Miami's Undertaker

It wasn't always that way. Plummer did not originally support Odio's selection as city manager in the spring of 1985. At the time,Odio was seen as a lackey of then-mayor Maurice Ferre. But when Ferre lost the mayor's race in November 1985 to Xavier Suarez, the power on Dinner Key underwent a dramatic shift. Because Suarez was a novice, Plummer quickly emerged as the de facto mayor of Miami. Suarez may have held the title, but Plummer wielded the power.

With Ferre gone, Odio needed a new guardian on the commission and soon allied himself with Plummer, who in turn became the manager's staunchest supporter. Their partnership over the next ten years made for smooth politics, but lousy government. Oversight wasn't nearly as crucial as patronage.

Plummer's domination of Miami's affairs lasted through all eight years of Suarez's regime and continued into the brief return of Steve Clark. It was only after Clark's death last June and the election of Mayor Joe Carollo a month later that Plummer's reign began to weaken.

Plummer's defenders argue it is unreasonable to think that part-time city commissioners, who are paid only $5000 a year and are therefore forced to hold full-time jobs, should be expected to know the intricacies of the city's finances.

"The commission really has no staff who can check on the truth or falsehood of the statements coming from the city manager," says David Kennedy, who was a Miami city commissioner from 1961 until 1970 and the city's mayor from 1970 to 1973. "The personal staffs that commissioners have are really there to address complaints or problems from constituents. Each commissioner doesn't have their own expert budget analyst."

The only people commissioners have to rely on, besides the city manager and the finance director, are the outside auditors Deloitte & Touche, Kennedy argues. And the auditors never raised any concerns, he adds.

"In hindsight everyone says J.L. and the other commissioners should have known," Kennedy contends. "I don't necessarily agree with that. I think that puts an unfair burden on them. They have to rely on staff. They have to depend on their outside auditors."

Political consultant Phil Hamersmith notes that Miami is actually a city-manager form of government. "J.L. Plummer believed in Cesar Odio," says Hamersmith. "He listened to him and had faith and confidence in him. And according to the city charter, commissioners are supposed to rely on their manager."

Hamersmith is quick to add that if people are looking to assign blame, there is plenty to go around. "Where was the Miami Herald?" he asks. "Why weren't there any stories warning the public that the city was losing money? Why weren't there any stories exposing the city's accounting practices? They are supposed to be the main newspaper in town and they were AWOL from city hall. If anything, they were mostly supportive of Cesar Odio. I certainly don't remember too many critical stories of Odio, and that was because they were worrying about their image in the Cuban community instead of doing their job."

Tucker Gibbs has his own roster of people besides Plummer who should be held accountable. "I think Victor De Yurre has some explaining to do, and I think Xavier Suarez owes the city an explanation as well," he says, referring to the former city commissioner and former Miami mayor. "They were both in office during most of Odio's tenure. Why didn't they see this all coming?"

Inevitably, however, the conversation returns to Plummer. Given his cocky and often condescending attitude over the years, as well as his close ties to Odio, there are more than a few people who are relishing his discomfort.

"Of course he should be held responsible," spits Eisenberg. "When this crisis began to unfold and there was a need for leadership, he went off to Costa Rica. What in the world is wrong with these people?" Both Plummer and fellow city commissioner Willy Gort spent a week in San Jose, from September 16 to September 22, as part of a junket organized by the Miami Beach-based New World Symphony, whose members were traveling to Costa Rica for a series of concerts. Plummer took along his girlfriend, as well as a member of his staff. Gort took his wife.

Not only is Plummer getting pummeled from activists like Eisenberg, he is also being attacked by the mainstream media. Last month, during an on-air editorial, Channel 10's general manager John Garwood called for both Plummer's and Gort's resignations, arguing that they allowed Odio too free a hand. (Garwood excluded Carollo and city commissioners Humberto Hernandez and Tomas Regalado, believing they are all relatively new to office.)

"How can you have a city commission that is rubber stamping these kinds of transactions?" Garwood questioned, referring to the type of accounting shell game Odio and the city's finance director Manohar Surana played. "That represents serious fiscal irresponsibility. Your responsibility is to the taxpayers and the citizens of this community. If you don't know what is going on in your own house, I think that is shameful."

Even though Gibbs has been a long-time critic of Plummer, he does not believe the commissioner should resign. If voters were willing to re-elect Plummer, he argues, then they should be stuck with him until the end of his term. "When J.L. ran in 1995 against Manolo Reyes, Reyes told everyone who would listen to him that the City of Miami was broke and that the person most responsible for the problem was J.L. Plummer," Gibbs says. "But the voters voted for Plummer anyway. The fact of the matter is that the voters in the City of Miami have gotten exactly what they deserved in J.L. Plummer."

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