Mayor? May Not? An Interview With Dean Trantalis

DeanTrantalisColor.jpgIt's high time we size up Fort Lauderdale's mayoral field. With so much ground to cover, we'll have to go one by one. Batting leadoff...

Dean Trantalis is a real estate attorney who became Fort Lauderdale's first openly gay commissioner in 2003, defeating Jon Albee, a insurance and real estate agent, by just 50 votes. He's been a leader of Broward United Against Discrimination and played a role in crafting the county's domestic partnership legislation.

As a commissioner, Trantalis was an advocate for historic preservation and frequently an opponent of high-rise condo development on the beach. But his role as an escrow agent for one high rise that wasn't built, The Waves Las Olas (English translation: The Waves The Waves) raised ethical questions that may follow him into the campaign.

In 2005 Trantalis attracted controversy after the Sun-Sentinel found that he'd not acquired proper permits for a kitchen renovation he did before his election, and that he'd received leniency from inspectors at the same time that he backed a citywide effort to crackdown on code violators. Shortly thereafter, Trantalis announced he'd not seek reelection, explaining that his law practice suffered because of his civic responsibilities, that he wanted to attend to a father in Connecticut who had health issues, and that, after all, Fort Lauderdale government was "dysfunctional." He told the Miami Herald,

I went into this job naively thinking that the commission worked as a collective group trying to achieve compromise. And it's nothing like that. If there's consensus for anything, it's simply a coincidence.
With bridge-burning quotes like that, it's hard to believe Trantalis would come back to City Hall. But it won't be the same one he left. Mayor Jim Naugle, infamous for the anti-gay rhetoric, is termed out. Naugle's frequent sparring partner, Carlton Moore, is also termed out. And there two other contested seats on the five member commission.

"The most important thing is strong leadership -- especially from the mayor's position," says Trantalis, describing what he's heard from Fort Lauderdale residents. "They'd like the person to bring integrity and respect back to the office. They're looking for a change in culture."

More from Trantalis, including his John McCain moment, after the jump.


More specifically, Trantalis says the mayor will need to root out crime that has spread into new neighborhoods -- an outcome he blames on the lack of activities available to young people. The new leader must lead the way in a period where fiscal discipline isn't a virtue but a requirement. "People are concerned about the level of spending in our city," he says. "People need to see the city is just as concerned with its finances as they are with their own."

At the very least, Trantalis says the city must do a better job than the state legislature and the county commission, both of which have turned to rainy day funds only to discover that there's not enough in those accounts to last through the kind of lengthy downturn economists are forecasting.

As the only mayoral candidate who's served as commissioner in the past, Trantalis is in a unique position to describe what was wrong with city government in the past, to elaborate on his prior remarks about dysfunction. Sadly, he will not indulge us. "I don't really want to start characterizing the past. I want to be forward thinking."

For instance, Trantalis' campaign website contains no mention of his role in the "Flush Naugle" campaign that followed the mayor's incendiary remarks. And he refuses to go along with this blog's attempt to narrate the race for mayor as a contest for who can best appeal to the gay community -- a constituency that seems to have the most incentive to vote in the election. "Yes, sexual orientation is going to have an impact," says Trantalis. "Yes, people in the gay community do vote in greater numbers. Yes, they have favorites, but we won't know who until February 10. And I hope they wouldn't be voting for me just because I'm gay."

I asked Trantalis what, if anything, his administration could do at the city level to ease the pain of foreclosures and job losses. "The fundamentals of our local economy are sound," he began, at which point I had a deja vu nightmare that looked like this.



"You're sounding like John McCain," I almost screamed.

"I didn't want to say that," said Trantalis. Fair enough. He continued, "I don't think local government has the resources and the authority to restrict foreclosures but cities can help to keep foreclosed homes from being occupied by vagrants or becoming blighted pockets that could bring a whole neighborhood down."

I asked Trantalis about his two episodes of unfavorable publicity -- his role as escrow agent for The Waves condo and the alleged leniency he received from city code enforcement. Trantalis said that all but one of the suits filed against The Waves builder, in which he was also a defendant, have been settled. As to the leniency matter, Trantalis says it was "much ado about nothing."

"You hire somebody to do a job, and they tell you you don't need a permit," says Trantalis of the kitchen renovation. "What do I know? I'm just a skinny lawyer. I'll take the word of the contractor."

It only came to light, he says, thanks to the behind-scenes handiwork of a "disgruntled" code inspector who Trantalis says was out to embarrass him.

"I'm running to be mayor," says Trantalis. "I'm not running to be priest. And to the extent that I or any of the candidates had a shortcoming, I hope that you wouldn't hold that against somebody -- not unless they went out of their way and intentionally committed a wrong or broke a law."

At this point in the interview, Trantalis questioned whether I could withstand the kind of background investigation and probing questions I was inflicting upon him. I informed him that surely I could not, that my background is hopelessly checkered. And I told him that, among other reasons, is why I wasn't running for mayor. "But," Trantalis asked,
"isn't a journalist's character and ethical conduct just as important to a community as a mayor's?" He wasn't even joking. And hey, maybe he's right. (Never argue with a lawyer unless you're also a lawyer.) So I hereby invite the community to investigate my life's history and phone me with gotcha questions. Oh, you're not interested? Well, then that's the difference between a mayoral candidate and a journalist.

Stay tuned for the next Juice mayoral interview with Jack Seiler, another lawyer. Let's hope I don't get the tables turned on me again.
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