Dave Crystal's first taste of corruption in Miami Beach was in the building in which he lived – the 5600 Condominium – in 2005. Then, the building was going through some major renovations and preparing for its 40-year recertification. Mr. Crystal was the first to realize that the president of the board was having an affair with the head contractor, thus creating a conflict of interest and putting the building in serious financial jeopardy. It was at that point that Mr. Crystal decided to run for the board of the 5600 Condominium.
In the meantime, Dave educated others running for the board and built a de facto coalition so to guarantee that the anti-corruption crowd would have a majority once elected. They were elected; and in short order the unethical prior president resigned. All future contracts were renegotiated. It is estimated the Mr. Crystal and the other ethical board members saved the condominium at least $600,000 in the process.
Further condo drama, some instances of which involved a Miami Beach cop who lived in the building, compelled Mr. Crystal to get a better education on how the City of Miami Beach really worked, particularly in relation to its condominiums. In one of his conversations with a certain then-commissioner, Mr. Crystal was advised to join the recently formed Miami Beach Leadership Academy. Shortly after graduating from the Leadership Academy, Dave became Director of its alumni association and held that position for three years. Through his interactions with then City Manager Jorge Gonzalez Mr. Crystal began to smell smoke, and usually where there's smoke, there's fire. Mr. Crystal began to speak to many different citizens and city employees on a personal basis and came away with the picture that our city employees are perhaps somewhat overpaid given their state of education and sophistication in their respective fields, coupled with the generally unfavorable impression they left on the majority of citizens who had to do business with them, or at their mercy. Furthermore, the day-to-day manner and etiquette of many employees was very much lacking. Not to mention reports of quality applicants to the city never getting interviews, while less educated individuals were hired into same positions, usually due to their personal connections. This unchecked phenomenon was one of Dave's most important impetuses to file to run for Mayor of Miami Beach in 2010.
One of the first things Dave did as a candidate was requisition from the City Clerk's office the salary, and years of service of every city employee. Mr. Crystal was astounded! He knew Miami Beach city employees were on average overpaid, but he never ascertained the sheer degree of it until he saw this Excel file with his own eyes. In a city of just over 1800 employees, over 150 had a total compensation of over $100,000; and the average total pay was over $75,000 in a down economy where the average American, if employed at all, was making $32,000. Not to mention extremely expensive health care and defined pension benefits on top of that!
Mr. Crystal saw this wasteful spending as a form of soft corruption. Said Dave, "If they are taking our money and spending it on our behalf in ways in which we would never conceive of spending it ourselves, then they are essentially stealing our money!" Mr. Crystal immediately hoisted this Excel file on his campaign website for all the world to see, and the response was enormous. For so long, so many citizens had been left in the dark as to the degree to which their money was spent on city employees until Mr. Crystal became the first candidate in history to educate them in such a public fashion.
Then Mr. Crystal further researched all issues related to the city's pension plans and came across a document known as the Two-Year Pension Buy-Back. The 2-year buy-back was established by Florida State law to compensate, for any loss of pension base, those military officers and public servants who left the military or other government service to assume the position to which they are newly elected or appointed. FL statute 112.65 clearly states that if using prior private sector experience as a basis for this extra buy-back, one must demonstrate that same private sector experience is "same or very similar" to the duties to be served by the elected official (in this case in the capacity of Commissioner and Mayor of Miami Beach). Mr. Crystal discovered such a document signed and filed by none other than Mayor Matti Herrera Bower who incredulously argues (apparently in her own handwriting) that her prior duties as a dental assistant are the same as or very similar to her duties as a city commissioner or mayor! As a result the Miami Beach taxpayer will be paying Mayor Bower tens of thousands of additional dollars of pension benefits over the course of her retirement once she leaves office. Mr. Crystal, through his research, further found out that the above was just the last of several steps Bower and others in the City took to artificially and unethically increase their pension benefits without direct approval of the tax-paying and voting public: In 2006, Mayor Bower and voted to: 1.Change her pension from a 401A to a defined benefit pension; 2. Change how her new pension is calculated to require her contribution to be equal to her salary of $6,000, but to artificially increase her salary for the purpose of calculating benefits from $6,000 to$30,000 by claiming that her expense account counted as part of her salary; and 3. Gave herself a 4 percent multiplier a year on her "new" pension while all other employees got 3 percent.
At a given Miami Beach Commission meeting in 2011, Mr. Crystal spoke at the Sutnick Hour demanding the mayor and commission address what he termed, "a gross injustice especially in a time of fiscal crisis." Mayor Bower heard Mr. Crystal's complaint and gave no response or explanation. To date there has still been no response or explanation from the mayor as to her justification for the two year pension buy-back she submitted.
At the same time the citizens of Miami Beach kept hearing from the City Manager's office how great the city's fiscal health is. Mr. Crystal soon thereafter realized that the two-year pension buy-back was part of a grand scheme dictated from the top to window-dress the city's financials by bringing more money in now at the expense of much more money to be paid out later. After publicizing the two year pension buyback scandal, Mr. Crystal got a call from David Weston, a former Miami Beach fire inspector, who at the time insisted on anonymity but has since gone public in early 2013. Mr. Weston confirmed that the City Manager's office had pushed the Two-Year buy-back and other pension changes that were clearly not in the long term fiscal interest of the city. Mr. Weston also informed Mr. Crystal that the threat of firing good employees prior to them being fully vested in their pension was a common practice of the City Manager's office and used to intimidate employees from whistle-blowing or otherwise doing the right thing in the face of rampant corruption. Mr. Weston also gave Mr. Crystal evidence of steep discounts the city gave on "appraised value" to the properties developed by friends and financiers of the City Manager and Commission. Mr. Weston also confirmed another nefarious phenomenon in the city, which prior to their meeting Mr. Crystal had already independently uncovered and determined: rampant shakedowns of and extortion threats against small business owners in Miami Beach by Code Compliance and certain fire inspectors:
In his first two months campaigning for Mayor, Mr. Crystal met with about 200 local small business-owners, at least 36 of whom claimed that they were subject to extortion threats by Code Compliance. Mr. Crystal also met with a major local hotelier who made the same claims. The claims were all so similar, and recounted such similar tactics and language, that Mr. Crystal could come to no other conclusion than the fact that there was a concerted and deliberate mafia-style shakedown ring in Code Compliance, aided and abetted to some extent by certain building department and fire officials. Mr. Crystal soon thereafter exposed these truths before a public audience at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club and demanded that the City Manager and elected officials do something about it. They did nothing. Of course, just a few months after Mr. Crystal lost the mayoral race to Mayor Bower, the FBI arrested 7 Code Compliance officers and two Miami Beach Firefighters for extortion and drug related charges. Two months later, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez was forced to resign by the Miami Beach City Commission. It is clear that these positive events would not have happened to the same extent, or within the same time frame, had Mr. Crystal not put the ball of justice in motion two years prior. Furthermore, for the first time in years the City Commission is finally taking city employee compensation and pension liabilities seriously (at least in their talking points).
Miami Beach is a more decent place today because of the activism of Dave Crystal; but there is so much more work left to be done. Says, Mr. Crystal, "While Miami Beach is no longer the RICO organization it was prior to those recent arrests, not all city employees have gotten the message. There is still strong evidence that corruption still exists, and if we don't completely eradicate it soon, it will fester until the situation once again becomes as bad as it was from 2006 to 2012. Furthermore, even if we eliminate all corruption but do nothing to significantly reform the pension plans, the city will still nonetheless not survive another 20 years."
Mr. Crystal believes the selection of the new city manager, whom he endorsed, coupled with his election as well as that of at least one new colleague on the Miami Beach Commission, will usher in a new age of responsible government. Mr. Crystal has been ahead of the curve for years, indicative of the foresight he will employ in steering our city down a better path for many years to come. If past is prologue, then the choice for real change and real reform in Miami Beach is Crystal Clear! The choice is Dave Crystal.