Pity the Poor Politicos

Voters gave Miami's city commissioners a huge raise, but that hasn't stopped them from keeping their day jobs

On a stormy Tuesday this past November, voters in Miami approved a measure that raised the annual salary of their five city commissioners to a reasonable $58,200. Since 1949 the salary had been set at a paltry $5000 per year. Although a pathetic nine percent of the city's electorate cast ballots on November 4, even many who didn't make it to the polls could see the virtue of such an increase. After all, as the resolution that put the measure on the ballot stated, the duties of a Miami city commissioner had "significantly increased, encompassing a major portion of each commissioner's daily activities." The fate of our "modern city" rested upon the provision of "appropriate salaries." The ballot item, however, asked voters to answer this basic question: Should commissioners' salaries be set at $58,200? The answer was Yes.

Now that Miami's commissioners are blessed with what most working stiffs would consider a full-time salary, all have gladly retreated from their stressed-out, private-sector lives in order to concentrate fully on the public's business, right? Of course not. Some of them wouldn't even do that for $92,600, which is what the city actually pays them each year.

Angel Gonzalez is the only member of the Miami City Commission to have quit his outside job. "I'm just working for the commission," says the District 1 representative, whose net worth is about $300,000, according to a financial-disclosure statement filed in June 2003. "It feels good. I'm glad to be able to have more time to dedicate to the city issues, problems. It is a full-time job. If you want to be on top of things, it consumes a lot of time. But it's good -- that's what we were elected for."

After the November election, convicted-felon Gonzalez (vote fraud, 1999) resigned from his $36,000 position as a security consultant. His employer was A&A Security and Investigations Group, a Miami-Dade company that guards construction sites, homes, and at least one celebrity whose name Gonzalez declines to reveal. "It was a shame that before, we couldn't dedicate as much time as we should," he says, adding that he still never gets home from his commissioner's labors before 8:00 p.m.

District 3 Commissioner Joe Sanchez plans to keep his job at the Coconut Grove-based accounting firm of Lewis B. Freeman, where the former state trooper works as an investigator. But after the salary increase passed, Freeman reduced Sanchez's workload from about 30 to 15 hours per week, and lowered his salary to $42,000. "He basically said now it's my obligation to put in more time at city hall," Sanchez recounts. "And I really have been doing that." But Sanchez, whose financial statement puts his net worth at $74,770, says he can't quit altogether. "I've invested a lot of resources in that company," he says. "I just can't walk away. It's not fair to my family."

District 4 Commissioner Tomas Regalado has no plans to change his current work routine. He will keep his gigs as an early-morning radio news director for four local FM stations owned by the Spanish Broadcasting Service and as midday talk-show host at Telemiami, a local cable TV station. "I have reduced a little the hours on the radio, but nothing spectacular," he says. "The good thing is that I start the radio at 4:00 a.m., then I leave around 8:30 a.m." Regalado earns about $14,000 per year from his Telemiami job and says his SBS contract forbids him from disclosing his radio salary. "I didn't campaign for the salary increase. I was surprised it passed," says Regalado, who last year listed his net worth at $4000 and reported about $62,000 in debts. But he's okay with the raise. "It sends a message saying that elected officials should be paid a decent salary so more people will decide to run for office. I mean, that's the philosophy and it's fine by me." Among other things, the raise has helped Regalado satisfy a $9000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service, which had been garnisheeing his paychecks for the past two years.

District 5 Commissioner Art Teele, who is a lawyer, plans to continue his work advising foreign companies interested in entering the U.S. market, especially in the areas of infrastructure and transportation. That labor earned him about $150,000 in 2002, he says. Teele reported $12,000 in "cash on hand" and a net worth of $312,269 at the end of 2002, according to his most recent financial-disclosure statement.

Nonetheless Teele resolved to become more available to the public after the commissioners' raise came through. "I think [the salary increase] will force people in elected office to spend even more time on the public business," he says, "because people will say, 'Hey, I'm paying you.' Before, nobody could say that. I'm more diligent now about setting up appointments and getting back on appointments, as opposed to just turning things over to staff."

District 2 Commissioner Johnny Winton deserves credit for pushing through the ballot initiative. He raised the issue during his successful first run for the commission in 1999. Then he persuaded his colleagues to put the matter before voters in 2001. They rebuffed him then, but this year he prevailed, thanks largely to his constituents in Upper Eastside precincts, who were especially motivated to go to the polls because Winton was up for re-election. But the blunt businessman will not be winding down his operations at Wynco Realty Partners, of which he is co-owner and president. "Are you hallucinating?" he huffs. "No, I'm not going to leave my other job. I'm not about to give up my company because I'm making $58,000 a year as a commissioner."

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