By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward County Commissioner Lamar Fisher and his partners reaped a $565,000 profit when they sold land to the Pompano Beach urban renewal agency that Fisher chaired for 11 years.
No one publicly begrudges a big payday for the former mayor, a popular figure whose family settled in the city three generations ago. The acreage Fisher and the others sold for more than $1.6 million adjoins McNab Park in eastern Pompano Beach.
But some residents are questioning why Fisher was able to buy the parcels and take steps as mayor that made them more valuable, then sell them, at a considerable mark-up, to the Pompano Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
Fisher was mayor from 2007 until his election to the county governing board in November 2018. The mayor and commissioners also serve as the CRA board, tasked with acquiring land, among other things, to eliminate blight.
“It looks like a conflict of interest,” said Kay McGinn, a former Pompano mayor and ally of Fisher’s on the city commission. “He never declared he owned those properties. Nobody knew he owned them until he sold them.”
The New Pelican newspaper first reported the Fisher connection, shortly before the CRA board approved the land purchases on Feb. 18. The sales closed on March 30.
Florida Bulldog told CRA consultant Frank Schnidman about the deals. Schnidman, a retired Florida Atlantic University professor who taught growth management, was sharply critical of Fisher.
“This is akin to an insider-trading scheme,” he said. “On its face, it leads to the mistrust the public has for public officials when it looks like an action is taken for personal gain.
“Fisher acquired property in an area they designated for redevelopment,” Schnidman said. “When you’re a government official and you buy and sell property with an advantage you’ve created to enhance the value, it’s a question for the inspector general.”
McGinn said she asked the Broward Inspector General, the county’s ethics watchdog, to take a preliminary look at Fisher’s deal with the CRA. She did not file a formal complaint.
Last week the office neither confirmed nor denied that McGinn’s call resulted in an investigation, which would be confidential until it’s over.
CRA came to us, not vice versa
Commissioner Fisher said he’s unaware of any investigation. He said he did nothing wrong and he doesn’t understand why McGinn is targeting him.
A real estate auctioneer, Fisher said he wanted to keep the property and develop it privately but his partners convinced him to sell when the CRA approached them. Exactly when that approach occurred is not known. Fisher said his partners are mainly his relatives and his friend Tom DiGiorgio, head of the Pompano Beach Economic Development Council, a public-private partnership.
“I wasn’t soliciting the CRA to buy the property at all. They came to us,” Commissioner Fisher said in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
At the Feb. 18 CRA meeting, a staffer explained that buying the parcels near McNab Park, including two buildings with tenants, would achieve both short-term and long-term goals. The meeting was videotaped.
For now, the staffer said, the property will provide cash flow and be available for parking and construction staging during an overhaul of the city-owned park, located just east of Federal Highway and south of Atlantic Boulevard. Eventually, residential projects will fulfill the city’s master plan for the area surrounding McNab Park.
City commissioner welcomes ‘gift’
DiGiorgio stood up at the meeting and suggested his group was accepting less than the properties are worth, considering future appreciation. The partners agreed to the CRA’s offer of current fair market value as determined by the CRA’s chosen appraisers, he said.
“We took it because we are concerned about this community,” DiGiorgio told the city commission, sitting as the CRA board.
“They’re in it for the city,” Commissioner Rhonda Eaton said. She called the transaction “a gift.”
The purchases were approved by three 5-1 votes, with Commissioner Beverly Perkins dissenting because, she said, her constituents oppose the redevelopment.
Before the votes, residents called the deals “fishy” and “extremely shady.” They alluded to Fisher’s ownership interest—revealed by New Pelican, not the CRA.
“It’s hard to believe that people are doing things on the up and up,” said an African-American woman wearing a “Black History Matters” T-shirt. She asked the CRA board to “give us all the information up front so that we don’t have to think this is a Martha Stewart type of saga,” referring to a famous insider-trading case.
Mayor: deal was ‘open and public’
Mayor Rex Hardin, the CRA board chairman, did not respond to the protests. He just thanked residents for their input and moved on to the next agenda item.
Last week Hardin defended the acquisition in written answers to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog. He said CRA staffers contacted owners of other property near the Fisher parcels and only the Fisher group would agree to the offered terms.
Asked if he was concerned the purchase doesn’t look like an arms-length transaction, Hardin wrote, “The transaction was conducted via an open and public process.”
Still, the timeline of Fisher’s purchases and approval of the land-use plan that increased their value raise questions about his actions and intentions.
In 2013, Fisher had been mayor for six years when his group’s LLC paid $290,000 for property at 23 SE 22nd Ave., according to county property records. The next year his group used a different limited liability company to acquire 110 S. Federal Highway for $275,000. In 2018, right before Fisher’s election to the county commission, a third LLC spent $515,000 for three vacant lots at 24 NE 24th Ave.
On March 30, the parcels sold for $625,000 (up from $290,000), $400,000 (up from $275,000) and $620,000 (up from $515,000), for a total increase of $565,000 over the previous sales figures.
Fisher obtained no-conflict opinions
Over several years, the CRA chaired by then-Mayor Fisher formulated an ambitious rezoning and land-use plan for the east side of Pompano, along Atlantic Boulevard from downtown to the Intracoastal Waterway, with mixed-use projects, restaurants and other amenities. The vehicle for this was a 280-acre district called the East Transit Oriented Corridor (ETOC).
Since he owned land within the ETOC, Fisher said, he had attorney Jacob Horowitz research whether he should abstain from voting on “matters which may have an incidental effect on the Properties.” Horowitz saw no potential conflict.
Then Fisher retained Horowitz to pose the same question to the Florida Commission on Ethics and received its blessing as well. Fisher supplied copies of both opinions, dated December 2017 and January 2018, to Florida Bulldog.
The city commission had to apply to the county commission to approve the ETOC. The city sent over its application in July 2016 and the Broward commission amended the county land-use plan to include the ETOC on April 25, 2017.
In March 2019, Fisher had Horowitz write to the state ethics commission and ask about “leasing” his Pompano property to the CRA. Would Fisher have to abstain from voting on related matters that reached the county commission?
No, that wouldn’t create a prohibited conflict, the ethics commission responded in an email to Horowitz. Florida Bulldog asked Fisher about selling — as opposed to leasing— property to the CRA and he said the same reasoning applied.
Activists decry privatizing park
Schnidman, the CRA expert, dismissed the no-conflict letters as mere cover for Fisher. “He hid behind ethics opinions and that’s not right,” Schnidman said. “It may be legal, but it’s not right.”
Not all Pompano residents welcome the planned redevelopment. A vocal group of activists tried to prevent the CRA from moving the 1926 McNab House five blocks from its original site to McNab Park, where it’s supposed to be turned into a restaurant.
The activists are concerned the March 1 McNab House relocation was meant to legitimize the private takeover of a neighborhood park to benefit well-connected people like Fisher. They value McNab as the last city-owned park east of Federal Highway.
These critics fear that big projects beside the park and incursions for a restaurant, parking and other add-ons will fill its 2.5 acres until there’s no public space left. When the dust settles, they predict, McNab Park, named like the house for a pioneering Pompano family, will be a park in name only.
“I don’t get how the city commissioners could just take a city park and commercialize it. I don’t see how they have the power,” Tom Drum, a resident who questioned the Fisher deal at the Feb. 18 meeting, said in an interview. “They have no right to take that park away from us.”