By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
Gelber formed two separate committees to evaluate Hispanic involvement in city government, and the numbers began to increase. But not quickly enough for Hispanic activists, whose frustrations boiled over one evening in November 1993.
A group that included Matti Bower and Victor Diaz had gone before the commission to propose that voluntary goals be set for achieving ethnic and gender parity in city government. "The commissioners all said they supported diversity 100 percent and thank you for coming, and we said, 'We want a timetable,'" Diaz recalls. "They said that we didn't have a right to demand anything. It made us feel ripped off, like we had been sent away with a pat on the back and nothing to show for our energy and efforts to bring the issues to their attention."
Angered, the activists agreed to convene at Diaz's house the following day. From that initial meeting sprang a plan of action and an organization called Unidad. "For the first time, there was an advocacy group that was well-organized and broad-based," Diaz asserts. "We hoped to send a message that we didn't want to divide the community. Our approach was, let's participate, participate, participate. Lobby, register people to vote, speak out. We were going to do it all! We were going to do everything you were supposed to do within the American political process."
At Unidad's urging, Gelber this past year formed the Blue Ribbon Panel, with a mandate to study four areas: the electoral process, the city's employment practices, purchasing and contracting, and appointments to citizens' committees and boards. Roberto Martinez, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, agreed to lead the group.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic appointments and new employees has increased dramatically. In 1992 Hispanics constituted 21.7 percent of all new municipal hires. That number rose to 43 percent in 1994, before dropping to 31.2 percent this year. The most significant transformation has occurred in the upper echelon of the city's administrative wing. This past spring, the commission selected as city manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa; he is the first Hispanic to hold that post in Miami Beach. Now the city's four top administrative jobs belong to Hispanics.
Ethnic parity has by no means been achieved, however. For example, the Blue Ribbon Panel released a report last month revealing that an abysmally small number of minority-owned vending firms have contracts with the city. The report also noted that aside from Stephen Zack, a Hispanic attorney who received more than $200,000 for services rendered from May 1992 to March 1994, the legal department paid minority outside counsel only $1364 out of a budget of more than $2.655 million for that period A less than one-thousandth of one percent.
Though City Manager Garcia-Pedrosa says he is committed to redressing the inequities, he adds, "I'm not an ethnic-counter. It bothers me more than a little bit when we emphasize -- overemphasize -- the color of somebody's skin. I want to bring the best people the city can find. If we do it on a level playing field, the ethnic diversity of this city will reflect itself."
Outside city hall, efforts to empower the Hispanic community are bringing some definition to a hitherto amorphous population. Unidad opened a much-needed Hispanic Community Center in order to provide a legal clinic, citizenship courses, job training, and other social services. In addition, Miami Beach now has two Hispanic chambers of commerce. Several Spanish-language publications have sprung up on the Beach in the past few years, as well, including newspapers Art Deco Tropical and South Beach News, and the monthly magazine La Playa.
A commission seat, though, remains an elusive goal. This past year, six Beach residents sued the City of Miami Beach in U.S. District Court. Their charge: The city's elections system had violated the Voting Rights Act by excluding minorities from public office. The plaintiffs hoped their efforts would lead to the creation of districts similar to those imposed on the Metro-Dade Commission and the Dade County School Board.
The filing annoyed many Unidad members who felt it interfered with a constructive process already under way. "We criticized it as being premature," Diaz recalls. "We were engaged in a process that was moving the city forward." After attempting to persuade the plaintiffs to delay or withdraw the complaint, however, Diaz and several other activists (though not Matti Bower) joined the suit. In August U.S. District Judge James Kehoe threw out the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs had failed to prove that Hispanics are politically cohesive or that Miami Beach's Anglo voters uniformly reject minority candidates, two conditions needed to prove that the at-large elections system unfairly prevents minority candidates from winning commission seats.
Though Bower isn't the only Hispanic candidate running this time around (South Beach hotelier Ada Llerandi is challenging incumbent Susan Gottlieb but is widely considered a long shot to win the seat), Kehoe's decision has put even more weight on her campaign. "I think she's a test; Matti Bower has been an activist for many years, so no one can say Hispanic candidates are people we've never heard of," Mayor Gelber reasons. "She's a quality candidate, and prior to this the response to Hispanics was they never had a candidate who was integrated and part of the community. The candidates didn't have any core support, couldn't raise funds, didn't have identity in the community. I think Matti Bower breaks that mold."