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.

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."

Given his nature, no one really expects the 60-year-old Plummer to resign. But political consultant Hamersmith says that when Plummer's term runs out in three years it will most likely mark the end of his political career. "I think the whole experience will cause J.L. to think a long time about running again for re-election," says Hamersmith. "Unfortunately a lot of people are going to blame him just because he was there. And since he has been there the longest, he is going to have to take the heat. I've already heard that he does not intend to run for office again."

All of which assumes that there will be a City of Miami in three years. Fueled by tales of fiscal mismanagement and allegations of rampant corruption, organizers of the abolish-Miami movement claim to have gathered enough signatures to force the question onto the ballot in the coming months. The vote will likely be close. If the city is disbanded, it would be a fitting epitaph for Plummer's political career.

For decades, as the owner of Ahern-Plummer Funeral Home, the commissioner has been preparing bodies for interment -- draining their blood and applying makeup so that they can look as natural as possible despite their decaying state.

Whether he realized it or not, Plummer for the past ten years has been preparing the city in a similar way. And as the city is lowered into the ground we should all take a moment to remember the hard work of the undertaker, because without Joseph Lionel Plummer none of this would have been possible.

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