Dan Ricker Wants You!

He's Miami's premier citizen advocate. He attends scads of boring meetings so you don't have to. He's on a mission. And he's going broke in the process.

Hazy florescent lights bathe the room in a sickly green tint. It is so somberly quiet that Ricker can hear the ticking of the watch worn by the man sitting next to him. Around the conference table, committee members bandy about arcane terms: surplus funds, the 1954 transit agreement.

The paperwork Ricker just picked up indicates this is something called the manager's finance committee. The task before the committee this afternoon is to review "the financial advisor's review of various unsolicited bids related to aviation facilities bonds and past bonds." A second packet is titled, "Updated restructuring info relating to the Miami-Dade County Aviation Facilities revenue bonds."

This is probably a very important meeting. Bonds mean millions of dollars in taxpayer money, funds the county has a history of misspending at the airport. Ricker seems more impressed by the presence of a minor political celebrity.

Dateline Coconut Grove: Burrowed into the Watchdog Report base camp
Steve Satterwhite
Dateline Coconut Grove: Burrowed into the Watchdog Report base camp
Dateline Coconut Grove: Burrowed into the Watchdog Report base camp
Steve Satterwhite
Dateline Coconut Grove: Burrowed into the Watchdog Report base camp

"See that guy?" he whispers excitedly, indicating a dark-haired man seated near the head of the conference table. "That's Ed Marquez, the former Miami city manager!"

As if on cue, Marquez, who works these days as the senior vice president at a private bond firm, speaks up. "I've got Rudy here from our Dallas office, who can walk us through the nuances of a tender program," he explains to the room. Rudy, who is sitting next to Ricker, stands up and proceeds to lecture for ten minutes on the subtleties of a tender program. To lay ears Rudy might as well be speaking Russian. Whether or not he understands what is being said, Ricker records nearly every word in a small spiral notebook given to him by a sympathetic Herald scribe.

The meeting is almost unbearably boring, even to the people participating in it. Yet Ricker picks up something from the handouts, a nugget of information compelling enough to stimulate the sensibilities of any journalist covering county hall. "The bid and work to be done by Gilbert Southern Corp. on the northside runway project at the airport is drawing Federal Aviation Administration interest," Ricker jots in his notebook. "The company claims they made a mistake in the bid calculations, and the work could cost over 40 million more to complete. The FAA has threatened to deny all federal funds for this project if the county does not go forward with the lowest bidder."

Ricker's tip is disseminated the following Monday morning in the Watchdog Report. Every week he e-mails his report to a secret list of politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people read the report each week, he insists, though he refuses to reveal his distribution list. Some 400 journalists are included in the readership total, he says, which is what gives the report its teeth. Ricker's electronically distributed serving of spinach is a dense digest of the past week in government, presented in bullet form. He reduces almost every one of the dozens of meetings he attends to a one-paragraph summary. Not everything is interesting. Some examples:

"-- Millions of tires dumped in canals and lakes contribute to flooding problems throughout our community. Frank Vecin commander of the environmental unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department said that recently they have taken 150 cars out of lakes. This unit seems determined to make a dent in this county-wide problem. He believes that this dumping is being done in an organized way.

"-- The County Manager's Office is in disagreement with the Miami-Dade Inspector General's office over its findings in the assignment of Globetrotter's lease to Carnival Rent A Car. This disagreement exemplifies the independent nature of the I.G. In the county organizational chart the I.G.'s office is an independent agency. At Tuesday's commission meeting the I.G. will present its findings.

"-- Channel 10 reporter Olga Bichachi was in the pressroom while Miami-Dade school board member Manty Sabates Morse lectured her from the dais. Morse was unhappy about the recent negative stories on school construction."

There's not a lot of analysis. Little of the information is ranked according to news value. An entire report can be a tough meal to digest.

"There's this peppermint soap that has been sold in health-food stores since I was a hippie 30 years ago," says Glenn Terry, a long-time Grove activist. "It's called Dr. Bronner's soap. On the bottle Dr. Bronner filled up the label with everything he thought was important, the peppermint, the other ingredients, and such. I look at all the words printed on the label, and it's too much to comprehend. I see Dan [and his Watchdog Report] as a Dr. Bronner with his soap bottle. It's hard to read it all. It's hard to read any of it after a while."

Herald opinion section editor Tom Fiedler shares Terry's view. "Dan's shortcoming is that he has all the eagerness of a young reporter. He gets involved, and he wants to share all his information," Fiedler offers. "But he doesn't really have the skills yet. I think it does take some training."

Back in September 1999, when Ricker was still only sending occasional e-mails to Herald reporters, Fiedler offered to run a compilation of Ricker's observations as a weekly column in that paper. "The guy is kind of endearing," recalls the editor. "He was doing this Internet stuff. It wasn't really polished or professional, but his passion was obvious. He was going to meetings from 7:00 a.m. on, every day, to places where reporters aren't going. At the time we didn't really have anything at the Herald that attempts to get at little inside-baseball nuggets. So we thought we'd polish his writing a bit and give him a column. That was the hope. The reality is it didn't quite reach the level we had anticipated. Frankly I don't know if there was enough of a response."

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