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Late in the afternoon on a recent Wednesday, the Metropolitan Planning Organization meets in the county commission chambers. Up on the dais, Commissioner Natacha Seijas is droning on about the necessity of widening a street in her Hialeah district. Only a couple of lobbyists sit in the gallery, joined by a handful of bureaucrats waiting to answer questions. Technically this is a public hearing, a chance for the residents affected by the street widening and other transportation matters to voice their opinions. No one from the public has spoken.
"They don't have time to be here," Seijas explains, leaning forward to speak into a small microphone. "They are working too hard. They are trying to raise the quality of life for their children, so they don't have time to be here. When they come home from work, they watch TV. They're tired."
But there is, in fact, one member of the public in attendance. And he's furiously scribbling notes. Meet Dan Ricker, a dapper gent who dresses in a double-breasted blue linen suit and slicks his hair back with pomade. Ricker is utterly convinced that there is a fruitful role for him to play in government. And for precisely the reason Seijas just articulated.
Ricker works as a sort of freelance citizen, attending every gathering of the Miami-Dade County Commission, the Miami City Commission, the Public Health Trust, and the school board, as well as countless obscure meetings that few people have neither the time for nor the interest in attending.
"He's very cool," comments Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "He goes everywhere, every time there is a meeting. He attends more meetings than an elected official. And these meetings are usually boring. Absolutely boring."
Ricker does not know boredom. He can think of few things more exciting than a zoning dispute. School board land purchases work him into a frenzy. A city commission debate about the illegal dumping of tires can keep him jazzed for hours. That's why he's taken a scalpel to his life and pared away anything that might distract him from his patriotic mission. No job. No time for his girlfriend. No room for virtually anything else.
"I see myself as an information electrolyte," says the 49-year-old Ricker, who until a few years ago worked as a salesman. "My goal is to improve the communication of all these interrelated governmental entities so that they can better work together."
Unfortunately there is not much money to be made as an electrolyte. None of the bodies Ricker monitors pays him for his labors. He exists solely on donations and voluntary subscriptions to his weekly Internet government digest, the Watchdog Report. Although he envisions a six-figure income for his work, he's been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for more than a year.
"Dan's on a mission that people don't quite understand," says his Coconut Grove neighbor Glenn Terry. "I know I don't understand it. But he's obsessed. He can't stop. I'm not sure if what he's doing serves any good. I'd like to think that it does."
Ricker is in his office, on the second floor of his Coconut Grove home, trying to explain what he hopes to accomplish with the Watchdog Report. So far his analogies run to fertilizer. "I feel like Miracle-Gro," he observes. "If we can get people excited -- give them hope -- then we can change government. If through what I'm doing I can activate two people out there to get involved, and then they go out and each activate one other person, then ... we can change society in a very random yet profound and aggregate way."
The office is littered with paper, countless agendas, budgets, and business cards. Schedules of public meetings hang by thumbtacks. Near the door he displays a few e-mails he's received from supporters: "Dan, I can't believe that anyone interested in the public process doesn't already subscribe to your newsletter!" writes Harve Mogul, chairman of the United Way of Greater Miami. "You really do perform a service ... and save people like me a bunch of time!"
Ricker depends on these fans for more than moral support. It was a booster who donated the new Gateway computer system on the desk in front of him. A copy editor reads his Internet roundup each week for free. A Grove lawyer represents him pro bono. Someone gave him a free cell phone. Written on the checks that supporters send him are the words he has adopted as his mantra: "Keep going!"
Ricker never thought he'd be so reliant on the kindness of strangers. Heck, he never thought he'd be involved in government. When he was a boy he wanted to be a spy. In school he developed a fascination with China, along with a talent for electrical engineering. He assumed he would take a position with the CIA, yet after college he found himself in another career that combined his interests. He became a heart pacemaker salesman, working in Asia.
For two decades he shuttled between the United States and the Far East. He lived in Japan. He lived in Australia for a while. In the early Nineties, he won an assignment in Miami, a city he loves more than Sydney. He bought a condo in the Grove and fell in with the kind of governmental activists that flourish like the neighborhood's ficus trees. In 1992 Ricker circulated petitions calling for the Grove's municipal independence from Miami.