Thursday, June 11, 2009
Can Natacha Seijas be re-branded? by gimleteye
The audience at the annual meeting of Miami's Urban Environment League wasn't convinced. County Commissioner Natacha Seijas received a "hybrid" award (half orchid, half onion) for her support for water conservation and (on the odorous side) for pushing through developer applications to move the Urban Development Boundary that UEL has strongly opposed. So here is a little reality check...
During the decade run-up to the worst collapse in housing markets in a century, Seijas was the de facto chair of the county commission; taking orders from developer/campaign contributors and marshaling majority votes on zoning issues. Now that there is really very little work to do on behalf of developers (The Latin Builders Association et al. now pass the hat at luncheons to help out members who can't pay their dues. Consumer and commercial demand has dried up and the supply of foreclosures and stale inventory is overwhelming) -- Natacha took the occasion of her half-award to re-brand herself before a group of citizens. (I suppose for her speechifying, her thanks are due to her hard working chief-of-staff, Terry Murphy.)
I've had a severe cold (in the interests of disclosure, UEL recognized my writing for the category "insightful commentary". Today it is insightful through a sinus infection) so only a few parts of Natacha's astro-turfing stuck. She asked the audience to "tone down" the rhetoric on the Urban Development Boundary. Whatever. For years under her leadership, Seijas's leadership forced citizen objectors into conflict with their own government, making people spend scarce resources for lengthy, difficult legal battles to contest zoning approvals (Lowe's, outside the UDB, for example) that should never have been approved in the first place if the majority of commissioners had trusted the recommendations of the county's own professional staff. The collateral damage include agencies and staff who are intimidated from contact with citizens.
This is the record from which Seijas would re-brand herself into a caring citizens of the planet, guiding Miami-Dade into awareness of the peril from climate change. Not to leave the subject too quickly: from the dais in County Hall, Seijas berates citizens and opponents on the county commission alike. She is part of the cabal that jokes and trades inside conversation when citizens testify at public hearings (ie. with fellow commissioner Joe Martinez and Pepe Diaz and Audrey Edmunson) and only turn to attention when lobbyists/ campaign fund raisers come up to speak.
How about this: we'll tone down our rhetoric when Seijas endorses and marshall votes for commissioner Katy Sorenson to be the next chair of the county commission.
Seijas took credit for creating the Miami-Dade Climate Change Advisory Task Force under the leadership of long-time environmentalist and county clerk, Harvey Ruvin. Last night she prodded the Task Force for a list of recommendations. What she, or her staff, might have noted for the audience (how were they to know?) is that her meddling last year caused the work of Task Force staff to grind to a halt. (I was, at the time, the Mayor's appointee to the Task Force.) Last night, Seijas said that the Task Force only makes recommendations, not policy: fair enough, but Seijas didn't support difficult conversations between agency staff that she, apparently, only trusts herself to have behind closed doors with agency heads. There is a reason for this: the builders' lobby that Seijas represents does not participate in the Task Force because, I suppose, it considers the Task Force a waste of time like other citizen "do-gooding" panels that end up requiring last minute changes in their direction.
Along those lines, I have to take exception for the positive part of the award to Seijas, recognizing her for "water conservation". As though anticipating that there would be critics, Seijas did recollect the momentous face-to-face conversation between "two strong-willed women" in 2005: that would be her and the then director of the South Florida Water Management District, Carol Wehle. At the time, Miami-Dade County was in the middle of a building boom-- the frenzy that resulted in the massive oversupply of housing that is now crippling the region's economy, much of which was zoned and permitted by Seijas-led county commission.
It was clear to water managers that Miami-Dade's voracious demand for more fresh water-- a requisite for new development--had become a train wreck with other public policies critical to the mission of the water management district. Seijas, for her entire tenure as county commissioner, had dismissively waved aside any concerns for water conservation. Her attitude, on behalf of big campaign contributors and lobbyists like Sergio Pino: we build and they (the state) provides whatever water we need. No if's, but's, or maybe's. That is, in good measure, how the Everglades, Biscayne Bay, and our quality of life were wrecked.
Wehle had a cudgel when she visited Seijas; that Miami-Dade would not get its 20 year consumptive use permit unless the county got serious about reforming its water infrastructure. At the time, Miami-Dade had the lowest water re-use rate among the state's large counties and, also, a very low water cost in order to provide for cheap growth.
Last night's award gave Seijas the opportunity to push forward some major revisionist history: that she was the leader in water conservation when, in fact, it was imposed on her at the point of a building moratorium and delivered by a governor's top water lieutenant in the strongest terms. The Governor had reason to be angry: Seijas had thwarted and suppressed thousands of hours of volunteer, expert contribution to the South Miami Dade Watershed Study, that cost millions to produce and that Seijas consigned to a shelf when it appeared for action on the dais. Again, it was the builders and large land speculators who throttled the study's recommendations which sought to lay out a future path for growth and for water conservation; the same issues coming up before the Climate Change Advisory Task Force, today, only five years later. There is more to the story.
As the dominatrix of water resources in Miami Dade, Seijas was the key force in allowing development to encroach into the protective zone surrounding the wellfields that supply drinking water to 2.2 million residents of Miami-Dade. In terms of water conservation, the wellfield protection zone should be sacrosanct but it is not. (Water managers are very afraid that contamination of open rock pits could infiltrate into the water supply, poisoning hundreds of thousands of people as it did in Milwaukee, more than a decade ago.)
Wealthy rock mining interests and developers all wanted permits to encroach on land that was open, privately owned and close to the Florida Turnpike. Although the science and data of water resource protection was either available or in process of being developed, Seijas urged that zoning decisions, outside the Urban Development Boundary, be approved in favor of rock miners and developers, at the expense of the public.
If I were on the board of the Urban Environment League, I would have strenuously argued against giving Seijas the chance to re-brand herself. My sense is that most in the audience were unpersuaded. What is most amazing is that even in the midst of the worst downturn in a century, voters still return elected officials to public office whose actions, as legislators, contributed substantially to the upset, the turmoil, and the taxpayer liability.
Last night in my own rushed and cold-addled comments, I asked local government to do one thing: prohibit the use of federal stimulus funds from supporting infrastructure for more suburban sprawl. In her comments, Seijas said that if she is anything, she is "a good listener". But when I made my point and looked her way, I could tell she wasn't listening.