He only held the chair for a few minutes, but Luis Lauredo used his brief time as the presiding officer of the Village Council to ask whether a prominent charity was involving itself in island politics.
“Are you allowed to be politically involved in elections?” said Lauredo, a former U.S. Ambassador, in questioning Melissa McCaughan White, the head of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation.
The group’s lawyer told Lauredo there were no legal violations.
The charged question came in a routine budget workshop session. White had been talking about $125,000 in services the Foundation provides for the Village, ranging from COVID tests to senior citizen programs.
Council Member Frank Caplan cut off the exchange, but not before White asked why she couldn’t defend the organization from attacks.
“I think the Ambassador has no clothes,” she said.
The testy exchange appeared to be fallout from a major court ruling hours earlier. A Miami judge had just upheld a referendum in favor of a $100 million resiliency bond. The ruling was a stinging defeat for bond critics like Lauredo, who had joined other opponents in calling the measure a “blank check.” The court squarely rejected that argument.
White and many members of the Foundation’s leadership had supported a “yes” vote on the bond measure as individuals, but the KBCF says it only published informational pieces and did not take a position.
Lauredo frequently makes bombastic comments from the dais, Earlier this year, he accused several council members of conspiring to hire retiring Police Chief Charles Press as manager.
But some saw Lauredo’s comments to White as bullying.
“Mr. Lauredo, you snicker,” said Jennifer Stearns Buttrick, the Foundation’s lawyer. She said White and the organization did not violate any IRS rules.
“Melissa serves this community well,” Buttrick continued, her voice full of emotion. “Stop attacking her!”
Tuesday’s budget workshop was part of a series of meetings to shape the 2022 budget, which is adopted in September. While the “community group” allocations are small and amount to less than 2% of the Village budget, they have outsized political impact. For 2022, groups are seeking $518,695, up 19% from the previous year. Manager Steve Williamson has yet to weigh in on his proposed budget.
The biggest increases are requests for nearly $65,000 for the Piano Festival, $27,000 for composting via A Zero Waste Culture and $12,000 for Car Week. There is no change for the Foundation’s request.
Link To 2019 Budget Battle and Key News
In his questioning, Lauredo appeared to revive a discredited claim that the Village allocations were “donations,” a line of argument that harkens back to a bitter 2019 budget battle.
At that time, critics of the Foundation sought to trim the group’s role in the delivery of Village services. Fees-for-service arrangements with nonprofits are common practice in municipalities, according to the International City/County Management Association and are not donations requiring a unanimous vote of Council. Critics said those functions should be managed directly by government employees.
The 2019 criticism, however, also came in the wake of a new online newspaper, Key News. The publication, now defunct, was once headed by Caplan, who was not in office at the time. While it had an independent board, Key News received administrative support from KBCF. Funding was made through private donations.
A number of stories in Key News appeared to have rankled Gustavo Tellez, the plaintiff seeking to nullify the bond vote. Tellez and others then filed massive public records requests about the Foundation, sometimes accompanied by baseless assertions the Foundation was directing news coverage unfavorable to critics of Village government or members of the Condominium Presidents Council. Members of that group, also an IRS charitable organization, had campaigned against the bond referendum.
The 2019 criticism of KBCF reached a head during the summer budget process, with the same false “donation” claim being made. Then, many residents rallied to the foundation’s defense after Council Member Ignacio Segurola said the organization should be stripped of any role in providing services on behalf of the Village.
Following the 2019 dispute, the Village and the Foundation entered into a formal fees-for-services contract, similar to ones the Village has with other service providers. And the Foundation, which had been using unoccupied office space in Village Hall, moved to commercial office space. The Chamber of Commerce, which also receives fees-for-service funding, still has its offices inside Village Hall.
Tuesday’s charged exchange recalled that summer’s budget battle. Prepared for a repeat, White had been going through a slide presentation to detail how each project was not a donation. But Lauredo cut her off, saying her presentation was going over the allotted time.
His questioning pivoted to a line item for the Village’s 30-year anniversary celebration — a $30,000 amount he again incorrectly described as a “contribution” to the Foundation.
The Village’s chief financial officer, Benjamin Nussbaum, told Lauredo the funding was within the Parks and Recreation budget and would only be paid to the Foundation as a reimbursement for services performed.
At that point, White became exasperated, saying the Foundation need not perform services for the Village if the Council wants to obtain them elsewhere.
“This is added work for us,” she said. “We do this because we are good community partners.”
Lauredo decided to keep asking questions about the celebration line item. “There are a lot of people who need clarification,” he said.
“There are ten people in a chat who need clarification,” White shot back, a reference to the LTX WhatsApp chat that regularly criticizes the Foundation.
“This confusion, I blame on the administration,” Lauredo said.
Village Manager Steve Williamson tried to interject, saying the line item had already been approved by Council as part of the current 2021 budget and was not a proposal for 2022.
Lauredo’s chance to be the presiding officer at Tuesday’s nonbinding workshop was a bit of a fluke. Mayor Mike Davey is on vacation, and Vice Mayor Ed London — who had described White as an “angel’ at the start of Tuesday’s meeting — had recused himself.
London said he did so because he himself was a subject of a 2019 ethics complaint by Segurola related to his creation of independent philanthropic funds under the Foundation’s charitable structure.
Under Robert’s Rules of Order, it fell to remaining council members to select a presiding officer, and Lauredo asked if he could run the meeting. None of the four remaining members objected.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.