Born to Lose

Created after the 1980 riots, the Metro Miami Action Plan was supposed to level the playing field for blacks. What happened?

About two dozen men and women are assembled around a conference-room table in a small building on the campus of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center on a Friday morning in late February. Even though pictures of endangered turtles and a plastic cast of a 300-pound tuna hang on the wall, this is not an environmental meeting. Nonetheless there is a certain irony to this workshop being held at an agency that strives to prevent species extinction. The group gathered here today, the Metro Miami Action Plan (MMAP) Trust, has been endangered almost since the day it was born.

Yet despite MMAP's threatened status, it has stubbornly managed to hold on to existence for more than a decade and a half.

Billed as a "community's commitment to itself," MMAP was created in 1983 to do nothing less than eliminate the disparities between the black community and the rest of Dade County. After fifteen years of questionable success and frequent criticisms, the county's Audit and Management Services Department investigated and released a blistering review of the organization on July 31, 1998. The audit painted a picture of an organization adrift, highlighting administrative mismanagement, lack of strategic planning, and most important, deficient financial accountability. MMAP never tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars given to community-based organizations to learn if the money had produced any meaningful results. Auditors also observed an employee in MMAP's downtown office asleep and another often idle, reading newspapers.

The findings have helped land MMAP on County Manager Merrett Stierheim's list of errant departments. (Along with MMAP, stalking the hall of shame known as the Manager's Watch are nine county departments and agencies including the parks and recreation department, the aviation department, the building and zoning department, the water and sewer department, and the corrections and rehabilitation department.) An assistant county manager is currently conducting almost weekly meetings with MMAP administrators in an attempt to get the agency to implement reforms.

The audit is not alone in making this a treacherous time for MMAP. A 1992 ordinance gives the county commission the opportunity to eliminate MMAP, which has had an average annual budget of $2.5 million, in the year 2001. And county commissioners are watching. "The organization is on notice to correct matters," says Terry Murphy, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Millan, who has emerged as a critic of MMAP (Millan would not comment for this story). Time appears to be running out for the group. But don't count MMAP out. In the past when critics came gunning for the organization, it always dodged the bullet.

Today at the strategic planning session, under the gaze of a mounted fish, business consultant Donna Ginn is urging board members and staff to confront, and then move beyond, a sixteen-year-old dirty but open secret: MMAP was set up to fail. The agency was never given the resources or the assistance to accomplish such a lofty mission, some say. Instead it became a relatively inexpensive way to appease the black community, or at the very least, its political leaders.

"It was never designed to do anything, so whether it did anything has never been relevant," says T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami. "Politically it is very significant; from a county budgetary point of view, it is absolutely insignificant."

To become relevant MMAP must reinvent itself, Ginn tells those at the strategic planning session. "You have to ask yourself as an organization, what is the truth that you don't want to face?" she prods.

Ginn says she senses MMAP board members and staff operate defensively, out of the constant fear their days are numbered. She tells them it is not enough just to survive. "What is driving you as an organization is the need to justify your existence," she suggests.

"What drives me is the condition of Miami-Dade's black community," retorts Sherwood DuBose, MMAP's president and CEO, who has been with the organization since 1986. It's a condition of inequality and despair that has yet to improve measurably. Miami-Dade County's black community is among the poorest in the nation; statistically Liberty City and Overtown lag far behind in almost every indicator, including employment, income levels, and education. The poverty, the lack of home ownership, the school dropout rates, inaccessible health care, and the scarcity of black-owned businesses are what MMAP seeks to change, DuBose asserts.

To its credit MMAP has funded, through minor monetary awards, a raft of programs, groups, and conferences that can be labeled successes. A grant of $500,000 in two parts, the first of which came in 1996, helped establish a credit union in North Miami-Dade that after a little more than a year of operation has 840 members. Another $50,000 over two years funded a program to provide clothing, education, and medical services to women struggling to get off welfare. Sonia Jacobson, executive director of the Coral Gables-based Suited for Success program, acknowledges the grants were just a drop in the bucket in her annual budget of more than $500,000. But it was $50,000 her organization didn't have to scrounge to find.

For L. George Yap a $100,000 grant that MMAP gave his Leasa Industries Company in 1996 at the urging of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek saved his business at a time when he could not make payroll and no bank would loan him the money. "It kept the business going," Yap says. "That is why we are in existence today." The 58-year-old Jamaican native employs more than 65 workers, many of whom were previously on welfare or in prison. He has long been one of the few tenants in the Poinciana Industrial Center in Liberty City, a state enterprise zone that was also designed to lift the black community out of poverty, but has yet to make much of a dent.

Yap's factory, which produces tofu, sprouts, and packaged vegetables, is tucked behind a fence topped by barbed wire. A security guard stands watch at the gate to prevent any recurrence of robberies like the kind that took place in 1995. Yet despite crime and bureaucratic hurdles, Yap plans to expand into a site next door, an expansion that could produce 40 to 50 new jobs. "MMAP really helped me out," he says.

There are two different versions of why MMAP was created. Both seem to have elements of the truth. The first is that MMAP is the product of one of the worst crises to strike Miami: the 1980 riots. The acquittal of four white policeman of manslaughter charges for the beating death of a black insurance salesman named Arthur McDuffie enraged a disaffected and frustrated inner city. After three days of destruction and violence that left eighteen people dead and the National Guard patrolling the streets, a stunned county leadership emerged from its command post in desperate need of solutions to calm a worried populace. In response community leaders came together across ethnic lines, from both the public and private sector, and created MMAP.

The other story is not quite so altruistic. In 1982 another outbreak of violence in Overtown focused blame on then-Mayor Steve Clark; critics claimed his administration had abandoned the black community and, despite the riots, had done little to alleviate the conditions of poverty that fueled the upheavals. Clark, facing re-election, spearheaded three months of community meetings in search of a large enough bone to hand over to his angry constituents. In this scenario MMAP was always more about political expediency than actual results.

"It was all show," Fair believes. "That is the nature of ethnic politics. You must have something to offer the various members of the electorate and [Clark] had nothing to [offer] to the black community."

Whatever the reason, months of meetings cohosted by Richard McEwen, then-chairman of Burdines, led to an unprecedented gathering of more than 800 business executives, black activists, politicians, and school officials in the summer of 1983. "How can we rescue the black community from poverty, anger, and disaffection? That's what they wanted to do," remembers Marvin Dunn, a professor at Florida International University who has written extensively on the riots. "Something that would involve the power structure of the community."

By many accounts the two-day meeting was a watershed. "Any number of conferees, blacks and whites alike, said they had never felt so encouraged as by the attendance, the candid exchanges of views, and the breadth of concern," the Miami Herald editorialized.

The group adopted 176 recommendations for "actions" to be taken on behalf of the black community. The actions were divided into broad categories: education and job training; economic development and employment; sensitizing the criminal justice system; and housing. Most of the proposals were amorphous and unenforceable, more for the purposes of advocacy than action. For instance in one such action MMAP would encourage businesses to hire more black employees. A few were more pointed, like a call for stricter code enforcement and restraint training for police recruits. In a lunge for the high ground that also conveniently sidestepped the thorny issue of accountability, the framers titled the plan "a community's commitment to itself."

In the first year, the county ponied up $300,000 to establish an eleven-person MMAP bureaucracy to shepherd the action items to completion. It made the organization a minidepartment and staffed it with county employees. The City of Miami also contributed by assigning two of its staff members as well. But the government's commitment was not matched by the private sector.

"Everybody showed up in the beginning," Dunn recalls. "Then after the first few meetings, CEOs and others in top positions began to send their assistants to the meetings. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. By the end of the first year, [it] had become just a shadow of its original self."

By the second year of operation, MMAP could point to some small accomplishments. At that point its mission was still largely to advocate for programs and initiatives that other agencies would enact. With the help of then-State Sen. Carrie Meek, MMAP convinced state legislators to set aside money from a tax on commercial real estate for housing in low-income neighborhoods. The organization took partial credit for a variety of changes and initiatives. The Dade County School Board hired more black administrators. Tax credits were passed to encourage investment in blighted areas of the county. The police got cultural-sensitivity training.

By the end of the first year, when it became apparent that Miami's business community had slinked off, questions surfaced about whether MMAP could ever live up to its promise. Its role as an advocacy group without clout spelled trouble.

"Anybody in his right mind knew that MMAP as it was originally constituted, given the funds allocated, was not going to meet its mission," Fair notes.

By 1986 MMAP's funding from the county hit $2.8 million. That was also the year that Merrett Stierheim, present at MMAP's creation and a major proponent of the organization, stepped down as county manager, a post to which he would return in 1998. About $500,000 of the money that year went to administrative costs. The rest was parceled out as grants to different community groups and programs MMAP's board of directors deemed in line with its mission. MMAP had moved beyond simple advocacy to include underwriting organizations and programs.

A year later MMAP's funding dropped to $2.4 million. Stierheim's successor Sergio Pereira argued that it was an unfocused waste and proposed cutting its budget for the following year by twenty percent. (Program funds for MMAP dropped from $2.1 million in 1987 to $1.9 million in 1988.) Despite the concerns that MMAP's role was too broad -- part advocacy group, part conduit for funding -- no one wanted to take the heat for killing the "commitment" to the black community, especially when inner-city conditions had not noticeably improved. The attitude expressed by MMAP partisans ran along the lines of "it might be flawed but it's all we got." No one could deny the obvious and pressing need for the help MMAP promised.

"The fact that it was focused exclusively on African Americans, it became to the black community a symbol of public commitment, and as such 'don't mess with it,'" Stierheim acknowledges today.

In 1991 allegations surfaced that MMAP board members funneled money into their own institutions and pet projects. County Commissioner Larry Hawkins accused Ed Hanna of the West Perrine Community Development Corporation, who sat on the MMAP board, of voting for projects that benefited his CDC. Hawkins produced minutes that showed the vote. MMAP board members claimed the minutes contained a typographical error and that Hanna actually had recused himself. The county commission temporarily delayed a vote on MMAP's funding, which was to be $1.2 million. Five days later commissioners approved the budget. Shortly after the allegations arose, Hanna resigned from MMAP. (Hawkins refused to comment for this article.) Responds Hanna: "[The record] shows that I even left my chair when votes in which I was involved came up."

Hawkins proposed that MMAP be abolished and in its place a group called the Black Disparity Council be created. This time then-County Commissioner Arthur Teele came to the rescue with a stay of execution in the form of a new plan for the organization. Teele says he studied MMAP and its accomplishments and concluded that it had a positive impact. "I figured out that MMAP has done a thousand little things but in terms of ... reducing the disparity between blacks and all other groups, MMAP has done very little," Teele says today. "But the fact of the matter is ... you would need a checkbook the size of Fort Knox to tackle [that]."

In 1992 in a six-to-one vote, the commission passed Ordinance 92-12, which transformed MMAP from a county agency to a public trust, giving it quasi-independent status. As a public trust MMAP could now look for other sources of funding outside the county. The ordinance slimmed down MMAP's board from 35 to 21 members, who would be chosen by a nominating board. In addition the legislation insisted that MMAP create and execute five-year strategic plans. The ordinance tried to wean MMAP from its dependence on the county. It set the year 2001 as the time by which the organization was supposed to be able to stand on its own. The commission did, however, leave open the option of a ten-year extension.

"We went through a process which was not popular by any standard, of trying to ensure that MMAP ... focus more in priority areas," Teele says.

Five years later, in February 1997, then-Commissioner Bruce Kaplan asked for an audit of the organization. It took more than a year, and by the time it was released in July 1998, Kaplan was no longer around to see the results. (He resigned in April 1998 as part of a deal in which he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of filing false financial disclosure forms.)

The county's audit described an office in disarray. During work hours the phone went unanswered. One staffer had been allowed to work at home with little monitoring. The employee, who had been ill, billed the organization for 180 hours during a five-month period. MMAP's president DuBose, who earns a base salary of a little over $100,000, describes the case as a management decision he still stands by. "I was satisfied with what was being done," he insists.

County auditors disagree. "We were not getting sufficient evidence to justify the individual being paid for that entire time," says Cathy Jackson, director of the audit department. "Based on the information that [MMAP] did furnish, I think she worked at best, and we were being somewhat liberal, two weeks."

DuBose took issue with much of the audit findings, noting that a staff member who was observed sleeping takes medication and that MMAP does not have the money to pay for a receptionist. "The audit does not point out that MMAP is understaffed to carry out its mission," DuBose replied as a stock answer to many of the audit's conclusions.

Auditors did not disagree that MMAP was underfunded for its goal of eliminating disparity between the black and wider communities, but unlike in the past, that was no longer an acceptable excuse. "From time to time MMAP has said they have not had sufficient personnel so they can effectively accomplish their mission," Jackson observes. "Our goal was to bring to their attention that they have some productivity issues that certainly needed to be addressed in order for them to be able to go forward and justify the need for additional personnel."

The auditors found that despite the passage of years, MMAP was relatively unknown in Miami-Dade County. MMAP had also made little progress toward its goal of independence in 2001.

But by far the most troubling finding of the audit was the poor financial accounting. MMAP, which has received about $13.6 million in county money since 1994, failed to measure how successful its efforts had been among many of the projects it had funded. For example, from 1994 to 1997 MMAP provided $414,000 in grants to community-based organizations to build low- and moderate-income family housing. MMAP's records reveal little about what that money actually provided. "Lack of documentary evidence has overshadowed MMAP's claimed accomplishments," the auditors reported. "The organization has not effectively followed through monitoring the performance of its grant recipients, making it uncertain if desired program results have been achieved, particularly job creation and business development."

A copy of the audit was delivered to each commissioner. Natacha Millan expressed special concern, according to Jackson. "The entirety of the [audit] was alarming," says Terry Murphy, the commissioner's chief of staff. Rumors that Millan would try to eliminate MMAP using the audit results as justification reached Representative Meek's office in Washington, D.C. Meek says she called Millan to discuss the matter. "Because of the special relationship with Natacha that I have I can do that," she maintains. (Murphy insists that the commissioner never intended to eliminate MMAP's budget.) The upshot of their conversation was that Millan would wait to see what MMAP would do to fix its problems.

In response to the audit, MMAP pledged to establish more thorough accounting practices. But it also lashed out at those whose support had faltered through the years. "Most of all the audit does not address that MMAP failures are failures of the community itself," DuBose wrote. "Leadership from all segments of the community abandoned MMAP and did not provide the resources for MMAP to reach its maximum benefit to the community."

In addition DuBose and MMAP board members argue that the audit failed to mention the verifiable successes the organization has had.

"One of the implications that people could get from reading the audit is that maybe there has been no impact from MMAP," says Bradford Brown, the director of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center and a MMAP board member who has volunteered with the organization since 1984. "A little legwork in the community would have gotten rid of that impression very quickly."

In particular Brown points to a community of about 8000 people in South Miami-Dade called West Perrine. In the past ten years, the West Perrine Community Development Corporation has managed to re-energize and begin to transform the area's urban blight. Some of it has to do with the director of the CDC, Ed Hanna.

A man seemingly in perpetual motion, Hanna is proud to show off the accomplishments of his group. In his burgundy Chevy Blazer, he gives a quick tour of West Perrine, which stretches south from SW 168th Street to SW 187th Street, and from South Dixie Highway and 107th Avenue to the east and west respectively. Hanna points out the rows of new single- and multifamily homes that have been erected since Hurricane Andrew. He drives by the stripmall, the office building, and the community center that have all been built in the past decade through public/private partnerships and grants from federal, state, and county institutions.

His pride and joy is the South Florida Design Center that the CDC built. The building consists mainly of a large room where drawings of the various projects underway line the walls. The CDC gives advice to other impoverished communities on how best to develop. But these groups need to come to Hanna with a plan and a willingness to work, he says.

According to MMAP West Perrine's accomplishments would not have been possible without the organization's help. A frequent complaint of MMAP staff is that the groups they help never give them credit. "MMAP was the first organization to come to the aid and provide resources so that [West Perrine] could begin to operate," board member Brown argues.

DuBose goes even further: "None of that would have been there without us," he asserts.

Hanna does not minimize the importance of the $647,000 that MMAP has given the CDC in the past six years. The community often leveraged MMAP funding into additional grants, he says. MMAP dollars are also sufficiently flexible so that they can be used to fill in short gaps, whereas other funding that is legally earmarked for specific areas cannot. As much as $300,000 of MMAP's grants to West Perrine were used to shore up the Community Home Buyers Program that allowed 392 homes to be sold to low-income families.

Still it is clear that any West Perrine achievement owes its existence to a lot more than MMAP. For example, the entire West Perrine housing project cost more than $15 million. More important, West Perrine has managed to create a unified sense of purpose. Hanna says he never builds a house before he has a buyer. The emphasis is on assessing the needs of the community and then starting on small projects to address them. The CDC then builds on each success. Its development work is planned and focused. "You have to have a handle on what is going on in your neighborhood," Hanna says.

County Manager Merrett Stierheim has appointed one of his assistants, Barbara Jordon, to work with MMAP to resolve the issues raised by the audit. Jordon says before the February planning session: "If they can come up with a plan where they are much more focused, the outcomes will have a greater impact ... but if it is going to be where you take your resources and you are still trying to concentrate on a vast program, it is going to get lost."

She believes that prioritizing means allowing certain pressing needs to go unaddressed for the time being. It also demands accountability. The shift is almost painfully difficult for MMAP, whose purpose was predicated on advancing all the issues facing the black community all at once. "It is always difficult to cut off something that you love," Jordon says.

The difficulty is apparent at the planning session, the goal of which is to create a five-year strategic plan. The last such plan ended in 1998. MMAP board members delayed work on charting their next five years out of pique that the county commission had bypassed them to fund what they considered a duplicative Mayor's Task Force on Urban Economic Revitalization. "We wanted to find out where we stood," Sherwood Dubose explains.

MMAP got an answer with the audit. After its release the county manager's office demanded a five-year plan be formulated immediately.

At the meeting MMAP staff member Ralph McCloud's frustration finally boils over. "We have let Uncle Bubba paint us into a corner with this ambitious task and then [he] says we haven't accomplished it," McCloud seethes. "It's a sin." McCloud is a job-training specialist employed by the City of Miami on loan to MMAP since 1987. He has been involved in two of MMAP's more successful efforts: the nonviolent training workshops and more recently, the Miami-Dade County Teen Court, which aims to steer first-time offenders away from crime.

This is where tonight, on the second floor of the South Dade Government Center, teenagers mete out punishments of community service and teen-court jury duty to minor offenders, under the watchful eyes of adults. Victoria Osorio, a mother whose sixteen-year-old son Carlos walked out of a store wearing a hat without paying for it and into the arms of a security guard, is thrilled with teen court. "It gives him a lesson in civics," she says, adding that she hopes it will wake him up. She has already grounded him for two weeks. In addition the teen-court jury adds fifteen hours of community service and four turns as a juror at the court. Carlos thus becomes one of the 200 postarrest cases McCloud believes will be heard before the end of the school year. Both teens and adults who have participated in the court lavish praise on it, but it is only a small step in addressing youth violence and crime in the inner city.

Today at MMAP's strategic planning session, such achievements are overshadowed by the organization's flaws.

Consultant Donna Ginn tries to get the group to acknowledge their contradictions and forge a new identity. Is it a funding or an advocacy program? How much control should the board have over the staff? How can it be both a nonprofit environment and a government agency?

McCloud gives some history. "The [1992] ordinance was an order of execution for MMAP that we turned around and made into a new life," he says. "We were driven away from advocacy for survival."

Ginn tries to get the group to move forward. "You can't keep returning to what keeps you down," she says. She uses her own example as a successful black businesswoman. Originally from Ohio, she was an executive with Procter and Gamble before moving to Miami. "I live in a community based on segregation that was never resolved," she tells them. "I'm not going to let environmental conditions put me out of where I want to be."

The MMAP staffers and board members struggle with the message, returning again and again to the community's failure to its commitment. "When MMAP was started, the larger community saw it as a way to [prevent] a riot," Bradford Brown says. "If you don't have a riot, they don't care."

By the time MMAP is actually creating a strategic plan it is 5:00 p.m. and there are eight people left in the room.

In the end those remaining limit MMAP's strategic goals for the next five years to increasing home ownership, business retention and development, lowering juvenile arrest rates, and raising test scores for students. Ginn forces the group to come up with concrete plans to meet each goal.

One of the most important items on the agenda, planning for independence, is barely touched on. But Ginn leaves them with one thought: She asks them whether they believe in what they are doing enough to continue regardless of whether they stay part of the county or not. When those in the room nod yes, she says, "Then by God you better raise some money."

Later the board discusses and approves the results of the strategic planning session. The board agrees on a plan that includes several measures to give MMAP more financial independence, including securing equity in businesses it helps and buying rental property.

MMAP could be on the road to focusing its efforts, but its ambitions remain large and diverse. Now MMAP must convince the county manager and the commission that it can actually achieve those objectives.

If MMAP survives until 2001, Stierheim promises it will have to prove its viability to continue as part of the county. "If I am here, I would want to feel comfortable that the organization is being effectively managed and operated and that its plan is aggressively realistic, achievable, measurable, and performance-based," he says.

Even if MMAP goes away, Stierheim points out that something like it must continue to exist. "The Achilles' heel of the greater Miami is black economic disparity," he insists.

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