By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward County blames a fight with the city of Hollywood for the county’s failure to upgrade a dangerously deficient 911 radio system for first responders.
Hollywood residents who’ve worked tirelessly to save an environmentally sensitive park where the county wanted to install a radio tower disagree. They say the buck stops with the county.
After the Parkland school massacre, Broward police and fire chiefs also blamed the county, although their reasoning was all about public safety, not preserving mangroves.
The first responders told the state’s new school safety commission that Broward’s county-run emergency radio network was so bad, the Broward Sheriff’s Office should take over.
Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry pushed back and tamped down the debate. She said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have the staff to do the job.
Still, members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission made their frustration unmistakably clear.
They knew that officers responding to active shooter calls on Feb. 14, 2018 had to use hand signals when their radios failed. Fourteen students and three staff members perished and seventeen were injured in the shooting.’
‘This ain’t fixable’
Commission chair and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri called the 911 radio system “a mess.”
“I rarely find things that I can’t fix.” the Sun Sentinel quoted him as saying. “This ain’t fixable the way it is.”
“Everybody’s just fighting with each other,” Gualtieri complained at a June 2019 meeting. He did not respond to several Florida Bulldog requests to comment for this story.
After repeated delays, an improved 911 radio system will go live in October, Henry told Florida Bulldog and Hollywood last week.
The current plan leaves out Hollywood, Dania Beach, Hallandale Beach and West Park unless the city and county can agree on an east Hollywood location for radio equipment. If they can’t, the cities will still have the coverage they have today, but will not benefit from the upgrade.
“We’re moving on,” Henry said. She said the county has given up on trying to repurpose Hollywood’s West Lake Park as a radio network staging area.
A new 9/11 network for some
The activists apparently saved their park, though at what cost remains to be seen.
As an alternative to the park tower, the city proposed the rooftop of The Circ hotel in downtown Hollywood. Dueling consultant reports concluded it would be either more suitable — or less suitable — than the park.
Recently the city identified another option for a tower site: near the second hole of the Eco Grande golf course on Taft Street.
During a phone conference Monday, Henry and other county and city staffers discussed the planning phase of the Eco site. It would be added to the upgraded network after October, at additional expense.
“The city would want to get the tower in place as soon as feasible and have it be part of the overall network,” city spokesperson Raelin Storey said. “That appears to be the solution that’s in the best interest of public safety.”
Still, the situation is fluid. The county hasn’t dropped a state court action against the city involving the West Lake Park site. Storey said that wasn’t discussed during Monday’s phone conference, although lawyers for the county and the city took part.
And these questions linger: How did the county and one of its biggest cities become political and legal adversaries? Why is it taking so long to solve a serious public-safety problem?
Broward’s push for a park tower
At first glance it looks like a group of east Hollywood residents delayed progress by resisting, with the city’s backing, the county’s plan to put a 325-foot radio tower in West Lake Park.
The “Save West Lake Park” group relies on a county charter provision that the county treats as an obstacle. The charter prohibits developing the regional park with its vulnerable mangrove preserve near the Intracoastal Waterway at Sheridan Street.
But Broward has gone to extraordinary lengths to strong-arm Hollywood into accepting the county’s chosen park site for the radio tower. It was supposed to be the 16th and final piece of the $80 million countywide 911 network upgrade.
Hollywood resident Sheryl Blasi, who places communication towers for a living, said an east Hollywood site isn’t necessary to complete the system. Yet it’s morphed into a political football.
“The bottom line is that the county commissioners have been on a mission since Day 1 to get this stuff because they don’t want to hear any more about the Parkland shooting,” Blasi said. “It has nothing to do with this network. It was just a matter of, this is an excuse to say we solved the problem.”
Good faith negotiations with Hollywood to find another location were never on the county’s agenda, according to Marlin Muller, a Miami lawyer who represents the residents’ group.
Broward seeks a helpful law
“Broward County is trying to make an example of the city,” Muller said. “The part I’ve always found mind-blowing is how hellbent the county is on making sure not just that they win, but that they punish the city on an epic level for not doing what they’re told.”
Asked for her response to Blasi and Muller, Henry said that based on consultants’ reports, the system does need an east Hollywood location to function optimally. Without it, “the system will work, it just won’t work as well.”
“I don’t know where these people are getting their story, so maybe they know something I don’t know,” she added.
The county aggressively pursued the West Lake Park tower site on several fronts — in Tallahassee, in a complex deal with other Broward cities, and in court.
Broward supported a bill in the Legislature that would empower the county to sacrifice the park for what the county deems a public-safety necessity. The bill says the penalty for non-compliance after two years would be reimbursing the state for the safety fix. Broward could use the law to extract the penalty money from Hollywood.
But State Sen. Lauren Book’s bill failed in the last session.
Muller said he hired a lobbyist to go up against the legislator’s father, Ron Book, a high-profile lobbyist for Broward County. His lobbyist “said it took half a second to kill the bill because the language was blatantly unconstitutional,” according to Muller.
To sidestep the charter and Hollywood, the county tried to engineer a land swap between Tamarac and Davie. Tamarac — not Hollywood — would get the benefit of leasing West Lake Park to Davie. Then the park’s new city overseer would be free to erect a radio tower.
A ‘convoluted’ land swap
“It was really convoluted and crazy,” Muller said. He said he notified Tamarac and Davie that a lawsuit was “imminent” and suggested they table the land swap proposal. They did.
There is litigation, but it’s the case of Broward County vs. Hollywood. The county’s emergency petition dated Sept. 11, 2019 accuses the city of preparing to welsh on a deal to build the West Lake Park tower.
The county’s filing in Broward Circuit Court warns that Hollywood “will continue to delay implementation of this critical public safety infrastructure.” It also suggests Broward could sue Hollywood for breach of contract damages.
Unless it’s canceled, astatus conference on the case will happen via Zoom on Sept. 14.
Henry said Tuesday that the city initiated the litigation against the county, which merely took action to defend itself. Yet the city didn’t file anything in court.
Storey said when the city found out about the proposed Tamarac-Davie land swap, commissioners authorized the city attorney to explore the possibility of working with outside counsel to sue the county. Before that happened, the county went to court.
An expensive park victory
For now, the “Save West Lake Park” contingent is savoring their win, however fleeting it may be. “Wow, it sounds good, but I’m skeptical,” group leader Lisa Stingone said when she heard that Henry was backing off the park tower plan.
“It’s a small victory, but what’s next?” Stingone asked. She said her work for park preservation has been almost a full-time job for about 18 months, with constant calls, emails, public records requests and meetings to plead her cause.
The fight to save the park has been costly. “We have spent considerably more than $10,000,” West Lake Village Homeowners’ Association President Walter J. Collins said in a statement to Florida Bulldog.
At the June 2019 school safety commission meeting, Sunrise Police Chief Tony Rosa was adamant about the need to upgrade the radio network. It was in “dire straits,” he said, and wresting control from the county was the only way to get it fixed.
Last week, speaking on behalf of the Broward County Chiefs of Police Association, Rosa sounded pragmatic. “Our interest is to get this resolved and to have this new radio system up and running properly,” he said. His group is working well with the county on a bunch of communication issues, Rosa said, and he expects cities to confirm deals with the police “very soon.”
In the meantime he isn’t picking a side in the battle of Broward versus Hollywood. Rosa said the county manager’s October launch date for the upgraded network is “reasonable” considering the pandemic and all that remains to be done.
“From a blame perspective, I think there’s blame to go around,” he said. “Historically there’s not been a lot of close collaboration by all parties.”