that his campaign strategist, Judy Stern, lobbies the city commission on behalf of developers. She lobbied for the controversial Bahia Mar development, as one example.
At the Sun Sentinel debate, Roberts pointed out that he’d opposed the proposal to build seven condo towers around the Galleria Mall. But he failed to note that Stern was lobbying against the propoal, on behalf of the neighborhood.
Roberts has a ruling from the Florida Commission on Ethics that says it’s legal for him to retain Stern as his campaign manager, even though she lobbies the City Commission. The fact that he sought the ruling shows he recognized the arrangement could cause problems for his campaign.
That said, Roberts, 69, is passionate about continuing to serve the city. He has Seiler’s strong support. He’s also supported by the police union, which has a lot of sway at City Hall and gets out the vote. The question is whether taxpayers can afford all of the union’s wants, including the new police station, which Roberts believes is badly needed.
Rodstrom strong, but a bit strident
Charlotte Rodstrom says a new police headquarters is “a want we cannot afford right now.” She also questions the wisdom of narrowing roads when traffic is so terrible.
Rodstrom, 64, has a track record of fiscal discipline. When she was in office, she fought the plan to borrow money to meet pension obligations, for example. She also voted against budgets that let 40-year-old police officers get lifetime retirement benefits after 20 years on the job. “That’s causing the deficit in our budget,” she says. “It’s financially irresponsible.”
Rodstrom has worked hard — attending meetings, studying back-up materials, walking door-to-door — to prepare and prove herself ready. And she knows what it feels like to be ignored during the precious three minutes citizens get to speak before the commission. She promises no more meetings that last until 3 a.m. And really, there’s no good reason why commissioners can’t meet more than twice a month.
On balance, Trantalis is equally well prepared, but less strident. As he points out, voting against every budget not only sends a message about police benefits, but about services for children, the homeless, the street cleaners and more. “That’s not responsible government, not responsible leadership.”
Fort Lauderdale is a city on the move, but faces significant challenges with transportation, affordable housing, high-wage jobs, a poorly designed streetcar project, bike paths in highway lanes, sea level rise, poverty and growing debt.
But in the 2018 election, the defining issues are infrastructure and a willingness to listen.
We believe Dean Trantalis has the experience, smarts and temperament to best make the needed adjustments and build a stronger, more vibrant city.