Miami's Undertaker

Ever wonder what the initials J.L. stand for in Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer's name? For the longest time, I thought it stood for Just Loquacious. Attend any city commission meeting and you will soon realize that Plummer loves the sound of his own voice. He's a redneck Chatty Cathy with an opinion about everything. Forget increasing garbage fees or laying off cops -- if the city could tax his bubba babble, there would be no budget shortfall.

But Miami is $68 million in the hole, its bonds have the value of junk, and it is uncertain if the city will celebrate another birthday, let alone a second centennial. And that got me rethinking J.L.'s initials. At first I considered the possibility that he must be Just Lazy. After all, if he had done his homework scrutinizing the city budget, then he would have foreseen the impending crisis and developed a plan long ago to pull our sun-baked derrieres out of the fire.

He claims the reason he didn't know what was going on in the city was that he trusted former Miami city manager Cesar Odio, whose incompetence helped lead the city toward financial ruin. Marriages are built on trust. Governments are supposed to be based on checks and balances. Plummer should know the difference; he's been married and divorced. And so at that point I decided he was Just Lame.

Besides, Plummer trying to shift the blame to Odio didn't make much sense. That would be like Edgar Bergen blaming Charlie McCarthy for the act not working. One former city official told me that Miami's befuddled manager didn't go to the bathroom without first checking with puppetmaster Plummer. Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald's political editor, had his own take on Plummer's culpability when he recently compared the commissioner to the whorehouse piano player who pretends not to know what goes on upstairs.

In either case -- whether you picture Plummer's fingers blithely dancing atop a keyboard or with his hand shoved up Odio's back in order to make the manager's lips move -- Plummer's pleas of ignorance were Just Ludicrous.

Ultimately, though, the deeper you look the more likely you are to conclude that he is Just Liable. Holding Plummer culpable for the greatest crisis the city has faced seems appropriate. Plummer has served as a city commissioner for 27 years, longer than anyone else. The same year Plummer took office the Partridge Family had a number-one hit with the song "I Think I Love You," four students were killed at Kent State, and Mrs. McVeigh, my third grade teacher at St. Patrick's Elementary School in Brooklyn, whacked me from behind with her giant pink brick-laden handbag because I was talking during class. When I protested that some of the other kids were talking too, she told me to be a man and take responsibility for my actions.

If only Mrs. McVeigh had been in charge at Miami City Hall. By now, she and her bag would have knocked a little sense into Plummer. The closest thing that Miami has to Mrs. McViegh, though, is Annette Eisenberg, civic activist, and political hellion, as well as founder and president of the Downtown Bay Forum. Barely five feet tall and better than 60 years old, Eisenberg is fearless and doesn't mince words.

"I've been in Miami since 1950 and I've known J.L. Plummer for many years, and he is one of the most self-centered, self-serving, arrogant individuals I have ever met," she says, letting loose a rhetorical haymaker of her own. "He has no regard for people's feelings. He is a nasty individual. He thinks everything he does is right and that he is never wrong. Well, what I want to know is, if he knows so much, how come he didn't know what was going on with the city's budget?"

It is a question a lot of people are asking.
"He has presented himself as the most fiscally responsible person in city government," says Tucker Gibbs, a local attorney and chairman of the Coconut Grove Village Council, "and I think he owes the people of Miami an explanation of how this could have happened on his watch. He really hasn't said anything."

"How come he's playing so coy now?" Eisenberg chimes in. "He's never mute on any subject."

He wasn't saying anything to me, either. Plummer initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but once he learned the questions would focus on his responsibility for the city's financial mess he refused to return numerous phone calls to his commission office, his home, or the funeral parlor he owns. Plummer's silence is a curious sign of cowardice from a commissioner who people used to jokingly refer to as Kojak because of his propensity for driving around Miami listening to his police scanner and then screeching up at crime scenes to try to help catch the bad guys.

The last of the good ol' boy, Anglo politicians in Dade County, Plummer is a throwback to its Southern, pre-Cuban roots. But as the politics of fried chicken and grits gave way to arroz con pollo, Plummer deftly adapted. He has survived over the years because he learned the skill of building alliances. And for the past decade no alliance has been stronger than the one between Plummer and Odio.

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