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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Voters oust mayor of Florida town where condo tower collapsed

A view of the Champlain Towers South building collapse site in Surfside, Fla., June 27, 2021. Charles Burkett was the mayor of Surfside when the 13-story Champlain Towers South complex fell in June, killing 98 people — he lost his re-election bid by 33 votes.

By Maria Cramer

The mayor who led the seaside town of Surfside, Florida, through the traumatic aftermath of the collapse of a condominium tower in which 98 people were killed last year, was voted out of office earlier this week night.

The mayor, Charles Burkett, who was elected in 2020, placed third in the three-way race and lost by 33 votes to the winner, Shlomo Danzinger, according to an unofficial tally.

Burkett was thrust into the national spotlight after the Champlain Towers South, a 13-story residential condo building just north of Miami Beach, collapsed in the early hours of June 24. He was a fixture at news briefings as firefighters, search dogs and emergency crews spent weeks scouring the rubble for survivors. Eventually, the rescue effort shifted to a recovery operation when rescuers acknowledged that no more survivors would be found.

The tragedy was officially deemed one of the deadliest accidental structural building failures in U.S. history and was expected to lead to years of investigations. The first signs of failure were found at the building’s base and in an underground garage, but federal authorities have not determined what caused the collapse.

“It’s been a pretty tough two years,” Burkett said Wednesday. “The day I was elected, the country shut down because of COVID, and then the next year we had the building collapse. It was all hands on deck.”

He said he believed that rancor at recent town meetings had led voters in the town of about 6,000 people to seek new leadership.

In July 2020, a town commissioner, Eliana R. Salzhauer, gave Burkett the middle finger after he muted her during a virtual meeting about a proposed anti-discrimination resolution. The disagreement was over Burkett’s proposal to add Christians to an ordinance denouncing hatred against Asians and Jews.

“I liken it to a cage fight,” Burkett said, referring to the meetings. “We’re all put into this cage for five hours and then asked to conduct a productive meeting.”

Salzhauer, who was up for reelection, also lost her seat. She did not respond to messages Wednesday.

On his campaign website, Danzinger, a father of five children, describes himself as a community activist and leader who has helped “tech startups and tech giants” for more than 25 years. He pushed for “restoring civility and dignity” to the commission and railed against the “obscene gestures and comments made during public meetings” that he said had “put our town in the press’ crosshairs.”

“Needless to say, our town deserves leaders who put aside their egos for the benefit of the community,” Danzinger said on his website. He also pushed for a “gold standard” for building requirements that would ensure the safety of new developments and neighboring buildings while demanding accountability from developers.

Danzinger received 499 votes. Tina Paul, the town’s vice mayor, placed second with 476 votes. Burkett received 466 votes, according to unofficial results.

Danzinger did not respond to messages for comment Wednesday. He is scheduled to be sworn into office Wednesday night, according to the town clerk’s office.

During the campaign, Danzinger presented himself as a family man who lives in the heart of town while saying that Burkett “lives alone in a mansion on the pristine little enclave of Biscaya Island.”

Burkett, who owns Burkett Properties Inc., a real estate company, said he lives with his son, who is 18.

A supporter of the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a Republican, Burkett said he would turn his attention to helping him get reelected this November. Burkett, who is not affiliated with a political party, said he also admired Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are both Republicans. He said he would consider running for governor or the Senate if any of the three current officeholders choose not to run again.

While he was surprised by the results, Burkett said he was glad Danzinger won. Burkett described his opponent as someone who has “a very similar worldview compared to me.”

“It’s a good day because the town of Surfside is going to be fine,” Burkett said. “We’ve got good people in place. They’re reasonable. They’re thoughtful.”

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