North Miami Residents Ready to Choose a New Mayor After City's Corrupt Past
In the past five years, North Miami has seen the mayor's seat filled by two politicians who have faced allegations of criminal and unethical behavior. It began with Andre Pierre using taxpayer money to order fake police badges for his staff's use. Then Pierre was replaced by Lucie Tondreau, who lasted less than a year in office before being suspended for her alleged involvement in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme.
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But finally, three months after Tondreau's arrest and multiple corruption allegations, North Miami residents will get to elect a new mayor for the city tomorrow. Residents will choose from three candidates -- former mayor Kevin Burns, former councilman Jean Marcellus, and ex-mayoral candidate Smith Joseph.
In spite of running seemingly clean campaigns, these candidates are facing criticism from some concerned residents. Burns has his own past brushes with the legal system for multiple debts and liens, and some critics have questioned whether Joseph and Marcellus were even residents of the city when they qualified to run.
"The city has seen plenty of negative headlines in the past few years," Councilman Scott Galvin tells Riptide. "It's a tough race, but so far it looks promising."
Galvin, the District 1 councilman since 1999, has lived in North Miami his entire life and says the campaigns appear to be running smoothly as authorities watch carefully to avoid another city hall scandal. "Anyone who would try anything shady now would be setting themselves up for a bad situation later on," Galvin says.
Kevin Burns, who served two terms as mayor from 2005 to 2009, once filed for bankruptcy, had a six-figure civil judgment against him, and owed creditors for unpaid Christmas trees. In 2010, Burns, while running for state senate, faced foreclosure on his three-bedroom house. He owed more than $200,000.
Jean Marcellus, voted to the city council in 2009, faced past allegations that he did not live in North Miami, which is a requirement to qualify for council. After he was elected, another candidate, Michelle Garcia, sued Marcellus alleging that he lost an election for Miramar City Commission and a month later claimed to move to North Miami to qualify for the council elections.
Marcellus was able to keep his seat and since has received support from former mayor Tondreau in the upcoming election. Tondreau has endorsed Marcellus in ads aired on Haitian radio, claiming he is best fit to hold her seat until she is cleared of federal charges.
Joseph, a local physician, has also faced accusations of not having the residency requirement in North Miami.
Throughout campaigning, Marcellus and Joseph have bickered while they tried to court the Haitian voting bloc. Joseph has said Marcellus and his supporters are misleading Haitian-American voters via radio announcements. "I do see the city being much less divisive this election," Galvin says. "The candidates are campaigning everywhere now because they know they need a real consensus from the public if they want to win."
Burns has spoken on Haitian-American radio shows, and all three candidates have done door-knocking and placed lawn signs in all of the city's neighborhoods regardless of demographic. Galvin also notes the campaigns have been much less "angry and divisive" than in the past.
This is not the first time the trio has run for the mayor's seat, though. All three men ran in the last election against the now-suspended Tondreau.
In May, Tondreau, who was elected in June 2013 as the city's first Haitian-American female mayor, was suspended after being charged with mortgage fraud, a federal offense. Prior to that, state prosecutors had already linked large numbers of online absentee-ballot requests made to her campaign. Last November, police raided her office and later found absentee-ballot request forms in her campaign treasurer's car. Her treasurer, Nacivre Charles, was arrested for driving with a suspended license, but neither of them has been charged with ballot fraud.
"Lucie Tondreau's arrest really sent a seismic thunderclap in city hall," Galvin says. "For the meantime, everyone is on the lookout and minding their p's and q's."
Tondreau's arrest is only one of the numerous other scandals at North Miami City Hall. Just last month, a letter arrived at Galvin's office alleging potential absentee-ballot fraud for this election. The letter was anonymous, which made an investigation difficult.
Just a few years ago, former mayor Pierre also made headlines for his questionable ethics.
In 2011, Pierre's nephew Ricardo Brutus was charged with trying to extort money in exchange for political favors. Besides using taxpayer money to get fake police badges, he also authorized an $8,000 purchase of video cameras to bug city hall offices.
Other controversies include him exploiting his position to avoid paying $40,000 in rental fees for an athletic field, allegedly giving a city contract to a racketeering and fraud suspect, and being accused of falsifying campaign reports.
Right now, the race looks fairly wide open, though Smith Joseph is winning the money race. As of August 8, he had a total of $145,145.50 in contributions. Burns had $27,370, and Marcellus had $20,890.
Whoever comes out in front tomorrow will serve a two-year term for the city. If no one nabs a majority, a runoff will be held November 4.