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While the gig paid only $150 per week, publication in the Herald gave Ricker the exposure and credibility rarely dreamed of by the average activist. Soon Ricker was appearing regularly on WLRN radio (91.3-FM). WFOR-TV (Channel 4) named him a citizen of the week. New Times awarded him the honorable title "Best Gadfly 2000." Even the Spanish-language press began reprinting his columns and calling him for radio interviews.
"I did a search the other day on the Internet," Ricker says. "The Washington Post has now quoted the Watchdog, the New York Post twice, Palm Beach [Post], St. Petersburg [Times]. I didn't know that. It's kind of cool."
The Herald column ran for fourteen weeks until Ricker, pleading poverty, decided to take a hiatus from his rounds. Fiedler wasn't exactly crestfallen. "There is some value in having somebody simply as an extra set of eyes," he says. "And this guy loves to go to meetings. How many reporters love to go to meetings? He really enjoys that. Beyond that, is there a public purpose to what he does? I don't know. I don't know exactly who benefits beyond Dan."
In his last year selling pacemakers, Ricker says he earned about $220,000. By the time he quit writing for the Herald, he was flat broke. He is trying to make the Watchdog Report a self-supporting for-profit business, albeit one with the noblest of intentions. He admits it has been a struggle.
The Report, much like Consumer Reports magazine, doesn't accept money from advertisers, lest such money compromise its integrity. Ricker is requesting that corporate subscribers pay $1000 to receive the e-mail installments. Suggested individual subscriptions cost $150. Students should pay $75. That's a lot of money, a lot more than most magazines charge, even political journals. The weekly newspaper Miami Today, which sends reporters to many of the meetings Ricker covers (though not nearly as many) is distributed free of charge.
"The way I see it, I need to take in about $120,000 a year, minimum," Ricker explains. "The first $20,000 will cover my expenses or will be a bonus or whatever; the rest will be my salary. What do reporters make, about $70,000 a year? $80,000? $90,000?"
Actually less than half that, on average.
Although Ricker works diligently to attend more meetings than anyone else, little of what makes government interesting happens in the public eye. Votes frequently are decided in advance, often in backroom discussions with lobbyists or other commissioners. A good reporter illuminates the true workings of government as opposed to merely transcribing what happens in public view. Not that stenographers don't have their place.
"I would say that for what he does, he does it well," says the Daily Business Review's Tony Doris, one of the better government reporters in Miami. "He finds things out and sends them out in telegraphic form. As far as that goes, that's an important role, and no one else does it enough. But he's not an analytical or in-depth reporter. He doesn't have time."
At one point Ricker explored the possibility of incorporating the Watchdog Report as a nonprofit organization. He even began assembling a board of directors. He abandoned the plan when he realized that nonprofit status comes with a host of restrictions on how donated money can be spent. "I could have ended up in jail," he laughs. Ricker insists he is living a "hand-to-mouth" existence, paying his electric bill at Jorge's Pharmacy on Coral Way. Yet he also says he's on target to reach his salary goal.
Only he knows the actual state of his finances. He refuses to divulge, for instance, how many subscribers pay for his service. The Miami Herald purchased a subscription, Tom Fiedler says, though it is not known if the newspaper paid the full $1000 corporate rate. Ricker won't say. Tony Doris gets his report for free, as do the editors of Miami Today and Miami New Times. Ricker pays $2200 per month just to rent his Grove home. He'd love to move, he says, but he can't afford to.
"The other day I was listening to the Public Health Trust discuss indigent health care," he says, "and I looked around the room and realized that I was probably the only indigent person there." Finances have been so precarious as he pursues this project, he says, that he once put a rifle in his mouth and toyed with the thought of pulling the trigger.
"That's how bad it was," he says flatly. "I had been doing this for about a year. My car was broke, so I had to ride to meetings on my neighbor's kid's bicycle. Then my entire list of e-mail addresses was erased from my computer. On the same day the $800 or so I had left in my bank account was wiped out by an ATM scam thing. It looked pretty bleak. And to be honest, that Saturday night I'm sitting there thinking, I did it. I did what I could and maybe it's time to ... It's been a great life or whatever.'"
Ricker has long described his adventure in government in life-or-death terms. Pleading poverty is almost a pastime for him. On January 3, 2000, Herald reporter Tyler Bridges wrote a profile of Ricker with this headline: "Miami-Dade Watchdog will be missed." Ricker was quoted as saying he no longer can afford to serve the public for free. Yet three months later he was back in the Herald with an editorial, still wearing the Watchdog label.