Miami City Commissioners Seek To Take Back Historic Black Beach

In a meeting plagued by outcry around beleaguered Virginia Key, the City of Miami Commission quietly voted to take control of a historic part of the island.

Commissioners voted unanimously at the Sept. 13 meeting to change the city code and take over the park trust that operates Virginia Key’s historic beach — the first beach that Black Miami County residents -Dade were officially allowed to use in the era of segregation. .

The ordinance is now due for second reading in October, but if passed, the majority black board of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust will be replaced by the city commission or its delegates.

Commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portilla claimed the trust’s board mismanaged and embezzled $300,000 in annual funding they receive from the city. As evidence of the alleged wrongdoing, the two commissioners point to a draft report from the city’s auditor general, a document that is currently kept away from the public.

During a budget hearing on Sept. 10, Carollo resisted when the trust requested additional funding to hire four new staff members to maintain the park and educate visitors about the beach’s history.

“This is an organization that, unlike the Liberty City Trust and many others, has not been run properly,” Carollo said from the podium during the budget hearing.

Three days later, at the September 13 meeting, Diaz de la Portilla went so far as to say that board members “got their hands caught in the cookie tin.”

Commissioner Ken Russell, who reviewed the draft audit report and whose district includes Virginia Key, said his office found no evidence of wrongdoing.

“I read the draft report and saw nothing to indicate any wrongdoing. There was definitely sloppy note-taking and poor bookkeeping, but nothing to show any misuse of funds,” Russell said. at the September 13 meeting.

Achieved by new times via email, City Attorney Victoria Méndez says audit reports are confidential in the draft phase and not subject to disclosure under Florida public records law until they are not finished. However, she says, commissioners are allowed to discuss a draft before it is made public.

The Virginia Key Beach Park Trust audit began in late 2019 and was put on hold during the pandemic until Virginia Key became a controversial link earlier this year over a plan to relocate homeless people to small homes on the island.

Patrick Range, chairman of the trust, publicly opposed the plan, which was backed by commissioners Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla. Range decried the city commission’s failure to consult with the trust on the matter and suggested that Virginia Key was not the right place for a homeless transition center.

Guy Forchion, managing director of the trust, tells new times that while trust board members may have been late in delivering meeting minutes, they were responsible for funding them.

“We’re not mismanaging funds. That’s all I have to say about it,” Forchion said. new times. “It’s an interesting turn of events, and it’s clearly tied on some level to other things happening on the island.”

At the September 13 meeting, Christine King, the only black member of the city commission, sparred for control of all appointments to the park trust and asked to work with the trust for a year to resolve its issues. financial.

“I think I should have more feedback because I’m the black commissioner and will be sensitive to our historic black beach,” King said from the stage.

King’s attempt to take control of the park trust’s appointments was initially postponed until a meeting later in September, but the commissioners brought the order back six hours later and amended it with significant changes. The revamped measure would place commissioners or their appointees as board members, place King as chair and give her control of two general appointees.

The current council structure provides for six members appointed by the commission and the mayor and three at-large members appointed internally by the council. Forchion tells new times there are currently two vacancies on the board of directors, as commissioners Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla have not appointed anyone to the trust.

A major motivating factor for city leaders to get the trust’s finances in order comes in the form of $20.5 million in Miami-Dade County stipends and bond funding to build a black history museum and cultural complex within the park. The release of that money has been on hold for nearly 20 years because the county said it would only release the funding once the city proves it can afford museum operations.

Forchion tells new times that he hopes the audit will be completed by October before the second reading of the commission’s proposed code change, so that the trust board has an opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them.

About James K. Bonnette

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