A Public Servant Goes Public

She ran her department like a pro, but she possessed one thing Alex Penelas and Steve Shiver couldn't tolerate: Integrity

In the spring of this year, Deborah Curtin resigned as director of Team Metro, a county department she helped create in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. At the time of her resignation, Curtin was battling cancer and most people assumed she'd resigned solely for medical reasons. "The official spin by the folks in the manager's office was that I was so ill I couldn't continue," she says. "But that wasn't the whole story."

Curtin is now ready to tell the whole story. During a lengthy interview earlier this month in her Coconut Grove home, 49-year-old Curtin described efforts by Miami-Dade County Manager Steve Shiver to undermine her position and weaken her department, which is responsible for code enforcement throughout unincorporated Miami-Dade. Team Metro inspectors issue fines for a wide range of infractions, from overgrown lots and abandoned vehicles to businesses whose commercial signs violate zoning ordinances. Team Metro enforces the types of laws that affect the aesthetics of a neighborhood. It's the kind of enforcement that residents often love and business owners often think of as a nuisance.

"We had made great strides, and you could see visible improvements in the community," Curtin reports. "Yeah, there were people who were upset, but they had violations and they needed to be held accountable for that."

Deborah Curtin decided she couldn't fight cancer and Steve Shiver simultaneously, so she left county government
Steve Satterwhite
Deborah Curtin decided she couldn't fight cancer and Steve Shiver simultaneously, so she left county government

Curtin believes the person ultimately responsible for her demise was not Shiver but Mayor Alex Penelas. She asserts that one of the reasons Penelas hired Shiver was to dismantle Team Metro, a task Penelas couldn't accomplish while former County Manager Merrett Stierheim was in charge. Shiver, however, was more than willing to do the mayor's dirty work, she alleges. "The real intent on the part of the mayor was to soften enforcement," Curtin charges.

Why would the mayor care about Team Metro? According to Curtin, in recent years she had pushed her officers to be more aggressive in writing citations and demanding compliance with county laws. The result, she says, is that businesses receiving citations, or tickets, regularly complain to the mayor's office. "We crossed a line of tolerance, I think, in the mayor's office," she offers. "Penelas knew I wasn't one to be manipulated or threatened or cowed in the way I do business, so the department had to be taken away from me."

She's speaking out now, she says, because the department she helped create is being decimated by county politics. She also has learned in recent months that the manager's office has forced Team Metro officials to cancel fines for politically connected individuals.

Morale is sinking. Good people are leaving. While many county employees are unable to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, Curtin says she feels an obligation to stand up for them and say some of the things that need to be said.

A native of Buffalo, New York, Curtin arrived in Miami in 1974; within a year she went to work for Dade County. She started out as a secretary, and over the next 27 years was repeatedly promoted. Just before Hurricane Andrew she left the county and began working with her husband. Soon after the storm hit, however, county officials requested that she return to help with the recovery effort. She was asked to take over Project CHART -- Coordinated Hurricane Andrew Recovery Team.

Working out of a trailer behind the South Dade Government Center, Curtin and her staff acted as a clearing-house for information about county services for hurricane victims. She was a good choice for the job since she understood the needs of South Dade. She lived in Country Walk, and her own home was destroyed by the storm.

The basic premise of Project CHART was to offer citizens a mini-county hall, a single place they could go to have their questions answered and their problems addressed, without having to drive all the way downtown.

As a result of its success, Project CHART was expanded, and in October 1994 it became its own county department. Renamed Team Metro, it no longer concentrated on hurricane recovery but on providing services to unincorporated areas throughout the county. The idea was to have Team Metro officials act as advocates for regular citizens, helping them navigate the maze of county agencies.

One problem Curtin identified almost immediately was a lack of coordination among county inspectors responsible for code enforcement. A report of illegal dumping would result in a call to an inspector from the county's solid-waste department. If a vacant lot was overgrown with weeds, an inspector from public works would have to be contacted to write the property owner a ticket. If a business intruded on a sidewalk or right-of-way with an illegal sign, the zoning department would have to be summoned.

Under Curtin this inefficiency was resolved by having inspectors from all those departments reassigned to Team Metro, where they were cross-trained in each others' duties. "We created what I like to call a master inspector, someone who could handle it all," she explains. "You could send one person out to a property instead of two or three inspectors from two or three different departments." Today Team Metro has ten offices around the county, along with 235 employees and a budget of nearly $14 million.

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