Wheels of Fortune

Why are the county's Metrobus drivers such a happy lot? Maybe because some earn more than $90,000 per year.

The dearth of local funding not only limits bus service but hampers the county's efforts to obtain outside funding. "If you're going after federal dollars, the federal officials need to feel confident and comfortable that local dollars are going to be there," Volinsky observes.

While MDTA drains more and more money out of Miami-Dade County's general fund to finance the deficit, its flagging bus service is draining the patience of the last people the agency wants to offend: riders.

For example, a group of 100 riders who were "frustrated, annoyed, and just plain tired of the hassles" signed a petition last December requesting that MDTA expand service on Route 35 (from Florida City to Kendall) from once per hour to once every half hour. "If the bus breaks down or just doesn't show up, that is an additional hour of waiting," wrote Victoria Edwards, who collected the signatures and sent them with a letter to MDTA. "There are times when I have waited over two hours for a bus, and this is no exaggeration."

In January the chief of MDTA's public services division, Ruby Hemingway-Adams, responded in a letter reviewed by New Times: "I am sorry to learn that you and other passengers have been experiencing a great deal of difficulty due to the bus failing to arrive on schedule.... In order to provide the Route 35 with 30-minute service seven days a week would cost approximately an additional $1,000,000 a year." Read: It's not going to happen, especially when MDTA has a $24.5 million deficit.

Edwards, a secretary at Miami-Dade Community College, says she never received the letter. She's still irked. She gets out of work at 4:30 p.m, but often does not arrive at her home in the southern part of the county until 7:30. "The people who have all this control, if they could just take the bus sometime and see what it feels like, they'd be more understanding," she says. "Especially when it feels like 100 degrees out there!"

"This union saves the county more money than any other union, but we don't get any credit for it," Talley argues. Sporting a kelly green TWU polo shirt, he is outside the Miami-Dade Transit Agency's Claude Rolfe Northeast Bus Facility on NE 183rd Street. A large lunchroom, known as the drivers' room, has become a polling station for two days. Inside, the message on one of Talley's campaign posters reads: "Eddie Talley has negotiated three lucrative contracts. Not one single giveback to management."

At one end of the room, next to a bulletin board, are perched two voting machines the union has rented from Miami-Dade County. At five o'clock on May 28, the first afternoon of voting, a wall-mounted television blares news that police have arrested Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez and charged him with electoral fraud. "I ain't goin' to vote twice," jokes a portly woman, clad in dark green slacks and light green shirt, the Metrobus uniform. The quip draws a laugh from the two drivers who process her ballot and put it in a padlocked metal ballot box on one of the tables.

It has been a long day for Talley. This morning in federal court, Judge Donald Graham denied a request by five union members for an injunction that would have halted the vote. The five plaintiffs argued that Local 291's election committee had wrongfully declared some union members ineligible to run. They also claimed it was inappropriate to hold the voting over a 24-hour period because that would invite ballot tampering.

Graham ruled that his court had no jurisdiction over a complaint brought against Local 291 because all of the local's members are public employees. The Florida Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), a state agency, was the proper forum for such a case, he determined. But in his decision, Graham observed that "one would have to question some of the things that have occurred" in the union's preparation for the election.

Ezell Robinson, a candidate for union vice-president and one of the plaintiffs, blasted the judge's stance on jurisdiction. "If that's the case, we don't have a day in court," he declared.

Union squabbles have not always taken place in the courtroom. In 1992 the northeast bus garage lunchroom was the scene of a melee that is still talked about. Former union transportation vice president Charles Anderson landed in jail, charged with attempted murder. Anderson spent a year at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, during which time he ignored the advice of public defenders to plead guilty to lesser charges. He eventually represented himself and was acquitted.

Anderson believes that Talley and others were intent on luring him into the fight, to get him suspended and thus removed from the local's executive board. "I was disclosing the corruption within the union. I was pointing out that Miami-Dade County was violating the contract with the union," Anderson claims. "The county was forcing drivers to drive raggedy buses that shouldn't have been on the street. Drivers were driving more than twelve straight hours per day, which was a violation of federal law. Guys were falling asleep at the wheel and having crashes. And nobody was addressing that. I started talking about those things."

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