New face of Cooper City shows you can fight City Hall
Published March 15, 2007
For a long time, John Sims led the quiet life that's a hallmark of a quiet place such as Cooper City.
He paid his taxes and minded his business, but he didn't pay much attention to City Hall. He migrated north from Kendall in 1995, didn't bother to vote in local elections.
"I was complacent," Sims said Wednesday. "I thought the status quo was fine."
Then came his awakening.
It began with his boat. He kept it in his driveway, near a cul-de-sac of a tucked-away block. He didn't think it bothered anyone.
But the City Commission passed an ordinance requiring small boats to be kept in garages or behind fences. Sims, a native South Floridian and fisherman, didn't think this was right. He owned his house and he owned his boat, so who was the city to tell him how to store his property.
"What does this have to do with public health, safety or welfare?" he wondered.
When the proposal was considered, he went to his first City Commission meeting. He spoke out. He began paying more attention. He didn't like what he saw.
Then came an ordinance, passed after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which gave the city the right to take personal property for use in emergencies. Sims could hardly believe it.
He thought local government had become too arrogant, too intrusive and too dismissive of citizens' rights. He wondered where it would end.
"More power, more rules, more permits, more code violations," Sims said. "More revenue."
An activist was born.
When Sims discovered that city officials had a tradition of gathering for dinner and drinks on the public dime before commission meetings, he tipped off a local TV station. WFOR-Ch. 4 aired the footage taken by secret cameras last fall, sparking widespread outrage and a state investigation.
Commissioners stopped the dinners, but instead of being apologetic, they defended the practice and bashed the messengers. In a response to the state, Mayor Debby Eisinger called Sims "a dissident."
"There were a million ways to approach it," he said. "They could have said the appearance wasn't good and that they were sorry, even though they didn't break any laws. Instead, they chose to spin, deny and lie. You know, people aren't stupid. Bottom line: The public lost trust."
And when Sims found out that one of two commissioners up for re-election had no opposition, he decided to do something crazy: run for office.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement cleared commissioners of wrongdoing last month, saying there was no proof they drank excessively at the dinners or violated the state's Sunshine Law by discussing city issues privately.
Cooper City voters weren't as forgiving.
On Tuesday, Sims set up a plywood billboard near City Hall. "Remove the doubt! Throw them out," it read.
The voters complied. Incumbents John Valenti and Linda Ferrara lost. Next week, Sims and Lisa Mallozzi will be sworn in as commissioners.
"This shows the little guy can make a change," said Sims, 48, who got 1,316 votes to beat Valenti by 93 votes. "I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a politician, I'm an electronics engineer. I know how to make things work."
Sims and Mallozzi, a full-time mother of three young children, celebrated their victory Tuesday night at Pete's Sandtrap, a restaurant at a golf course across from City Hall.
On Wednesday, Gary Swank ate lunch at the bar and said, "I guess people had enough. The dinners didn't really bother me, but they should have gone out after the meetings. When you're dealing with issues relating to the city and voting on them, it doesn't really matter if you've had one drink or 16 -- you're acting under the influence. People got ticked about that."
Said Mike DeBoer, 86, a 30-year resident: "Once politicians get in a little trouble, people don't forget. It's always been that way."
On Wednesday, a harried Mallozzi answered her door holding her 7-month-old daughter. "The phone's been ringing off the hook," she said. "I wasn't expecting to win."
When the results came in Tuesday night, Mallozzi said, "Everyone [at Pete's] looked at me and was like, `So are you going to have a drink?'"
"Oh God, no," she replied.
For the record, she said she had five iced teas. And she didn't charge a cent to the city.
John Sims, Cooper City Commissioner