November 20, 2006

Commission Runoff Heating Up: The Final Round of Voting in the Hotly Contested Race for Luis Garcia’s Group 5 Seat is Set for Tuesday

By Susan Anasagasti, The Miami Herald

Nov. 19--On Tuesday, Miami Beach voters finally will select the city's newest commissioner in a runoff between Michael Gongora, an attorney specializing in community association law, and Deede Weithorn, a longtime Beach activist and certified public accountant.

Gongora and Weithorn were the top two contenders in the Nov. 7 race to fill the open commission seat vacated by former Commissioner Luis Garcia, who stepped down earlier this year to run for state representative.

None of the five candidates seeking Luis Garcia's post captured more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid the Nov. 21 runoff.

The already hotly contested race for the Group 5 seat turned nasty as last week progressed when both candidates began to fire last-minute accusations against each other.

On Wednesday, political consultant Irene Secada, who is working on Deede Weithorn's campaign, said that at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club meeting, Gongora accused Mark Weithorn of accepting a $50,000 contribution from the Canyon Ranch Living project in North Beach.

"For him to make that allegation is ludicrous," Secada said. "It was quite insulting."

Michael Gongora said after the morning meeting it was a big misunderstanding, and he denied accusing Weithorn of accepting campaign contributions from Canyon Ranch.

But he did say it was "hypocritical" of Weithorn to attack him for taking money from developers when her husband, Mark Weithorn, served as the former president of the North Beach Development Corp. and "solicited monies from developers for quite some time."

As of the most recent campaign finance reports, filed on Nov. 3, Gongora had raised $142,644, nearly double that of Weithorn's $79,323.

Gongora also accused Weithorn of being behind a negative television commercial that questioned whether Gongora met the city's residency requirements to run for office.

She denied those charges.

"I did do a mailing questioning some issues," she said. "If I have something I believe I want to call him into question on I'll do it in my name."

Early in the election season, Weithorn pointed out that Gongora's deed transfer records show he purchased his condominium at 5838 Collins Ave. on Sept. 23, 2005. Under city law, candidates must have been residents of the city for at least one year prior to the election filing deadline -- this year's deadline was Sept. 8.

Gongora, who previously lived in Miami, said he did nothing wrong and was living with a friend in South Beach while he waited to close on the Miami Beach condominium.

On Friday Joseph Centorino, the chief of the public corruption unit at the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, said Gongora "had in fact lived in Miami Beach during the year prior so we concluded that there wasn't a basis for any criminal charge."

Still, Weithorn noted in an Apr. 14 Miami City Commission memorandum that stated Gongora met the city of Miami's voting requirements as an "elector" to serve on its Planning Advisory Board.

Miami Beach City Clerk Bob Parcher said Gongora did nothing wrong.

He pointed to the city's charter, which states, "any person who is a resident of the city of Miami Beach, who has qualified as an elector of the state of Florida and who registers in the manner prescribed by law shall be a qualified elector of the city."

Weithorn, a Miami Beach native whose campaign centers around creating additional workforce housing initiatives for teachers and nurses, has cited her long ties to the city as evidence she's the most qualified candidate, and hammered the point home in an interview Thursday.

"Here we have someone who in May is applying for the Planning Board in Miami and then in July he is a candidate in a different city running for office," she said. "I find that extremely problematic."

But Gongora, who emphasizes quality-of-life issues and is considered to be the front-runner, said he is confident he'll win Tuesday's election.

"The voters of Miami Beach are a very smart group of people. They need to stay focused to the issues and not get distracted by negative campaigning and flat-out lies that [have] nothing to do with the election."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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