By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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They Owe It All to Odio
Miami's infamous ex-city manager hired more than 100 staffers entirely at his own discretion. Guess who's paying them.
By Robert Andrew Powell
Ramon Conte prides himself on his toughness. The Cuban exile and Bay of Pigs veteran endured 25 years in Fidel Castro's jails. After he was captured in 1961 while attempting to liberate his island homeland, revolutionaries forced him to crush stones in a quarry and till farmland like a slave. His flesh bears scars from the taunting jabs of a guard's bayonet. Before his release from prison and relocation to Miami in 1986 -- upon the intervention of Sen. Ted Kennedy -- Castro's minions failed to extract from him an oath of loyalty to the revolution.
He's not about to crack for me.
I've come here to the Brigade 2506 clubhouse in Little Havana to ask Conte a simple question: What do you do for the City of Miami? It's a question that took root almost six months ago, when the city's gross mismanagement first came to light. After FBI agents caught then-city commissioner Miller Dawkins accepting cash in exchange for his vote, and after then-city manager Cesar Odio was charged with soliciting kickbacks on a city insurance contract, a massive budget deficit was revealed. A contributing factor to the shortfall, according to Merrett Stierheim, the tourism official who agreed to step in as interim city manager while commissioners searched for a replacement, was "friends of friends" in Miami's government, i.e., people winning jobs for "reasons other than merit."
Stierheim could not have made his point more forcefully.
"There are many nonproductive employees that have been placed in jobs without a truly competitive recruitment process," he stated in his final report to the city commission. "I heard this not only from department directors as well as individual employees, but it came across loud and clear in my four meetings with approximately 1500 city employees."
Stierheim, who served for only two months, did not have time to solve the friends-of-friends problem. "I could have lost myself in that maze. There were just too many names," he told me after he returned to his post at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There is absolutely no question that there were a lot of people placed in positions because of who they knew or who they were related to."
The man now at the city's helm, Ed Marquez, is aware of the problem and aspires to solve it. But he admits it's a difficult task. "The trouble with this issue is that many people get their jobs from who they know. That is the way the world works," he explains. "And everybody is telling me that this person is bad or that person is bad, and then, the next day, someone else tells me something completely different, that this person is not bad but good."
Amid this quagmire came the January 29 edition of Exito magazine. On page eleven of the Spanish-language weekly was a profile of Conte, complete with a big photo. It was a nice little story that chronicled Conte's Bay of Pigs exploits and told how he'd outwitted and outlasted his captors. I recalled as I skimmed the piece that Odio, a Cuban exile whose parents had both been political prisoners, had been a Brigade supporter. I fleetingly wondered if Conte was a city worker. Turned out he is. According to a directory of City of Miami employees that I keep on my desk, the veteran works 35 hours a week and is paid $12,000 a year. He was hired in 1987. His job title -- Personal Services IV -- gave no clue as to what services he actually provides to the city. Intrigued, I decided to find out. My seemingly simple query led me from the city's Riverside Center office building into Little Havana and back again, and eventually to the Brigade clubhouse.
I find Conte sitting at the end of a long conference table. Looking up from his newspaper, he seems confused when I pose my question:
What do you do for the City of Miami?
To secure a job with the City of Miami, it helps to have a connection.
Cesar Odio entered the bureaucracy in 1980 as an assistant city manager on the recommendation of Maurice Ferre, who was mayor at the time. Odio had worked at Maule Industries, Ferre's family business. Upon being named city manager in 1985, he approved the hiring of other Maule alums: Wally Lee, formerly Odio's boss, became an assistant city manager. Alex Martinez, a superintendent at a Maule subsidiary, landed a job in Solid Waste. "Cesar told me that this guy was a good guy and a good friend he knew from Maule," recalls Eddie Cox, the retired director of the Solid Waste department. "Quite honestly, as it turns out, Alex was a good employee."
Assistant City Manager Carlos Smith, who earns $106,000 per year, is a member of the Miami Rowing Club, as is Odio. Ari Fernandez, Solid Waste assistant director, is an Odio family friend from Havana.
"In the past seven or eight years, every person hired at the city was hired because of their last name," claims Community Development Coordinator Frank Castaneda, a high-ranking official with twenty years of city experience. "They can be competent, good employees, but even if they weren't, they'd still be hired."