A Public Servant Goes Public
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."
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.
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."
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.
Curtin and Cuervo-Schreiber had a get-acquainted breakfast on April 2 at Greenstreet Café in Coconut Grove. A few days earlier Shiver had abruptly and unexpectedly fired the county's well-regarded communications director, Mayco Villafaña. Adding to the insult of Villafaña's unceremonious termination was the fact that his computer had been immediately seized, a fact reported here and in other media (see "Under New Management," April 5).
When Curtin and Cuervo-Schreiber sat down, the new assistant county manager promptly announced to Curtin that Villafaña had secretly arranged to have his own computer seized in order to deliberately embarrass Shiver and portray him as heartless and cruel. Curtin could not believe what she was hearing. She knew Villafaña would never arrange such a stunt, and indeed in press interviews a few days later, Shiver's chief of staff, Tom David, admitted he ordered the seizure of Villafaña's computer.
Sitting at Greenstreet that morning, however, Curtin thought either Cuervo-Schreiber was incredibly naive to believe such a tale or was calculating enough to try to manipulate her with lies about co-workers. Curtin didn't like the way their meeting began. "We were off to a very bad start," she says.
As time went on, Curtin began to comprehend Shiver's plans for her department. The manager told her he intended to split it into two parts. He wanted to transfer code enforcement -- which comprises about 70 percent of Team Metro's work -- to the Miami-Dade Police Department. All her inspectors would be transferred to a new unit within the police department. She would be left with a much smaller Team Metro to manage.
Curtin believes Shiver had two motivations for attempting the move. First he hoped code enforcement would get lost within an agency as large as the police department. Writing citations for abandoned vehicles and overgrown lots would rank low among the priorities of a major metropolitan police department that is preoccupied with drug gangs, homicides, and terrorist threats.
The second reason Shiver sought to move her inspectors to the police department, Curtin believes, had to do with his friend the Homestead police officer. During their initial meeting in February, Shiver told Curtin he wanted to hire Capt. Scott Kennedy to be her deputy director. Later, however, it was discovered that Kennedy didn't have a college degree and therefore was prevented by county rules from being hired into a senior position.
By moving enforcement to the police department, though, Shiver could arrange to have Kennedy transferred from the Homestead Police Department to the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD). Curtin reports she learned this during conversations with MDPD director Carlos Alvarez, whom she had called in late March and early April after learning about Shiver's plans to move most of her department to his. According to Curtin, Alvarez was opposed to the idea. Curtin recalls Alvarez saying, "This is not our business. Our business is law enforcement." (Alvarez could not be reached for comment last week, but in an interview this past spring, he acknowledged Shiver's efforts to place Captain Kennedy in the MDPD.)
Curtin says Alvarez also complained that Shiver was trying to pressure him into hiring Kennedy at the rank of major. Alvarez reportedly told Shiver that such a move was impossible because he had a long list of more-qualified candidates within his department who were waiting to be promoted. (Contacted in Homestead, Kennedy initially agreed to be interviewed but after learning the subject refused to answer questions.)
Curtin's account is corroborated by a knowledgeable law-enforcement source who says Alvarez threatened to resign if he were forced to hire Kennedy as a major. Shiver then tried to have Kennedy "loaned" to the MDPD on temporary assignment. Ultimately that plan failed as well.
Undaunted, Shiver continued his push to move Team Metro's inspectors to the police department, arguing it would give the inspectors greater authority and allow them to work closely with police in troubled parts of the county. "We didn't need that," Curtin maintains. "We already had an incredible working relationship with the police department. Any one of my officers could call MDPD and have backup whenever they needed it. They would do joint sweeps together."
During her discussions with Shiver, Curtin was under the impression his idea was simply a proposal and that no final decision had been made. Certainly, Curtin believed, the county commission would have to agree to such a major change in the structure of county government. Shiver told Curtin to keep the proposal confidential. She shouldn't even tell members of her staff.
In late April Curtin, still on medical leave, received a call at home from one of her employees telling her Shiver had just announced his plans to move all Team Metro inspectors to the police department. The announcement came during a meeting with community activists in South Miami-Dade.
"I went berserk," Curtin recalls. "I went nuts. First of all, it had never been told to me that this was official. I had never briefed my staff. And he was telling the community already. Not only that, this was a budget issue. The commission has to approve this. He doesn't have the power to arbitrarily do this."
Curtin called Shiver and "blasted" him for announcing his plan. She declared she was going to have to come down to county hall and meet with her staff and try to clarify what was happening. The next day Shiver, Cuervo-Schreiber, and Curtin met with Team Metro's senior staff. But rather than allay their concerns, Cuervo-Schreiber attacked members of the Team Metro staff, accusing them of contacting county commissioners and telling them about Shiver's plans for the department. "She had become threatening with the staff about leaking information to commissioners," Curtin relates.
After the meeting concluded, Cuervo-Schreiber singled out one Team Metro official and accused him of leaking information to Commissioner Javier Souto's chief of staff. "For him to be chastised that way was an embarrassment," Curtin fumes. Curtin cut off Cuervo-Schreiber's assault. "This is not Homestead," she snapped before walking away. "I was so pissed off!" she remembers. Curtin wanted Cuervo-Schreiber to know that the type of small-town bullying she was accustomed to in Homestead was not the way the professional staff in Miami-Dade County operates. "With my department everything is aboveboard and done the right way," Curtin says. "That was my message to her." (Cuervo-Schreiber did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Curtin finally realized she would never be able to trust Shiver and Cuervo-Schreiber. "I couldn't work with them," she laments. The next day she went for a walk with her dog in the Grove and ran into Tony Rodriguez, who works in Mayor Penelas's office. "Isn't it great what is happening to Team Metro?" Rodriguez inquired, according to Curtin.
Their encounter settled any lingering doubts Curtin may have had about staying. "I've known you for a long time, Debbie," Rodriguez allegedly began, "and I'm concerned about you. There have been some questions about the passport money. How much passport money did you make last year?"
As an inducement to attract people to its ten offices, Team Metro also processes applications for U.S. passports, a welcome alternative to the long lines at the federal passport office downtown. County staffers collect a $15 processing fee. Curtin told Rodriguez her office collected about $400,000 last year.
"There have been some questions raised in the mayor's office about where all that money has been going," Rodriguez said ominously, according to Curtin.
Every year, Curtin notes, her books are audited and there never has been a problem or even a concern related to the way her department collects or handles passport money. So Curtin viewed Rodriguez's question as a warning: "I walked away and I thought, There's my sign. I thought, If I go back to work, there are plans to take me down. It was so clear to me right then. He gave me a message. It was a veiled warning."
Two days later she resigned.
In an interview last week, Rodriguez denied trying to intimidate Curtin. He recalled talking to her that day in the Grove, but said he never mentioned the department's collection of passport fees. "It was a very short conversation," Rodriguez said. "I always liked Debbie. She's a sweetheart and everyone liked her very much. I heard she decided to retire because of her illness."
Curtin says her decision wasn't quite so straightforward. "Officially I resigned for medical reasons," she explains. "While that is true in the strictest sense, my decision was based on the historical truth that a battle is better waged on one front at a time. I just couldn't fight my battle with metastatic breast cancer and Steve Shiver & Company simultaneously. So I made the very difficult decision to leave Miami-Dade County and Team Metro."
On the day she resigned, she ran into John Renfrow, director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the agency responsible for enforcing the county's environmental laws. In the same way Shiver directed his immediate attention on Team Metro, he zeroed in like a smart bomb on DERM.
Renfrow and Curtin also shared another bond: Renfrow's wife had recently died of cancer. Curtin told Renfrow that Shiver was making things difficult for her department. She told him she believed she had "ruffled too many feathers" in the mayor's office and that her time was up. Curtin claims Renfrow complained he was facing the same problems at DERM. "He said, They're making it so that I can't do my job,'" she recalls. "He said, They don't want us to do our job.'" (Renfrow acknowledges he spoke to Curtin the day she resigned. "I know I bumped into her, but I don't remember the conversation," he says. And Curtin's recollection that he complained about being unable to do his job? "I can't confirm and I can't deny it either," he hedges.)
No sooner had Curtin resigned than her worst fears for Team Metro began coming true. Shiver transferred a small contingent of inspectors to the police department. Rather than do it in one massive move, which might have raised eyebrows among commissioners, Shiver apparently planned on transferring them in stages. But when Commissioner Dennis Moss discovered this, he ordered Shiver to stop and seek commission approval for any more transfers. As it stands now, a weird hybrid exists in which code enforcement is now split between the police and Team Metro.
Moss, however, couldn't prevent Shiver from sabotaging Team Metro in other ways. While on medical leave earlier this year, Curtin had appointed Michael Anderson as acting director of Team Metro. Anderson had been with the department since its inception, and Curtin trusted him to faithfully oversee the agency in her absence.
But as soon as Curtin resigned, Shiver removed Anderson as acting director and replaced him with Vivian Guzman, who had been heading up Team Metro's enforcement section. Within weeks of her appointment, Guzman was pressured by Cuervo-Schreiber to cancel citations issued against a politically connected business.
The company, Ad For You, provides litter bins at bus stops, and sells advertising space on those bins. Owned by Humberto Cortina, a former state representative, the company's contract with Miami-Dade Transit had expired but kept receiving extensions from county officials. Finally even the extensions ran out, and when Cortina failed to remove the bins, he began receiving citations.
Cortina had the right to appeal the tickets if he believed they were issued unfairly. And Team Metro officials even helped him set up a hearing before a special master. But rather than allow the appeals process to proceed, Vivian Guzman was ordered by Alicia Cuervo-Schreiber to cancel the fines. Upset by Cuervo-Schreiber's demands, Guzman complained privately to Curtin. "Vivian wasn't comfortable with what was going on, and she would call me for advice," Curtin says.
Guzman confirms she was instructed to void the tickets, adding that she demanded Cuervo-Schreiber place her order in writing before she would carry it out. "I wouldn't do it based on a verbal instruction from Alicia," Guzman reports. "I didn't understand why we were voiding the tickets for this individual."
Guzman says she learned that Cortina, who has political connections throughout county hall, met with both Cuervo-Schreiber and another assistant county manager, Pete Hernandez, to discuss his citations, which, according to Guzman, would have resulted in fines amounting to "several thousand dollars." (Cortina could not be reached for comment. Calls to his home went unanswered, and his business phone has been disconnected.) According to Curtin, the Cortina case is the first time in Team Metro's seven-year history that someone from the manager's office ordered a citation to be voided. (New Times has learned that the county ethics commission has launched an investigation into the incident and may be looking at other cases in which citations issued against another politically connected business were recently voided.)
Not long after the Cortina tickets were voided, Guzman resigned from the county and is now working for the City of Miami Beach. She doesn't blame the Cortina incident entirely, saying a number of events influenced her decision to leave, including her opposition to Shiver's efforts to move code enforcement to the police department, as well as a great opportunity with Miami Beach.
Morale inside Team Metro is low, Curtin says, noting that quality people are being forced to resign. For example, Michael Anderson, the man she trusted to run the department in her absence, has been targeted by Shiver and Cuervo-Schreiber. Curtin asserts they are searching for grounds to fire him because he refuses to act as their puppet. They are harassing Anderson the same way they would have harassed her had she decided to stay.
Curtin received word this past June that the cancer had spread to her ribs and the bones in her shoulder. She is taking powerful medications in hopes of controlling the spread of the disease. But despite her own setbacks, she can't help but worry about the future of Team Metro. Her former employees, she believes, deserve better than they are receiving under Shiver and Penelas. And more important, so do the people of Miami-Dade County.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.