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.

A second slip of paper in the file commemorates a technical change of Conte's title, in April 1988, to Personal Services IV. There is no indication of a change in duties. The file lacks even one annual performance review, the standardized form that composes the bulk of most employee records. No name is listed as Conte's supervisor.

Manuel Artime, where Conte ostensibly works, is a gathering place for Miami's Cuban community, a theater and community center housed in a massive, weathered church at 900 SW First St. The white steeple shows stains of rust and mildew; a marquee out front advertises an upcoming show: Tropical Night.

When I arrived at midday the doors to the center were not locked. The several community groups that keep one-room offices on Artime's three floors, though, appeared to be closed. A door bearing a nameplate for the National Association for Crime Prevention was locked, as was the one for an association of exile journalists. One door seemed relevant to Brigade member Ramon Conte: Room 208, Jefatura Militar Conjunta Brigada 2506. But there was no answer when I knocked.

On the main floor, behind a glass door festooned with the City of Miami logo, sat a receptionist flipping through a crowded Rolodex. Catching her eye, I asked where I could find Ramon Conte.

"He does not work here," she answered, but twirled through her Rolodex to a plain white business card embossed with Conte's name and the Brigade 2506 shield. "I think he works over at the Brigade house," she said, jotting, down the address for me on a yellow Post-It note. "I think you can find him there."

Before I headed over to the Brigade clubhouse, I put in a phone call to Christina Abrams, director of the Department of Conferences, Conventions, and Public Facilities. In addition to maintaining the Orange Bowl and the city's marinas, Abrams oversees the operation of Manuel Artime. I asked her what city work Conte performs at the community center. "I do not know who Ramon Conte is," she replied, clearly perplexed. "He is not on my budget and I do not supervise him."

Although he was interim city manager only briefly, Merrett Stierheim took a stab at the friends-of-friends problem. On September 30 he drafted a memo to his top managers ordering them to submit to him a list of all friends of friends. He distributed the memo to all nineteen department directors and assistant city managers.

Only one person replied.
Elbert Waters, director of the Department of Community Development, also oversees the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team, a system of thirteen satellite city offices. In a memo to Stierheim dated October 4, Waters proposed downsizing the number of NET service centers to eight. He also attached an organizational chart with his suggested layoffs, including an optional layoff list of six people whom he labeled "political." All of them were unclassified Odio hirees. Though Waters also described the employees as "hard-working/asset to the dept.," he detailed for Stierheim the potential savings from their termination.

"I was pretty upset," recalls Ellie Haydock, administrator of the East Coconut Grove NET, whose name was on the list. "I felt that, fine, anybody can have an opinion. But if you have that opinion, you must be able to substantiate it." Waters has not answered Haydock's written request for an explanation, leaving her guessing as to what her political connection might be.

Allapattah NET Administrator Edward Borges's name was on the list too. "I have worked my way up from Clerk to Clerk II through testing and interviews to Zoning Inspector to NET Administrator in 1994," he harangues, speculating that his marriage to Dulce Borges, Odio's long-time assistant, is behind his inclusion. Although he's not sure if that's the case -- Waters hasn't elaborated -- Borges is not happy with the political label. "I feel it was unfair. I have been with the city for eleven years. I feel I have earned my position."

Stierheim fired none of the people on the list. Waters no longer wants to talk about it. "That list caused me a lot of grief," he says. "The list is still out there, I'm going to let it speak for itself. All I will say is that I have not recanted."

A personnel department employee was able to clarify for me that although Conte officially works at Manuel Artime, he is assigned to the Department of Community Development -- Elbert Waters's department -- which exists solely to acquire and distribute the millions of dollars in grant money the city receives each year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is earmarked for social services to the poor and elderly, and for revival of blighted neighborhoods.

Basheva Wright is Waters's administrative assistant. She knows who Ramon Conte is, but not much else about him. "He doesn't work for Community Development," she told me when I stopped by her office at Riverside Center. "He works for another department. We just do the payroll. That happens all the time. You know that, don't you? That's just the way the system is." She scurried over to a file cabinet. "He does maintenance or security work somewhere, I think. I have a file for him somewhere around here." She laughed heartily. "I had to create one to cover my butt, okay?"

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