MIAMI — Athalie Range and the Rev. Theodore Gibson, the first two African Americans on the Miami City Commission, served without a hint of scandal.
Those who have come after them – Miller Dawkins, Arthur Teele and Michelle Spence-Jones – have been trailed by legal problems and negative headlines.
Spence-Jones, elected to a second term representing Miami’s District 5 in November, now faces felony charges and has been suspended from her post.
Spence-Jones is accused of steering two Miami-Dade County grants totaling $50,000 to a company that she and her family members owned, then spending it for personal use. Prosecutors allege that Spence-Jones forged letters that purported to redirect the funds to her company.
The funds came from a county grant awarded in 2005 to two other entities. The other organizations were supposed to receive the money to help them revitalize portions of Northwest Seventh Avenue in Liberty City, in Spence-Jones’ commission district.
“People are upset another commissioner has gotten caught up in a scandal,” said Jeff Torain, who ran against Spence-Jones in the Nov. 3 election.
“It appears this saga is going to continue.”
Still, Spence-Jones is running again for the District 5 seat in a Jan. 12 special election.
Other candidates include: David Chiverton, chief executive officer of Miami/Miami-Dade Weed and Seed, who also ran Nov. 3; the Rev. Richard P. Dunn and real estate manager Georges William, both of whom ran against Spence-Jones in 2005; homemaker Yashica Brown-Rogne; American Intercontinental University representative Robert Malone Jr.; Howard University economist Dufirstson Neree; Miami-Dade Public Schools administrator Pierre E. Rutledge; and attorney Erica Wright.
In addition to Liberty City, the district includes Overtown, Lemon City, Model City, Buena Vista, Spring Garden, Little Haiti and Wynwood.
Torain is not running in the special election.
“Our challenge overall was our inability to raise sufficient funds to be competitive,” he said. “By me, being a new person on the political scene…that made it extremely difficult. It becomes extremely difficult unless you have a strong volunteer process.”
The lucky ones have enough community connections to spread the word.
“People are going to gravitate to recognized names,” Torain said.
As for the unknowns, “If you’ve only got 40 days and you’ve got no money, who’s going to know who you are?” asked Jackie Bell, president of New Washington Heights Community Development Corporation.
Just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, for example, Spence-Jones had raised more than $187,000 for her campaign, while Chiverton had raised $13,730 and Torain had raised almost $13,000.
Known candidates also can develop large campaign treasuries beyond their geographic area.
“You have people outside of their community funding people…who may not be in [their] best interests,” Torain said.
During her first term, Spence-Jones worked with Philip Bacon, vice president for community and regional development for the Collins Center for Public Policy.
“I’m real torn about this whole thing,” said Bacon, who works in the center’s Miami office.
Bacon supported past Spence-Jones campaigns. “I didn’t have any idea of any issues that she now finds herself involved in,” he said.
He said he worries about interruptions to community projects.
“All of us are both deeply concerned and saddened, disappointed, that we’re looking again at this disruption,” Bacon said. “A lot of us have worked to align ourselves, get ourselves on one page.”
District 5 has many of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. Bell said she thinks some local officials have taken advantage of this to get federal money that hasn’t been steered back into the area.
“It seems to me that District 5 is simply on fire because development can’t happen to the east, can’t happen to the west, and we’re in the middle,” Bell said. “The people in the district are disposable, and the land is cheap.”
She said she also sees some who have represented District 5 as pawns.
“The easiest way in the black community to get us ostracized is to say you have stolen,” Bell said. “Look what they did to Commissioner
Teele….They destroyed a young, brilliant black man who served in Vietnam, who served in the Reagan Administration….Why didn’t he try to steal some of that?”
Bell said she has no firsthand knowledge of whether Teele – who took his own life in The Miami Herald’s lobby in 2005 as several corruption inquiries swirled around him – committed the crimes of which he was accused.
Still, “I’m trying to defend the fact that when he came to District 5, he started trying to put development in place, so things can happen.”
Bell said she believes the same is true of Spence-Jones. “I can defend her on what she has tried to do for this community.”
Torain said legal issues go “to a person’s decisions, their choices and sometimes, their character.”
Voter apathy is a concern. Torain estimated that about six percent of about 40,000 registered voters in District 5 will vote Jan. 12.
“That apathy is [by] people who don’t see their leaders responding,” he said.
Bacon said he sees the special election as a chance to get things right.
“It’s the kind of thing, even though this is disruptive, it kind of gives people an opportunity to assert themselves and fill the leadership vacuum that has existed for a long time,” Bacon said. “This gives a lot of people an opportunity to take leadership on their own…from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. It’s important that this community has strong leadership and that the leadership has credibility.”
“We have to look beyond the past and get someone in office who will be responsive to the needs of the community,” he said.
Photo: Athalie Range