Smaller in stature than she appears on TV, petite even, Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones has rolled up her sleeves and is ready to fight back. The commissioner of the poorest district in Miami is fed up with what she calls the lies being spread about her, and she’s not taking it anymore.
During a wide-ranging interview at an Upper Eastside Starbucks, Spence-Jones told the South Florida Times that she is confident she will be vindicated of the allegations against her. Prosecutors are investigating whether she asked a condo developer to pay $100,000 in consulting fees to two of her closest allies — former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and Barbara Hardemon, her campaign advisor.
Spence-Jones said she is looking forward to continuing to work hard for her people.
Accompanied by her assistant, Jonelle Adderly, Spence-Jones began the interview by sharing documents touting her accomplishments and plans for district five – which includes Liberty City and Overtown.
Spence-Jones said she revamped a People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (P.U.L.S.E.) program designed to make the police more accountable to the black community. The program affords residents an opportunity to make anonymous complaints regarding criminal activity.
She describes ‘Wake-Up Miami’ as an empowerment campaign she created to urge residents to take control of their lives and communities.
“We can’t talk about the streets not being clean if we’re dumping trash on the streets,” Spence-Jones said. The program is a collaboration with motivational speaker Les Brown, and includes empowerment workshops delivered in Liberty City, Wynwood and Overtown.
After concluding her prepared presentation, she began speaking off the cuff. In doing so, she revealed her fervor for making improvements to her district and her frustration with her political foe, fellow Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.
Spence-Jones spoke passionately about her recent legal challenges; trials and tribulations.
“If I can’t touch it, it ain’t real,” she said of her efforts to leave tangible accomplishments in her district.
The 40-year-old commissioner is embroiled in a controversy regarding the development of high-rise buildings on waterfront property in Coconut Grove owned by Mercy Hospital, Miami-Dade’s only Catholic hospital, and whether she used her vote on the project to steer money to Carey-Shuler and Hardemon.
Spence-Jones stands by her two friends, each of whom received $50,000 from The Related Group at a time when the developer was seeking city commission approval for the condo project. Commissioners approved the project 3-2, with Spence-Jones casting one of three votes in the project’s favor.
The issue came to light in a critical memo written by Sarnoff, who represents the district in which the condos are being built.
According to his May 15, 2007 interoffice memo, Sarnoff alleges that former city manager “Joe Arriola had called and requested a meeting concerning a conversation he did not wish to have over the telephone.”
The memo, marked “confidential” and addressed to “file,” goes on to say that Arriola “was present during a lunchtime meeting [April 30, 2007] with Alicia Cuervo Schreiber, Stephanie Grindell and Mary Conway, wherein Alicia Cuervo Schreiber told Grindell, Conway and Arriola that to achieve Michelle
Spence-Jones’ vote in favor of the Mercy Project, it was required that Barbara Hardemon receive $50,000, that Barbara Carey-Shuler received $50,000 and that $50,000 be provided to a third undisclosed person.”
Conway is a former city staffer; Schreiber is a Related employee and former city official. Grindell is the director of the city of Miami’s Public Works Department.
The Miami Herald successfully sued for the release of the “confidential” memo, which was addressed to Sarnoff’s “file,” after the commissioner refused to release it to that newspaper.
Sarnoff did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the South Florida Times. Conway has since been deposed as a part of the investigation and stands by her statements.
Spence-Jones, Hardemon and Carey-Shuler all deny that the commissioner attempted to steer money to Carey Shuler and Hardemon. All three also stated that neither Hardemon nor Carey-Shuler had been hired by The Related Group when the Miami city commission first cast a vote on the matter.
Arriola has said in published reports that the meeting never took place and that he has no idea “why the man would write himself a memo.”
Carey-Shuler seemed especially irked at the idea that she needs anyone’s assistance to secure work.
“People call me every day asking me to help them and I have to say no because I’m too busy,” she said.
“I don’t need somebody like Michelle to ask somebody to hire me.’’
Of Sarnoff’s memo, Carey-Shuler said that in all the years she served as a commissioner, she had “never known a commissioner to do that to a fellow commissioner,” adding, “What he did was very evil. It was racist.”
The Related Group did not respond to a request for comment from the South Florida Times; but Jorge Perez, the company’s CEO, has told several other publications that the women were hired by his firm to do community outreach, and that Spence-Jones had nothing to do with it.
Joe Centorino of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office would not go into the specifics of the case, but did confirm that the issue is under investigation, and that his office has “done quite a bit of work on it.”
Still, Centorino urges caution regarding the veracity of the memo’s content.
“People should reserve judgment…it’s based on hearsay upon hearsay.”
The last sentence of the memo said, Arriola “wanted a meeting with Joe Centorino of the State Attorney’s office concerning this.”
Centorino would neither confirm nor deny that a meeting between himself and the former city manager took place.
“We met with everybody that had anything to do with this case,” Centorino said.
The project in question involves three high-rise buildings on waterfront property owned by Mercy Hospital. It is one of dozens of high-rise condominium projects currently in progress by The Related Group.
Mercy Hospital stands behind its decision to allow the development to be built on its property.
Mercy CEO John Matuska told Florida Trend magazine that, “The project that was developed was the least intrusive on the community in terms of density and impact,” adding that the hospital could have used the land to build a medical office building, an assisted living facility or other healthcare offices that would have generated four to five times the traffic of the proposed project.
According to the minutes of the April 26, 2007 city commission meeting where the 3-2 vote was cast to rezone the property from major institutional, public facilities, transportation and utilities to “multi-family,”
Sarnoff urged his colleagues to support his motion to deny the rezoning. He reasoned that as the commissioner for the district where the proposed development would occur, his colleagues should trust that he has his finger on the pulse of the community, and could best represent its wishes.
“None of you have walked the neighborhood, have met with the neighbors, and have spent the time that I’ve spent going in my neighborhood and understanding the issues that are important to District 2,” Sarnoff said.
After assuring fellow city commissioners Angel Gonzalez and Joe Sanchez that he would defer to their recommendations regarding development in their respective districts, Sarnoff said to Spence-Jones, “I would not presume to make a decision regarding either the Lyric Theater in Overtown or the Caribbean market building in Little Haiti without deferring to you, Commissioner Spence-Jones. What would happen if a developer wanted to build a 400-foot-tall high-rise in either site?”
Following statements from Sanchez and Spence-Jones in which they justified their positions, both politicians joined Gonzalez in opposing Sarnoff’s motion.
Commissioner Tomas Regalado voted along with Sarnoff.
In defense of her vote, Spence-Jones told the South Florida Times that, “Black folk from the West Grove came out and said that they did not have a problem with Mercy Hospital. Mercy’s been good to black people, excellent to black people. If it would’ve been a project that would’ve been just putting up a condo, I probably would not have supported it. The hospital needed $100 million, which meant more jobs.”
But popular community activist Max Rameau took issue with Spence-Jones’ support of black people in someone else’s district where, he said, “There was no groundswell from the black community demanding that the city support this multimillion-dollar project.”
Conversely, regarding a multimillion-dollar Overtown development, Rameau said, “There was a groundswell around not going forward with the Crosswinds project.”
The Crosswinds project is a hotly protested, mixed-income condo and commercial development that is proposed to be built on city land. Spence-Jones supported the Crosswinds project prior to its reversion to Miami-Dade County – which currently has control of the project.
The Sarnoff memo also makes reference to Crosswinds.
Midway through the document, Sarnoff wrote, “Arriola further advised that he understands that Michelle Spence-Jones requires $50,000 from the Crosswinds applicant prior to the modification for more time on the Crosswinds matter.”
Proponents of the Crosswinds project say it is vital to Overtown’s ability to once again become the thriving area it was in the 1950s and ‘60s, before the construction of interstates 95 and 395 sliced through it. Opponents say the project will force out the remaining residents who would not be able to afford even the “affordable” units the developer will make available.
Spence-Jones’ conservative “bootstrap” philosophy regarding poverty-stricken residents may explain her vote in favor of the Crosswinds project. She told the South Florida Times that government has an obligation to assist people to “get back up on their feet,” however, “able-bodied people like me who can walk, talk, and have the ability to decide whether or not to have two children or ten have a responsibility to themselves and to their families to get training…so that they are not stuck earning $12,000 a year.”
Yet, according to Rameau, Spence-Jones did not always approve of Crosswinds, and her position on the matter flip-flopped from opposition to support because of her allegiance to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, to whom Rameau referred as the “gentrification mayor.”
Rameau said the commissioner, who is also his neighbor, reneged on a campaign promise to oppose the project.
“When she got into office, Manny Diaz gave out the order and she voted for it and lobbied on behalf of Crosswinds,” Rameau said.
The project also appears to be a source of bad blood between Spence-Jones and community activist
Denise Perry, leader of Power U, a grassroots organization that aggressively tackles urban issues by helping to organize low-income, inner-city neighborhood residents.
Perry said Spence-Jones’ position on Crosswinds should have come as no surprise.
“When you look at her connections, when you look at the people who made contributions to her campaign, it’s clear that her intentions all along were to be supportive of the developer as a part of her base of people who got her into office,” Perry said.
Photo by Sumner Hutcheson III. Michelle Spence-Jones