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Revolving Door at City Hall Slows Miami's Revival

Joe Carollo returns to office and finds a city divided over him and facing fiscal ruin.

Joe Carollo's name is back on the glass door at the mayor's office in City Hall.

But political analysts here say it will take more than a fresh coat of paint to heal a deepening rift within Miami's powerful Cuban-American community over who is the rightful mayor.

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It comes at a time when the city should be concentrating on more important issues, like how to eliminate a projected $30 million budget deficit and how to reverse Miami's growing national reputation as one of the most corrupt cities in the nation, a kind of American banana republic.

Instead, the city looks to be locked for months and perhaps even years in a dispute over the mayorship, fueled in part by the fiery personalities of the city's would-be leaders.

"I don't see anything good coming out of this," says Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida. "I see a bitterly divided city over the next few years."

A state appeals court last week ousted Xavier Suarez as mayor and installed Mr. Carollo, the former mayor, touching off a fierce debate over whether the court overstepped its bounds by declaring Carollo the winner.

The move came after a state judge found that a "massive" absentee ballot fraud scheme had influenced the November election in Mr. Suarez's favor. The judge found no personal involvement in the fraud by Suarez. Nonetheless, he ordered a new election be held in two months.

But that order was overturned by the three-judge appeals court panel last Wednesday. The appeals judges ruled that a new election was not needed. Instead, they decided to throw out all of the 5,000 absentee ballots cast in the election - rather than simply invalidating those ballots found to be fraudulent. The remaining machine-cast ballots rendered Carollo the winner.

The outcome pleased Carollo supporters. But it left many voters who cast legal absentee ballots wondering whether judges have the power to erase their votes and dictate the outcome of a highly disputed election.

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Some legal experts say the ruling is based on existing Florida Supreme Court opinions and should withstand any further appeals. But other legal analysts aren't so sure. They suggest the appeals court may have overstepped its authority.

And on a political level, the ruling could prove a double-edged sword to Carollo, analysts say.

It is the kind of outcome to an election that is likely to perpetuate hard feelings that will only further entrench political divisiveness in the city, analysts say.

"You have half the city believing that their man wasn't given a fair chance. You have half the city believing their man was robbed," says Mr. Jarvis.

Many Miami residents say that the issue of who should be mayor should be decided by voters, not judges. Another round of voting - minus any hint of fraud - might have settled the issue with enough finality to provide the winner a clear mandate to make the kinds of hard political decisions that any mayor of this troubled city is bound to face in the year ahead.

"Unfortunately what the [appeals court] has done is put Joe Carollo under a cloud and he can't get out from under that cloud," says Jarvis.

Suarez served as mayor from 1985 to 1993 and for four months since the November election. He has vowed to fight to get the office back, saying he plans to appeal the issue to either the Florida Supreme Court or to a federal court judge. He has also pledged to mount a petition drive for a new election, a prospect that promises a prolonged, bitter political battle.

It couldn't have come at a worse time for Miami. The city is teetering on the brink of insolvency, and the credibility of the city is on the line following a series of questionable actions by Suarez while mayor.

Among those actions: his decision to appoint as city commission chairman Humberto Hernandez, a Suarez political ally who was recently reelected despite his indictment last year on federal bank fraud and money laundering charges.

In addition, investigations into the voting fraud during the last election seem to point to Mr. Hernandez and his supporters, raising the specter that he may soon be charged for allegedly fixing the election.

In one of his first acts as mayor, Carollo removed Hernandez as commission chairman, but Hernandez remains a commissioner and is promising to use his position to thwart Carollo.

"The people of Miami are disgusted with the situation," says Bill Cullom, longtime president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. "I've wrestled with this every day," he says. "Companies that were coming in to talk to the city or county right now are very cautious. They want to wait and see what is going on."

Some analysts say the appeals court decision negating the need for another election may have helped the community mend fences faster by avoiding yet another two months of political campaigning and mud slinging.

"The main thing is for everyone to accept that Carollo is going to be the mayor for the next four years," says Michelle Zubizarreta, executive vice president of a Miami-based advertising agency. "I'm glad that it went this way, because the campaigns got so dirty and so nasty that I can just imagine what would have happened if we'd have gone to another election. It would have just been 60 more days of the government not doing what it should be doing," Ms. Zubizarreta says. "What we need to do is get back to running the city."

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