By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Prior to his run for a Surfside Town Commission seat, Jeffrey Rose received stern guidance from Miami-Dade’s ethics watchdog about not voting on matters in which his construction business and his clients “would or might, directly or indirectly, profit or be enhanced.”
Yet, six months into his tenure as Surfside’s vice mayor, Rose has voted on at least two legislative measures in which he had conflicts that the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust warned him to abstain from, according to residents who have filed complaints against him.
One involved an ordinance that allows construction of three-story homes that sidesteps the town charter’s prohibition on such structures, and the other measure grants property owners permission to build larger docks behind their waterfront houses that one of Rose’s clients had unsuccessfully lobbied the previous commission for, the residents claim.
“When he was running, he went around telling people he was not going to vote on this kind of stuff,” former Surfside Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer told Florida Bulldog. “Literally since he got elected, he’s been fast-tracking zoning ordinances like it’s on fire. He claims he is working on fixing issues in our zoning code. He is doing so to grow his own business.”
Following an ethics workshop in Surfside last week, Rose declined to address the accusations against him, and whether he should have abstained from voting on the house and dock- expansion ordinances. “No comment,” the vice mayor said.
NEW COMMISSION’S AGENDA
Rose’s refusal to recuse himself is among a series of controversial decisions by four new Surfside elected officials that has roiled the small beachside town (population 5,689) still shell-shocked from one of the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.
Last year, on June 24, half of the 12-story Champlain Towers South, a ‘70-era condominium in Surfside, came crashing down, killing 98 people who were inside. In May, the town commission approved a $2-million settlement with victims’ relatives and survivors that is part of a larger $1-billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Surfside and numerous other parties accused of contributing to the collapse.
“The new mayor and the three new commissioners are favoring big business and special interests to really make the town into something that it is not,” said Julio Rumbaut, a Telemundo Network co-founder who lives in Champlain Towers East, a sister condominium a block north from the collapsed tower. “This commission is trying to push through an agenda that the citizens don’t want.”
Since the March election, Surfside activists including Rumbaut and Salzhauer, along with Commissioner Nelly Velasquez, the lone dissenter on the dais, have clashed with Rose, Mayor Shlomo Danzinger and Commissioners Marianne Meischeid and Fred Landsman over the quartet forming a unified voting block to pass legislation that their constituents may not support.
During first and second reading votes on May 10 and June 12, the four voted to pass an ordinance creating a “nonhabitable understory,” defined as a space underneath a home’s first floor that is not a basement and that can be used for a carport and storage. Effectively, the ordinance allows for the construction of homes on top of columns, piles and shear walls so that the first floor is elevated.
ORDINANCE V TOWN CHARTER
The ordinance is in conflict with the town’s charter that caps single-family homes at two stories, Velasquez, the lone member of the previous town commission to get reelected, told Florida Bulldog. The term “nonhabitable understory” is just jargon legalizing three-story homes without seeking voter approval to amend the charter, Velasquez said.
“However you slice or dice it, it’s still a story,” Velasquez said. “It should have been placed on the ballot. But they knew the answer would be no, so that is how they got around it.”
Video of both meetings show several residents alleging that Rose had a voting conflict because the vice mayor’s construction company builds and renovates homes in Surfside. Residents also called for Meischeid, who sponsored the ordinance, to refrain from voting because she’s in a long-term relationship with George Kousoulas, a Surfside-based architect who also does work for property owners and developers in the town, according to the recordings.
“I’d like to know why Commissioner Marianne made up this nonsense,” Surfside resident Jeffrey Platt said at the May 10 meeting. “Is it because George is now going to design all these understories? Or is it because [Vice Mayor] Rose is going to build all these understories? It sounds like a scam.”
At the June 12 meeting, Joshua Epstein was among several residents who brought up Rose’s perceived conflict of interest. “If you literally get paid based on the size of a project, you get paid more when there is another story,” Epstein said. “You are going to get away with it tonight and you may get away with it a few more times. Who knows if you’ll get in trouble for it, but it is something that is morally wrong.”
DOCK LEGISLATION PROMPTS COMPLAINTS
At the same meeting, Danzinger, Landsman, Meischeid and Rose voted to approve on first reading another ordinance allowing residential property owners permission to build backyard docks that extend 35 feet into Indian Creek Waterway and 45 feet into Biscayne Bay. Velasquez was absent. The previous town commission had passed legislation limiting docks to 10 feet in length.
Prior to his vote, Rose disclosed that his company, Rose Remodeling and Construction, is the general contractor building a house at 9234 Bay Drive, where the owner Carolyn Baumel has sought to build a long dock since the prior town commission was in office, according to city records.
He is not building the dock and his client applied for a dock permit before he was hired, Rose told his fellow commissioners and the audience.
Rose also claimed that Salzhauer had approached him at one time to find buyers for her house and to split a lot she owns in Surfside in order to build two homes. The vice mayor insisted his support of the dock-expansion ordinance stemmed from his belief property owners could sue Surfside for denying them property rights afforded to other residents who have built docks as long as 60 feet before the prior town commission capped docks at 10 feet long.
On July 12, hours before the unified quartet passed the dock-expansion ordinance on second reading, Salzhauer filed an ethics complaint alleging Rose should have abstained from voting because of his business relationship with Baumel. In addition to Baumel, Salzhauer also alleged Rose’s vote benefitted a second Surfside residential property owner, Linden Nelson, who gave the vice mayor the $1,000 maximum political contribution and who is also seeking to build a large dock behind his house at 924 88th St.
Two days later, Rumbaut also submitted an ethics complaint against Rose making similar accusations.
In her complaint, Salzhauer cited a Nov.15, 2021 opinion from Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade ethics commission, to Rose before his run for political office. Rose had sought guidance about whether he could still do business as a builder in Surfside should he get elected, the opinion states.
Arrojo informed Rose that the county ethics code does not restrict outside employment of elected officials, but as someone who relies on construction clients in Surfside he could not vote on matters that “would or might directly or indirectly impact” his business and his clients. The same applies on matters in which he and his clients would directly or indirectly profit from, Arrojo wrote.
Yet, on April 12, a month after the election, Rose received another ethics opinion giving him the greenlight to vote on the “nonhabitable understory” measure. This one was provided by Robert Meyers, a partner with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole and Bierman, the law firm employed as Surfside’s town attorney. Meyers was the Miami-Dade ethics commission’s first executive director who resigned in 2011 amid an investigation into an anonymous complaint accusing him of having an inappropriate relationship with an assistant. At the time, Meyers denied the allegations and that the complaint was his reason for leaving.
City building records show Rose’s company has open permits on 13 new single-family home projects in Surfside, the most of any builder doing business in the town. Seven other general contractors account for eight other open building permits, the records show.
In his opinion, which Salzhauer attached to her complaint, Meyers informed Rose that legislative actions, as opposed to procurement and quasi-judicial decisions, do not trigger the voting conflict prohibition. Meyers opined that the impact of the “nonhabitable understory” legislation on Rose’s company would be no different from any other general contractor doing work in Surfside.
The former ethics commission head also noted that “any special benefit or loss cannot be remote or speculative” and that the ordinance did not “guarantee that you will be hired to construct understories for your clients.”
ETHICS WATCHDOG’S WORKSHOP
After receiving the Salzhauer and Rumbaut complaints, as well as complaints from other residents against Surfside officials, Arrojo held a workshop at the town’s community center on Sept. 7 to inform residents about the functions of the ethics commission and what the watchdog agency can and cannot investigate. Rose and Landsman were the only elected officials in attendance.
In an email sent to Rumbaut a week before the workshop, Arrojo wrote: “I was motivated to hold the meeting because of a significant volume of inquiries the Ethics Commission received from persons in Surfside.”
Leonardo Mendoza, the ethics commission’s spokesman, said the agency cannot confirm or deny the existence of any open complaints.
At the workshop, Arrojo did not specifically address any of the Surfside complaints the ethics commission has received, but did affirm Meyer’s conclusions that legislative actions are broader than a quasi-judicial matter such as granting a variance that benefits one party. Arrojo also explained that the ethics commission doesn’t have law-enforcement powers and can only sanction and fine government officials who violate Miami-Dade’s code of ethics. The agency works concurrently with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office when it finds probable cause for criminal wrongdoing.
Based on Arrojo’s presentation, Salzhauer and Rumbaut said they will have to file amended complaints that are more specific about how Rose violated Miami-Dade’s voting conflict law. However, Salzhauer’s not expecting the ethics commission will take action against Rose. “The remedy is a slap on the wrist that you were a bad boy,” she said. “The commissioners know it and they don’t care.”