Poor Relations

The Dade Community Relations Board doesn't and isn't very good at relations, either

The eighth item on the agenda at this past month's meeting of the Metro-Dade Community Relations Board regarded the touchy subject of business cards. Seated around a long, narrow table in a cramped Government Center conference room, the 26 board members learned that it is against county policy to distribute personal business cards imprinted with the Community Relations Board address and phone number. And a particularly bad idea if you've just rear-ended another car in traffic and you're about to leave the scene of the accident.

Lamentably, board member Gustavo Adolfo Marin had done just that after an April mishap in Hialeah. Handing the people in the dinged-up car a business card sporting the Metro-Dade logo and the impressive qualifier "Police Community Relations" beneath his name (he and fellow board member Waldo Faura had the cards printed at their own expense), Marin had announced that he didn't have time to wait for the police, and then had driven off. The startled victims took down Marin's tag number, the police got in touch with Marin, and eventually the case was resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The executive director of the Community Relations Board, Lloyd Major, learned of the incident when a relative of the victims phoned him at the number on Marin's card.

Discussion of the matter among board members followed a tortuous path. Jose L centspez-Calleja made a motion that the board adopt a rule that personal CRB business cards aren't sanctioned. Others stood up for Marin, who wasn't present at the meeting. "Excuse me, I don't see nothing wrong with the guy giving a card," protested Eddie Silva, co-owner of a security firm. "Maybe he doesn't have anything else." Retorted Rev. Cornelius Wilkes of Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church: "When you violate the law, you violate the law." The proposed rule passed; dissenting were Silva and his business partner Alfredo Hidalgo-Gato, Faura, recent appointee Mario Martinez Malo, and Marin's longtime friend Ada Rojas. Faura, however, vows to reintroduce the subject at the next meeting. "We should have some kind of identification when we go places and meet somebody," he argues.

If it could just get down to business, the Community Relations Board might be able to pursue its noble mission of working to smooth relations among Dade County's increasingly diverse ethnic and social groups. Inspired by the civil rights movement and formed in 1963, the CRB has enjoyed a reputation as an effective conciliatory force among often bitterly opposed groups. The all-volunteer board is credited with helping to make peace after the McDuffie and Mercado riots in 1980 and 1990, respectively, and with working to prevent violence amid last year's retrial of Miami police officer William Lozano, who was acquitted of wrongdoing in the 1989 killing of a black motorcyclist. Many of Dade's most prominent citizens have occupied seats on the board, says Lloyd Major, including the chairmen of Pan Am, Eastern Airlines, and Burdines.

But nowadays the CRB's role is muddled, thanks to the formation of the Community Affairs Department's Intergroup Relations program, which has essentially the same role. Further confusing matters, CAD director Aristides Sosa also oversees the CRB, which had been under the auspices of the county manager until about three years ago. Beginning with the November 1993 election that installed the revamped Metro government, each county commissioner makes two appointments to the CRB. (Executive Director Lloyd Major and four other county employees serve as support staff; they receive salaries but aren't voting board members.) The new protocol is a substantial departure from the old process, in which commissioners voted at-large on appointments from a list of screened nominees submitted by the CRB staff. Now there's no screening, no list: Each commissioner makes his or her own selections; appointees' terms are equivalent to those of their respective commissioner's. "So there are political appointments for the first time in the history of the board," says Major, a member of the board's staff since 1984 and director since 1990.

Wilkes, the CME pastor, an appointee of Art Teele, is a CRB veteran who also served on the board before the change in appointment process. "It's shot it all to hell is what happened," Wilkes says. "The commissioners are giving these positions to people who aren't sensitive to community relations. It's become a political plum. We come up with issues that have nothing to do with human relations in Dade County," adds Wilkes, citing racial polarization and stalemates over emotional matters.

Ergo the business card debate, and an upcoming battle over Rev. Arthur Jackson III's proposal that the board formally congratulate Nelson Mandela on his election to the South African presidency -- the man Miami's Cuban leadership snubbed during his 1991 visit, prompting a sixteen-month black boycott of the city's tourism industry. At the June meeting, when Silva complained of Mandela's unpopularity among Miami Cubans, Wilkes snapped, "Well, this is the United States, not Cuba."

At least in part, the problem might be due to the fact that the CRB does not exactly "reflect the gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the community," as recommended by county ordinance.

"And it's called the Community Relations Board," points out Dr. Mireille Tribie. A certified M.D. in the Dominican Republic and currently director of the University of Miami's Hemophilia Program, Tribie attended her first CRB meeting in March, as an observer. (Usually only one or two members of the public show up.) She was disappointed, she recalls, that not a single black woman was sitting at the table, nor a single representative of the county's estimated 100,000 Haitians. In fact, Tribie adds, she couldn't help but notice the scarcity of women, period.

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