Raising Pain

Glenn Terry thinks a salary hike is the answer to Miami's commission woes. Others insist it's money for nothing.

Now that a special election has been announced to fill the Miami mayor's seat, a searchlight scans the terrain for leaders who are able and willing to lead the city. Many names have been bandied about, but so far the only people who have actually stepped forward are losers from the last city election. The roster of aspirants includes Humberto Hernandez, recently reprimanded by the Florida Bar for handing out business cards at a ValuJet memorial service.

So shallow and murky is the candidate pool that Miami Herald political editor Tom Fiedler half-seriously proposed Sylvester Stallone as a more favorable candidate than anyone who'll actually run. "Miami city politics so rarely attracts people who embody the city's reality and its promise, who represent the very best of its qualities, whose vision can keep pace with real life," Fiedler complained in tapping Stallone. He also fantasized about Mayor Madonna.

Glenn Terry is neither a movie star nor a mayoral aspirant. Nor is he a career politician. He tried to be a county judge once, back in 1976, but he considers his defeat at the polls to have rescued him from a dismal legal career. Now instead of wrangling over divorce cases he "raises his karma a few levels" by teaching art classes at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Northwest Dade.

Terry's main accomplishment in the public arena is the King Mango Strut, a legendary Coconut Grove spoof of the Orange Bowl Parade. Owing in part to the success of the Strut, which Terry founded in the early Eighties, some Grove leaders asked him to run for the Village Council, the quasi-governmental body that presents Grove concerns to the city. Terry complied, won a seat last fall, and looked around for something to do.

"It's pretty boring mostly. We go to a lot of meetings," the 49-year-old Grove leader grumbles about his post, for which he does not get paid. "But I did ask, 'What the hell can we do to get better leaders in the city of Miami?' I figured good leadership in the city means good leadership for the Grove. Yet when I looked at the city government, I realized these guys work full-time for $5000 a year. Their staffers can make $45,000. That's just crazy. That's like going to a doctor who is paid less than a nurse."

Miami city commissioners do earn only $5000 per year, a salary level that was set in 1949. Their pay is supplemented by full health insurance, a car allowance, a cellular phone allowance, and other perks, but even with those benefits, the compensation is dwarfed by the pay of the lowliest commission aide. (The mayor, who has no more power than his fellow commissioners, earns no more pay, either.) Terry suspects this subminimum wage salary is the reason the commission can't attract better leaders.

"I want the best people to run for and get elected to city and county government. I want regular people, people like me, to run for office," he says, barely audible over the background hollering of his two-year-old son Ian. "I just want the people holding these positions to be more than the wealthy and those connected to wealth."

Terry persuaded his fellow Village Council members to ask city commissioners to call for a raise referendum. "I can't believe an educated person who talks to me for five minutes wouldn't vote in favor of the pay raise," Terry says, describing the support he's already finding for his initiative. Concurs former Miami commissioner Rosario Kennedy, who pulled down five grand a year from 1985 to 1989: "Something needs to be done. Miami is a big, international city. Serving on the commission is a full-time job. Many good people will not run until the job pays more money."

Commissioner J.L. Plummer, who supports a pay raise hooked to a population-based formula similar to the one that governs the pay of most county commissioners in Florida (though not Dade County commissioners, who earn only $6000 per year, plus perks), has seen raises come to a public referendum three times in his almost 26-year tenure on the dais. Three times they were voted down. "Each time, though, it was grouped with a bunch of other items that the voters didn't like," Plummer notes.

But there is a good chance the item would be rejected no matter how it sat on the ballot. Skeptics, noting that some candidates spend more than $400,000 to run, assume the payoff for holding office is more than just a warm feeling of civic service. "I said this years ago, and I'll say it again now: I have never known a Miami city commissioner who left office poorer than when he came in," cracks Annette Eisenberg, a board member of the Downtown Development Authority.

"I don't think money is the issue here," adds David Gell, a Grove activist. "Whatever the salary, you get candidates who are for the people and candidates who are not. I don't think pay is going to make someone any more altruistic than another. At $60,000 a year [the ballpark salary Terry is kicking around], do you think these people will be more honest or straightforward than they are already?"

The 50 aldermen on Chicago's city council each earn $75,000 per year for their labors, an increase of $20,000 since 1991. Similarly to Miami, "the rationale for the raise was that they were considered part-time employees but it was full-time work," volunteers Daphne Daume, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Chicago.

Now that they take home healthy salaries, are the aldermen more honest? "Funny, funny, funny," replies Daume, aware that several council members resigned recently after "Operation Silver Shovel" revealed they had allowed illegal dumping in their wards in exchange for cash payoffs. Several more remain under investigation.

"To say that [a higher salary] would prevent corruption, our experience is no, it doesn't," Daume states. And did the larger paychecks raise the quality of the candidates running for the council? "Yes and no. We have gotten some good people who have run who might not have run before. But we also have elected some who aren't."

Terry is familiar with the uneven results pay increases have had in other cities. Raul Martinez, the oft-indicted mayor of Hialeah, earns $70,000 a year, Terry admits. Still, he sticks to his point: You're more likely to get quality if you pay for it. "After all," he asks, "Do you know anyone willing to work for $100 a week?"

What about Sylvester Stallone? Is it the low pay that keeps him from ruling Miami? "Unfortunately," says a Stallone spokesman in L.A., "he has no comment at this time.

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