Gelber Unbound

He managed to leave office without being indicted, which may explain why Miami Beach's former mayor feels free to unload on development, corruption, and the bad boys across the bay

Hobbled as he is, Gelber plans to spend much of today working on the memoir he's writing for his grandchildren. "I have a strong sense of family history," he says. The project began as a scrapbook full of faded documents marking his parents' third-class steerage from Austria to New York City, sepia photographs ("I always thought that was me on the horse with the cowboy hat, but I just found out that's my brother," he says of one little boy pictured), and birth certificates. He's been researching and compiling it all into a narrative and has gotten as far as the late Forties, when the entire family moved to Miami Beach. With them came former Army Sgt. Seymour Gelber, who had served in the Army of Occupation in Japan.

The next section will cover his legal career: his graduation from the University of Miami Law School in 1953, his time as a prosecutor under State Attorney Richard Gerstein, and his fifteen-year tenure as a juvenile court judge. He left the bench in 1989, two years before he became mayor.

As he fills his memoir with his own experiences, recent political events in Miami-Dade give him plenty of fodder for his next section, on his late-in-life political career.

With all the recent indictments of politicians, people in the private sector are discussing a concerted effort to stamp out corruption in government. Is this just a lot of talk?

People are beating their breasts, and they'll have marches against corruption, and that's okay. It'll arouse the community. I think we have to look at corruption in structural terms, in the infrastructure of how government works. My philosophy is that in order to have decent government, you have to have friction. There has to be an uncomfortable feeling in everyone who's in office, that "Someone else is looking at me." Otherwise people get too comfortable and sometimes slide into doing things for one another.

What about the City of Miami, the election, vote fraud, and rotating mayors and city managers? What really stands out in your mind as signs that people were too comfortable?

I don't think the City of Miami has operated differently for 20, 30 years. It's always been a very close-knit operation, with a certain power structure inside and outside of government, and it was there long before Hispanics took over. It's embedded in the city. It's so encrusted you'd have to first set off an atom bomb to blow everything up.

The City of Miami Beach has a long reputation of being a corrupt city. I've been here 50 years now, going back to the days when the commissioners were owned by the [mob] syndicate and the hotels. They didn't have any codes of ethics or lobbying or anything, and they were a very comfortable group. Nobody bothered them, and the community accepted it.

Whose responsibility is it to break up that kind of cozy situation?
It has to be done by the officeholders themselves, and the only way that could happen would be if groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Non-Group and Mesa Redonda -- if they put enough pressure on the elected people.

You were a prosecutor. What about the role of the State Attorney's Office in rooting out corruption?

One of the basic things that has been overlooked is how the government operates internally. To fight corruption, you go to the roots, not who's going to root it out. Beefing up the prosecutor's office and the police, sure, that's okay. But the more significant way to fight corruption is internally, to build up forces within the city, checks and balances. You have to start digging right into the heart of government, and not just sit back and say, "We're going to refer this to that State Attorney."

The State Attorney has done a decent job, but that's defensive. You have to go on the offensive. Leadership can create an environment that, if you commit a corrupt act, the likelihood is high that you will be detected and arrested. That will is not there in most governmental operations.

And this is the responsibility of elected officials? Who do you think could assume this kind of role countywide?

There are people like Jimmy Morales and Katy Sorenson and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Betty Ferguson on the county commission. There are some high-quality county commissioners who would be more than adequate at doing something like that. But you need not only elected officials but the managers, too. That's my response on corruption. Nobody has asked me, though. [He laughs.]

You've had this sort of pent up for a while.
Well, I've been thinking about it, waiting to see what they're going to do.

What about this area's tendency to re-elect the indicted?
Well, [jailed former Miami City Commissioner Humberto] Hernandez might run this afternoon and get elected again because of some personal feelings his supporters have. That generally doesn't happen in the political field. The voters don't have a bond with the officeholder in 90 percent of the cases. With [Raul] Martinez they did. With Hernandez they did. But I can tell you that here on the Beach, I thought I was fairly popular, but I didn't have any bond. Nobody would say, "I'm gonna vote for Gelber no matter what." I mean, if the first thing came out that I beat my wife Edith or something, I'm gone. And that's good. Penelas is very popular right now, but if something happens next week, he's gone.

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