FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (April 27, 2005) -- This city is in torment as it prepares to host the diplomatic meeting of the Organization of American States.
Dollars are stretched. City officials are strained. Civil rights organizations are threatening lawsuits. And the hemispheric meeting is still more than a month away.
"This conference isn't even here and I hate it," said Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson. "It's been a pain in my side since I found out about it."
Meanwhile, those who lured the OAS to Fort Lauderdale say they are tired of city officials bad-mouthing the event.
"It borders on counterproductive," said Nikki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Because the next time the city wishes to prove itself in front of the international marketplace, we're either going to be credible or not. What they really ought to be doing is turning their attention to the positive aspects of this meeting."
The OAS General Assembly will meet June 5-7 to elect new leaders and foster relationships among the 34 member nations of the Western Hemisphere. This is the first OAS meeting in the United States in 30 years, and it will draw about 1,600 people, including foreign ministers and such high-level dignitaries as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The event is expected to bring a $40 million boost to the Broward County economy, according to Grossman. Most of that money, Grossman said, would be spent around the Broward County Convention Center, where the meeting is to take place. Still, those figures do not impress Fort Lauderdale officials.
"The general fund won't see a nickel of that," City Manager George Gretsas said. "I have a whole lot of other things that we need to be doing if we weren't spending time on this."
The city estimates it is spending more than $6.7 million -- on riot gear, medical supplies, overtime pay -- to prepare for the conference. It is money city officials say they desperately need in a time of financial uncertainty. The city was forced to close its municipal jail and reduce its policing levels last year because of near-empty coffers.
The preparation for civil unrest is under way. Citing security reasons, the city has declined to say how many protesters might be drawn to the OAS meeting.
Commissioners last week set aside more than $2.5 million to begin buying the necessary equipment police say they need to control protests. There are no reassurances, city officials say, that the money spent to protect the delegates will ever be reimbursed by federal authorities.
"Last year I was a commissioner who voted in favor of a tax increase because we could not provide basic municipal services to the citizens of this city," said Commissioner Dean Trantalis, who was the only one to vote against setting aside the $2.5 million. "People who have been clamoring for code enforcement, for police enforcement, for everyday type of protective services, are now going to be shortchanged if we dig into our pockets."
Grossman said there is no way to know how much the federal government will reimburse Fort Lauderdale once the convention is over.
"The word 'guarantee' hasn't come up," she said. "And I think the city manager is frantic for a guarantee. And there is no one in the federal government that can guarantee anything."
While the city is still smarting over the money that must be spent, some of those who plan to protest the OAS have started howling over a recently approved city law banning from parades and public assemblies many materials used to hoist signs and banners. The ban forbids people from attending such events carrying glass bottles or balloons filled with anything other than air or helium. The measure, which city officials say was drafted mainly to control OAS protesters, has brought fierce opposition from civil rights advocates who say it is unconstitutional.
"We'll be seeing you in federal court. You should be ashamed of yourselves, " Robert Ross, an attorney for the group Lake Worth for Global Justice, told commissioners just before the law passed 4-1. Ross is involved in several lawsuits against Miami for the measures officials passed during the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in 2003.
Protesters from several groups, including the Green Party, the Sierra Club and the ACLU, came to City Hall last week to oppose every OAS-related measure commissioners took up.
But the measures, police say, are part of a larger security plan, which includes closing the busy 17th Street bridge for at least two days during the conference. That plan has drawn harsh criticism from small-business owners in the area, who say the bridge is a lifeline to their customers.
"When the bridge is locked down, the local people won't come out," said Donna Mergenhagen, who owns a small bookstore near the bridge. "I think people will be somewhat fearful. I don't believe [businesses] will realize any monetary benefit from the OAS meeting. I suspect the opposite will be true."
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