Mission Man

Miami's Downtown commissioner is still fighting, and still hopeful of big change

Johnny Winton hasn't solved many of the mysteries inside Miami government in his two and a half years as city commissioner, but the little man with a quick tongue and a big vision has at least started to unravel a few. Like that of the city's grimy, tattered old downtown, ever languishing in its hodgepodge of discount and dollar stores, decaying facades, and chainlink parking lots.

"Does this look attractive to you?" the stocky, 52-year-old, annoyed New Mexico native asks while his black four-door Cadillac SUV lumbers up Miami Avenue, the foundation of the white Bank of America skyscraper in his rearview mirror. "Look at the fucking sidewalks! There's red paint all over them, yellow paint all over them, steel plates all over the goddam place. Ugly patches all over the roads. Storefronts that look like shit. And that's been a huuuuge frustration for me ... we all talk about how important downtown is, but we never get any money earmarked for [it]."

He has learned, however, that despite complacent administrators and lackadaisical code enforcers, change still seems possible. Last September Winton proposed the city sell municipal bonds in order to generate the cash required to give Miami's pockmarked countenance a contemporary face-lift. His fellow commissioners backed him up and in November, by a 56-to-41-percent margin, voters authorized the city to issue $255 million in bonds to pay for improvements in roadways and parks. In the coming months, amazingly, the city should be spending ten million dollars of that to improve the downtown avenues, sidewalks, and storefronts that make Winton cuss so much.

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
"This is how we promote our downtown," Winton grumbles about the parking lot wasteland
Steve Satterwhite
"This is how we promote our downtown," Winton grumbles about the parking lot wasteland
The commissioner has learned it is possible to enact a visionary development plan in Miami, such as one he recently forged for the railroad corridor in Wynwood
Steve Satterwhite
The commissioner has learned it is possible to enact a visionary development plan in Miami, such as one he recently forged for the railroad corridor in Wynwood
Winton will have to go back to the drawing board to get the Camillus House homeless shelter out of its prime downtown location
Steve Satterwhite
Winton will have to go back to the drawing board to get the Camillus House homeless shelter out of its prime downtown location
Winton (right) has found Commissioner Teele (center) to be both a great teacher and a big enigma
Steve Satterwhite
Winton (right) has found Commissioner Teele (center) to be both a great teacher and a big enigma

But hasn't Miami issued bonds before? "Yeah," Winton snarls. "Remember they used to float bonds back in the good ol' days when you had [former city manager] Cesar Odio fucking everything up, when they would float bonds and use them on general fund stuff instead of capital stuff? They got pissed away."

No mystery there. Winton studied this chapter of dysfunctional city-building long before becoming a commissioner. Had some of the bond money Odio controlled been used on an urban face-lift back in the early Nineties, it would have attracted entrepreneurs and corporations with shiny new commercial and architectural projects. As a result they would in turn have sent millions of additional dollars to the Miami government in the form of tax revenue. And much of the city might not look as sad as it does.

Since his election, however, the brash commissioner has learned anew that owing to a historical lack of planning and foresight by those who rule in Miami's halls of municipal power, obstacles arise at almost every turn. He's not referring only to the long line of orange plastic barricades that come into view as he hangs a left onto NW Third Street, the ones forming a perimeter around the old and new U.S. courthouses and the Federal Detention Center. "You've got the federal government that's now formally taken over our goddam streets since 9/11. So instead of having two lanes around here now you have one." The barricades fit right in with the construction-dig design scheme that utility companies had been randomly providing downtown long before last September.

Winton continues west to the intersection of NW Third Street and NW First Avenue and halts. At his left is a boarded-up ramshackle storefront; up ahead, in the shadows of the Metrorail line and Stephen P. Clark Government Center, lies a vast spread of dumpy parking lots adorned with curtain after curtain of rusty chainlink fencing. "They're leased to the county," he explains. "And look at 'em. Look at 'em. It's a disgrace! Chainlink fence, weeds growing up all over the place. It's just an absolute damn disgrace. And if you get over there in that neck of the woods by the county building itself, the landscaping is atrocious. The grass is a bed of weeds instead of a bed of grass."

The big SUV curves north onto NW First Avenue, then stops in a yellow-lined median area. "I've got to make a phone call," the commissioner says. He dials up his assistant at city hall, Jason Walker, and asks him to call Patty Castro, administrator of the downtown office of the Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET). As such she manages code inspectors who work in that area. "Ask her what kind of code enforcement issues are going on with the parking lots," Winton instructs into his cell phone. "I'm downtown. You know, all those parking lots immediately east of Metrorail. Ask her what kind of code enforcement issues she has going with these properties. And ask her that question innocently. Because if you ask it innocently she's probably going to tell you, 'Oh, none.' But if you say, 'Have you cited them?' there's no telling what she might think up. Because my guess is it's going to be nothing. And if you look at these parking lots, particularly the ones closest to Fifth -- it's a fucking disgrace. Okay? Thanks."

He drives north, passing the old Miami Arena to the right and another, more pristine parking lot surrounded by a chainlink fence on the left. "At least it's relatively clean," he says of the lot. "It at least has some shrubbery around the edge." The commissioner thinks the city should ban chainlink fences downtown. "In fact we ought to do with parking lots here what Teele did in Overtown. And I'll go show you."

He is referring to two small lots on NW Ninth Street that are the result of District Five commissioner Arthur Teele, Jr.'s labors as chairman of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). "They are landscaped. They're supposed to be maintained -- we'll see how well that works out -- but they look attractive," Winton observes as he drives by them, noting they are also devoid of cars. "All the surface lots in downtown Miami -- in downtown Miami of all damn places -- ought to look similar." A block later the chainlink fencing reappears around more empty tracts of asphalt near the old Miami Arena. "They should not look like all of this."


Soon after taking office in November 1999, Winton received a crash course on then-mayor Joe Carollo. "He was supposed to be my buddy," Winton says. But the freshman commissioner learned one of the most obvious lessons of Miami government: No elected official can work with Carollo. Why? "Because he's Joe Carollo! He's a guy that you can't work with. With Joe it was principally his way or no way. And if you got on cross-purposes with him at all he would call you names and it would be very nasty. I remember one time ... where he wanted something. He said, 'Okay, you're the reformer. You ran on a reformer platform. Well, reform! Now is the time to reform!' I don't remember what it was. I didn't see it as reforming ... and voted against it. He was so pissed and just rude to me. And I wanted to ..." He cuts himself off, perhaps sensing the irony of his impulse to throttle Crazy Joe. "I learned how to work with the commission and the mayor went to hell in a handbasket," he concludes.

How did the anti-politician manage to create a good rapport with his fellow commissioners? "The way I was able to develop that kind of thing was, one, learning to ask a lot of questions during commission meetings; two, making sure I treated everyone with the utmost respect; three, to only question commissioners ... in a way that was clearly only focused on the greater good of the community. I tried very hard to make sure that any issue that I spoke on, no matter what I did, I focused on helping to make the city better, not on helping to make me better or make my buddy better, not helping with your special deal."

Winton says his close ties to executives who belong to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce have not crept into his office, other than to support his pro-business strategy to sink a lot of government money into infrastructure and economic development projects in downtown, Overtown, and Wynwood. Real-estate investor Philip Blumberg and Radio Unica president José Cancela, two buddies who convinced him to run for office and raised thousands of dollars for his campaign, have asked for nothing and wouldn't get it if they tried, Winton insists.

"The business I'm in really helps," he says. "Because by and large I don't do business with people in Miami-Dade County. I'm in the real-estate investment business. We have tenants. But that's not a direct link. I'm not selling a contract that lasts for five months or six months or whatever. So it's a lot easier for me to say no to virtually anybody and everybody."

It's less easy for him to control what he says to certain somebodies. "I think the silent majority wants good government and is appreciative when they get it," he submits. "But there's something about the political arena that draws out really angry people that want to kind of hang around. If there's a public hearing, the silent majority don't come to that stuff. The really angry people come. And they think that because you're an elected official they can treat you like a dog! I don't deal very well with that."

By this past May the angry minority had him ready to quit. "I was so frustrated that I was just ready to chuck this whole thought of public office," Winton confesses. But when he attended the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's annual goals conference in Palm Beach a month and a half ago, his fellow captains of industry brought him back from the brink. "They're all very good friends and I told them how frustrated I was," Winton offers. "And they said, 'Look, you've got to do a better job of not letting those people get to you. Stay focused on your agenda and ignore that stuff.' And they're right. And I knew the answer. I've been there before."

"Before" refers to the job he had 30 years ago reorganizing poorly run community blood centers throughout the United States. At the time the nation was moving from a system based on paid blood donors to one relying on volunteer donors. "Every time I landed in a community, the community was angry at the not-for-profit blood center," he recalls. "Always in every town there was somebody with their own motive that wasn't the betterment of the community. It was their own selfish motive. And I learned a long time ago that the way you beat those special self-serving critics is to do a damn good job. You get the job done, critics go away."

To fend off the angry ones, Winton has found a valuable ally in the Crazy Johnny that sometimes rises up inside him. "I even tell constituents -- lots of them -- to kiss my ass. And worse." He did so, for example, at a raucous public hearing over the proposed move of the homeless shelter Camillus House. "Some white guy claimed he'd lived in Overtown for 50 years," Winton recounts. "He was a complete jerk. I'd never seen him before. And he said to me, 'You haven't done anything.' You? Well, fuck you. You? You? What have you done? You've been here for 50 years, you tell me. You've been an activist for 50 years? You're the goddam failure, not me.

"I probably do things that I probably shouldn't do," he reflects. "And one day I will get burned. Because someday, you know, I'll do something that somebody doesn't like, and it'll be in the media some way or another. You know, I just decided I'm going to be me. I don't want to be somebody else."


Understanding the CRA, under Teele's tutelage, is part of Winton's learning curve. At present the agency presides over tens of millions of tax dollars, which must be spent to eliminate blight, stimulate business, and beautify the urban landscape in the most depressing sections of the city. While he admires Teele's nicely landscaped parking lots, Winton has yet to understand why his colleague insisted on making them the CRA's top priority. Still he has heard Teele's Overtown parking lot lecture so many times that he knows it by rote: "Because the black community has been shortchanged on parking from day one. The reason that nothing works on Third Avenue is because there is no parking for those businesses along there. And you have to have parking for the businesses along there. And we're going to create it." He lowers his voice. "And so they created all that parking along Third Avenue.

"No question you have to have parking," Winton continues. "But is that the first thing you do? Is it your first major bricks-and-mortar project?"

The Anglo Democrat doesn't think so, but since his election he has learned to choose his battles carefully with the African-American Republican. "I had that long argument with Teele early on. And as chairman of the CRA he felt very strongly about it."

Indeed one of Winton's most vexing lessons was finding out that Teele holds tight control over the CRA agenda. "Right now there's no road map [for the CRA]," Winton complains. "It's whatever idea comes to Art Teele based on somebody talking to him. And that's a terrible way to do it. And a very frustrating way." But the commissioner also found out that some of his ideas actually appealed to Teele. "It was me who pushed him to do the [CRA] master plan," Winton notes. "He agreed to do the master plan. He hired an excellent company [Dover, Kohl and Partners] to do it. He seems to be thrilled by their work. Once we get a master plan done, then we'll have a road map that will allow us to figure out where the money ought to go."

At a June 27 commission meeting, Winton suggested that Teele needed to start sharing more CRA information with his fellow commissioners. Teele angrily interrupted, accusing him of sounding like former Mayor Joe Carollo, a frequent critic of the CRA. "When I first got to the commission, Teele would go off on anybody," Winton recalls. "And he did it a fair amount. He doesn't do that a lot anymore. He's really toned down dramatically and is much more effective."

Moreover Winton has learned to legislate by observing Teele's machinations. A recent example involved the plan before the CRA to relocate the Camillus House from the heart of downtown to a largely nonresidential site east of Jackson Memorial Hospital. Winton and Teele both see the move as crucial to reviving one of the most depressed commercial zones in the city center. The proposal failed because only Teele and Winton voted for it. Winton criticized the commissioners who voted down the move for kowtowing to an angry group of Allapattah-based rabble-rousers.

Despite the loss, Winton got a valuable lesson in how to translate a plan into an ordinance and at the same time send a message to opponents.

"Teele had it all figured out ahead of time," Winton recalls. "So he comes in, opens the subject, reads off maybe fifteen resolutions. Action steps. Baboom, baboom, baboom. And what he was really saying is, 'You know all of you angry people out there, you can be as angry as you want, but here's what I'm doing.' And he was just brilliant at it, just resolutions, baboom, baboom, baboom. Then he said, 'Okay. Public hearing.' Then the public hearing was done.

"He took every little piece of what you could have put into one resolution and carved it up into ten separate ones. And it was just kind of a statement. 'Just so you hear this, folks. Just so there's no mistake, folks. Here's what it is, here's what I'm doing, here's how I'm doing it, and you can see it in black and white. And to let you know I'm making the decision and I'm willing to make the decision. And you're looking at it.' I sat there and listened to that and just thought, 'Wow.'"

Winton tried Teele's method several weeks later when he drafted a series of resolutions regarding the future of the Florida East Coast Railroad corridor from downtown Miami to Wynwood. The corridor includes a 55-acre site north of NW 29th Street between North Miami Avenue and NE First Avenue currently used by shipping companies for cargo container storage. A Long Island development company recently revealed it has a contract to buy the site from the FEC for $34.5 million. Winton's goal was to make sure that an independent development study of the FEC corridor the city commissioned for $372,000 gets acted on rather than simply filed at the Planning Department, as has happened previously.

"I said we're going to do exactly what Teele did," Winton explains. "What that did was it made the next steps crystal clear. And the law department came back and said, 'No, no, no, you guys can't do eight different resolutions. Just do one.' I said, 'No. We're going to do eight.' So we had resolutions that had action steps related to housing, economic development, transportation, parks and green spaces.... Each of those resolutions for those specialized groupings has a series of action steps tied to them, which is virtually unheard of when the city has done master plans in the past."

Whether the master plan becomes reality depends on whether private businesspeople rise to the challenge and accept the development dream Winton has now managed to codify into city ordinances. That's a lesson that will come between now and the end of the commissioner's term in November 2003.


Winton also took a short class in which he learned that sometimes it is necessary to give Major League Baseball team owners a tongue-lashing beyond his wildest dreams. It occurred while former Marlins CEO John Henry was still in town hoping to put a new stadium on one of Miami's last pieces of waterfront park. "I had a lot of dealings with [former Marlins' CEO] John Henry and thought when I first met him, and said this several times publicly, if there's a guy you'd like to have owning a pro team, then you'd want to have John Henry because he seems so nice. And after going through this process where the City of Miami spent $250,000 on our consultants to help guide us through this process of negotiating with the Marlins ... we could have put a deal together last April [2001]. And John Henry never would sit down and negotiate. He kept telling the media, 'Oh, I can't get the city [to negotiate]' and it was bullshit. And I kept saying publicly it's bullshit ... that we could negotiate a deal with you guys in 48 hours. Maximum. That's how ready we are.

"By the time we got to June I'm saying John Henry doesn't want to do a deal. I don't know what's up. But we're all being misled. My theory then was that Henry was trying to have the negotiations appear to fail sometime in the fall and he'd go to Major League Baseball and say, 'You've got to buy me out because I can never get anything done [with the city].' And it turns out my theory was wrong. He was clearly stalling, had no intention to do a deal with us. Because he was negotiating to buy the Red Sox. And to sell the Marlins. So he was lying to us!"

Next time the city commissioner deals with a Major League Baseball owner, Winton will have "a different set of eyes on," he says. How does he feel about the Marlins' new owner, Jeffrey Loria? Well, he also seems nice. "The current guy, he's not coming in here threatening anybody and he's not coming in here promising anything," Winton observes. "He's not going around making lots and lots and lots of noise.... That is really smart."

But Winton points out the two main stadium sites the city was willing to negotiate on last year are now slated for other projects, including another Publix supermarket for the Brickell area.


The commissioner has learned to funnel the Crazy Johnny inside him into a diplomatic forcefulness that can make the coziest of public service slots feel prickly. Especially when the commissioner perceives their occupants to be mucking up his top priorities: refurbishing the poorest big city in North America and seeing it run as smoothly as possible. If you are hired to help redevelop a big city, you had better really know about big-city redevelopment. If you are charged with being a city manager, you had better know how to manage a city staff. Same for those responsible for code enforcement.

Current Marlins' owner aside, a nice person is not always the right person for the job. Case in point: Patricia Allen, former executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. The DDA, a consortium of business executives, property owners, and elected officials, is responsible for marketing downtown Miami's motley array of commercial properties and vacant lots to big-time developers. Winton became DDA chairman last November, replacing Commissioner Willy Gort when he stepped down from the commission. By March Winton had arranged for Allen's departure. "She didn't have the right skills set," the commissioner explains. Winton then launched a national search for Allen's replacement.

Others are also feeling the surly winds of Winton, including city manager Carlos Gimenez, the only city employee hired and fired by the commission. A series of complaints against Community Development Department director Gwen Warren, presumably one of the administration's point women, prompted Winton to call for an independent audit of the department. The latest gaffe surfaced in May when, owing to Warren's failure to ensure that the CDD conducted environmental impact studies, federal officials froze $10 million administrators had hoped to use to build affordable housing in Model City, one of Miami's poorest areas. "I mean a full bore, top to bottom, complete evaluation," Winton emphasizes. "Do you know who was one of the biggest defenders of Gwen Warren in that department for two years? Johnny Winton. And as I told the manager today, I said, 'You know, I've had a bunch of little signals,' and because I thought they were doing such a good job of turning the whole thing around, I gave all of them the absolute benefit of the doubt. But this latest episode ... that makes me question completely how effective that department's been." (Warren has since left the CDD).

The lesson? Winton says he must now be more skeptical of city staff and, reluctantly, more concerned with matters that commissioners shouldn't have to worry about. "Commissioners aren't supposed to be in the management business," he explains. "We're supposed to be in the policy business. And we're not close enough internally, and we shouldn't be close enough internally, to [monitor] all of those little pieces."

While heading back into downtown from Wynwood, Winton can't restrain himself over the condition of the streets. "Look at this! How many times has this all been repaved here? It just ... [sighs]. 'Cuz I have a million things to do, I don't stay focused on all the stuff that I have to stay focused on. But I keep thinking I'm going to call for a moratorium on further street penetrations in downtown until we develop a plan. Shit, you know they cut these streets open and some new company is laying fiber in the street and before they finish they go bankrupt."

So does that mean the city doesn't have enough commissioners to stay on top of the problems? "No," he quickly replies. "We need some improvement in the overall focus and accountability of city staff, because a lot of these things I shouldn't even have to pay attention to. I shouldn't have to be the impetus for lots of things."

To what extent does he hold the city manager responsible? "It is completely his responsibility. One hundred percent his responsibility," Winton assures. "And I'm not calling it a failure because he's only been in the position for, has he been there two years yet? No, a year and a half, and he has a million priorities to work on. And he knows and he and I have talked about this very issue and I'm hoping there is a plan crafted soon between he and the mayor to address this issue. And I know they're working on it."

Does Winton think that Gimenez is, perhaps, too nice a city manager and not demanding enough of his staff? He prefers not to answer that specific question but offers this diplomatic response. "There's a lot of really good staff people in the City of Miami. And we've had this organizational structure and a group of staff people who brought us through bankruptcy, got us on our feet, brought us to this stage we're at right now. And it worked. But we're about to move into a whole new arena for the city that's going to be radically different than anything we've ever seen in the past. And I am concerned that we don't have the appropriate organizational structure nor human resources in place to move us to that next plateau."

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