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

The more efficient the department's employees became, the more citations they wrote. In addition to issuing tickets, though, Curtin also stressed an education program designed to work with homeowner groups and business associations to warn them of potential problems and appropriate corrective measures. But if those warnings were not heeded, Curtin was determined to see the code enforced through fines and, if necessary, property liens. "The goal," she says matter-of-factly, "is compliance."

In September 1996 Curtin discovered a small lump in her left breast. It was diagnosed as stage-one breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy procedure, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment. For two and a half years the cancer appeared to be in remission, but then in June 1999, an x-ray detected a spot in her left lung. She immediately underwent surgery to remove the nodule, followed by more chemotherapy. Within six weeks of her surgery, she returned to work. "Everything was fine," she recalls.

But in December of last year, her doctor informed her that a recent set of CAT scans revealed a spot in her right lung. Oh shit, she thought, here I go again. After a series of tests, she opted for surgery again. It was scheduled for early February 2001. She anticipated a brief recuperative period, and then, as before, she'd be back at work. "I'm a quick healer," Curtin notes. "I knew I'd be able to bounce back. My intention was to come back."

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

The only uncertainty appeared to be at the county. In November 2000 Stierheim had announced that after three years as manager, he was leaving county government as soon as a replacement could be found. In January Penelas announced the appointment of Shiver.

This past February 1, five days before she entered the hospital for surgery, Curtin met with Shiver. "The first words out of his mouth gave me pause," Curtin remembers. He told her not to worry, that her job was safe. "I didn't realize there was a question that my job might not be safe," she says. "I didn't think it was an issue until he brought it up. It was just the way he said it that made me worry."

Her concerns were heightened when Shiver then launched into an attack on one of her inspectors, who had issued a citation to the owner of a Mazda dealership just outside Homestead. Apparently Shiver and the owner were friends. Curtin knew the case well; it had become a very contentious affair. The Mazda dealership had placed signs improperly along the right of way, and when the owner refused to remove them, the inspector threatened to shut down the business.

Curtin had already disciplined the inspector for making such an absurd statement. Her inspectors can write citations, but they don't have the authority to close a business. The inspector, Curtin explains, was frustrated by the dealership's refusal to take the citations seriously, and he said something stupid in response.

Both the inspector and the car dealer handled the problem badly, Curtin says. Shiver, however, made it clear where his loyalties lay. He declared he would have fired the inspector. "He was letting me know right from the start that he had issues with code enforcement," Curtin relates. Her inspectors were too aggressive. "The fact of the matter was that we were doing a hell of a lot more than ever before because we were concentrating on it. You could see the difference. The violators weren't happy, and in this town they use the political system to express their dismay."

During this first meeting, Curtin told Shiver she was about to appoint a deputy director for her department, someone who would act as her second-in-command. She had gone through a lengthy application and interview process and selected someone from within Team Metro. But Shiver told her not to make the appointment because he already had someone in mind for that job. He wanted to hire a friend from down south, a Homestead police officer who handled code-enforcement issues for the city. It was obvious, Curtin says, that Shiver wanted to install someone he controlled to oversee code enforcement.

Curtin had her surgery on February 6, and despite being on medical leave, she continued working from home, talking to her office every day and communicating with staff through e-mail. She even attended the department's budget hearing in April, though she was still on leave. "I felt so committed to the department," she recounts. "I didn't want to leave them in the lurch, and there was so much I had going that I hadn't completed at Team Metro."

While on leave she also continued speaking regularly with Shiver, who kept telling her he had big plans for her department but offered few specifics. "Our conversations up to that point were very frustrating. Things kept changing. I couldn't get my hands on what the heck was going on," Curtin says. "I didn't know where he was coming from. I couldn't figure it out."

Under Stierheim Curtin's immediate boss was Assistant County Manager Alina Tejeda-Hudak, whom Curtin liked and respected. After Shiver took over, he brought with him one of Homestead's assistant city managers, Alicia Cuervo-Schreiber. He appointed her assistant county manager and gave her oversight of Team Metro. It was clear to Curtin that Shiver was trying to surround her with his own handpicked loyalists.

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