By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach city commissioners have pulled the plug on city advertising in the local Sun Times newspaper featuring articles by Mayor Joy Cooper that drew fire from commission colleagues as “propaganda” for the mayor.
Cooper used the platform regularly before and after the weekly newspaper received a favorable — and controversial — $50,000 loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The Sun Times, according to city documents, has been paid nearly $400,000 in city advertising to publicize events since 2003, most of the money coming after the loan was made during the 2008-2009 budget year.
The Florida Bulldog published a story about the loan, which later became a matter of interest to the Broward Inspector General’s Office in its 2012 probe. While the IG stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars, tallied $2.2 million in questionable expenditures and made inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, there was no finding of wrongdoing in the city’s Sun Times loan.
“The whole thing is a propaganda paper for the mayor,” said Commissioner Michele Lazarow, who moved at the Dec. 7 meeting to halt funding immediately.
While not voted on, the measure gained consensus support from the new majority of the five-member commission, and city staff said it would not place any more advertisements in the newspaper. Cooper had left the meeting before the item came forward.
In the past, the newspaper had the support of Cooper and commissioners who backed her. Lazarow, Vice Mayor Keith London, a long-time Sun Times critic, and newly elected Commissioner Anabelle Taub successful pushed the item to halt further advertising.
“The Sun Times is the mayor’s pulpit or podium for her to spin the truth,” Lazarow said at the meeting. “It has become a political rag during the political season.” Making matters worse, she added, the newspaper was unfair by not accepting or allowing “rebuttal.”
“I’m appalled that city funds go to the Sun Times,” Taub said at the meeting. “We should not fund the mayor’s political propaganda and personal vendettas and attacks.”
Taub said she was incensed during her recent election campaign when the Sun Times printed personal information about her that “could be used to commit fraud on me.”
“They have a one-sided view of city hall,” said London, adding that a reporter from the newspaper rarely attends a city commission meeting.
Mayor: ‘I will continue writing’
“They are entitled to their opinion,” Cooper told a reporter in response to the criticism from her commission colleagues. “I report on city business. I will continue writing. Everything I write is edited by an editor and it’s their choice to use it.”
Cooper began writing for the Sun Times in 2003, the year she became mayor. Her opinion piece last week was about Dr. Martin Luther King and political protest.
Sun Times officials said they were unfazed by the funding cutoff. “The commission has every right to do so,” said Craig Farquhar, president of the South Florida Digest, which publishes the Sun Times. As for the accusation that the newspaper has been a forum for the mayor’s propaganda, he said, “That’s their political opinion.”
The money paid by the city to the Sun Times, Farquhar added, “was to promote city events.”
City records showed that between 2003 and 2008, the city paid the Sun Times about $32,000 for advertising – an average of about $6,400 a year. But the relationship changed the following year.
That’s when the Sun Times became the first city business to receive a loan under a new program, funded through the CRA, to retain and to assist firms having financial difficulties. It received a 10-year $50,000 loan, with half of it forgiven, to be paid at two percent interest; the loan balance of approximately $7,500 is expected to be paid off in July 2019.
What raised questions about the newspaper’s financial problems was that Farquhar and another official of the newspaper, Cecile Hines, were each paid an average of over $200,000 in 2007 and in 2008, the years before the Sun Times received the city loan.
City advertising in the Sun Times, after the loan approval, also began to escalate. From 2008-2009 until the end of 2016, the city paid the newspaper $362,929, averaging more than $45,000 yearly during the past eight years, according to city documents.