As the Fire Board Turns
August 5, 1999
Mr. Roberto Benabib
100 Universal Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608
You would not believe how little they pay us at these "alternative" weeklies (read: chicken feed). So I thought I would try to generate some extra cash and do you a favor. What's in it for you? A juicy, twisted, incredible story that I am certain, with the help of your amazingly creative mind and studio prowess, will become a slam-dunk, blockbuster television docudrama. (That means the entire show has at least one factual element, right? Ha-ha, just kidding, sir.) Heck, call it a tragicomedy.
Anyway, for your perusal (and plaisir) I've penned a brief treatment, which I recall from Film 101 is a promising writer's first step toward television stardom. The story is somewhat derivative of ER but instead of emergency room, Bob, think FD, fire department, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department to be precise. The story doesn't exactly center around firefighters. (Although I admit that idea does have a lot of potential and we'll certainly want to occasionally splice them in as they drag unconscious victims through horrific blazes and the like. Let's discuss later.) No, this bizarre melodrama has to do with the county's fire board, five elected commissioners who oversee the fire department. The main protagonists, the antiheros, if you will, are the commissioners' assistants. Now wait, Roberto, don't throw this into the shredder just yet. Read on: drugs, romance, sex, adultery, deceit, betrayal, assault, battery, and conspiracy. This story has it all -- along with a dash of slimy politics and a whiff of wasted tax money.
So pour yourself a glass of rum, light up one of those big fat Hollywood Cohibas, and read on.
Friction between two female employees of the Miami-Dade Board of Fire Commissioners ignites into a blazing conflict that lands one woman in jail, sends her mother to the hospital, and threatens to consume the board with lawsuits (while it consumes millions of tax dollars and enters the thirteenth year of its litigious existence).
Our story opens with a tease scene. (You know, the kind you cinematic geniuses run before the title sequence.) A closeup of a male hand holding a clipped newspaper article, a letter to the editor. An excerpt is circled: The fire board seeks to protect taxpayers from the well-publicized, wasteful practices of the county commission, the writer states. The article is signed: Fire Board Commissioner Roberto Godoy. Hmm, the man reading the article is heard saying off-camera. His fingers tap nervously on a gray vinyl desktop. Then, the phone rings. The hand grabs it. The camera cuts to a woman on the other end of the line. (I would strenuously suggest Madonna for this minor but crucial role. She will reappear toward the end).
There is not enough work to justify my position, the fire board administrator s position, or the commissioners aides, she confides. Basically all you need in that office is a clerk-typist.
Thank you, says the man, and then he hangs up.
Roll title sequence, maestro!
Next, fire board administrator MARCIA FERNANDEZ-MORIN, a married, 39-year-old, hardheaded, some would say vituperative, career county employee is seated in an office with two men. (I think we should shoot for Salma Hayek to play Marcia.) One of the men is board consultant MEL MONTES, a mellow middle-age former firefighter whose hair and talk are both pretty slick. (Think Burt Reynolds, bubba.) Mel bills the fire board at $50 per hour so he has good reason for his easygoing demeanor. The other man is fire board commissioner EVARISTO MARINA, a 68-year-old gadfly brimming with hubris who covets the board chairmanship. He once ran a military academy in Miami; long ago, before the revolution, he was a Cuban Interior Ministry official. This is one of those cool scenes in which you can t hear the actors, but you can see their lips moving. And you know something is fishy because of the sinister soundtrack. (For example Marina s mouth moves, then Mel shakes his head and waves his hands as if to say, No can do. Of course to find out what they discussed, the plebeians will have to continue watching.)
CUT TO: A glorious Miami morning in October 1998. ANA BALLESTER, a recently divorced 33-year-old assistant to the fire board, walks into a county office downtown and files a complaint against her boss Marcia. Ana, who is a Jehovah s Witness, accuses Marcia of religious discrimination. Among Marcia s allegedly offensive remarks: I don t understand this stupid religion; her religious views are stupid; her religious views are intolerable; I don t even want to go there with you and your religion; I don t even want to talk about your religion, and they can t celebrate birthdays, so how are they raising their children?
Now you don t have to tell me that we need to get to the SEX pronto. More than anyone else, I know that millions of advertising dollars hang in the balance. So here it is. Marcia s relationship with Ana s brother EDDY BALLESTER, JR., an award-winning Miami-Dade fireman, is also a source of tension between the two women. See, Marcia is in love with Eddy but married to someone else (or at least that s what Ana says). Ana also files a sexual-harassment complaint against Marcia. (Now I know what you re thinking, Roberto-Bob. But no. The Ellen debacle proved that our society is not yet mature enough for such dangerous same-sex liaisons. So we re going to play it conservatively here.) The harassment allegation stems from remarks Marcia allegedly made about her reputed lover Eddy. Sexual remarks. Salacious remarks. Lascivious remarks. (Tell your dialogue people to take this and run with it, my man!) [My boss] would constantly make comments regarding how she wanted to be in a physical relationship with my brother, a distraught Ana tells the county labor specialist taking her complaint. And if I did not go along with her statements she would react in a very antagonistic manner.
Now let s flesh out this Marcia character a bit further and you ll see the ironic beauty of this sexual-harassment concept. A flashback is in order here. DISSOLVE TO: About a decade ago. Marcia is a 30-year-old assistant to County Commissioner Larry Hawkins, a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet with an intense proclivity toward chasing the ladies. But some of the ladies, including Marcia, do not appreciate his proclivity. Nor do they much admire his bent for knocking a bullet to the floor and asking an attractive young secretary to retrieve it as he peers down her blouse.
I know, Robster, you re thinking this is a bit far-fetched but, hey, in Miami-Dade stuff like this really happens. Anyway, hear me out, Robbo. The flashback ends with a distraught Marcia filing her complaint and calling Hawkins s office a hellhole! Then the commissioner loses his re-election bid and complains in a concession speech that, I thought this election was going to be about the issues!
So, in sum, we have Ana accusing Marcia of sexual harassment. (Where do I get this stuff? I tell you sometimes the imagination is a many-splendored thing, as you well know, Robber-baron.) This plot twist is what you screenwriter-types call a reversal. The big, old brass pendulum has reached its zenith, its apex, its peak, its whatever-you-call-it, is on its way back down, and is heading straight for Marcia.
CUT TO: The present. Ana returns to her west Miami-Dade office to prepare for the fire board s usually deadly dull, semi-monthly meeting. At about 1:30 p.m. the five commissioners convene with their small staff. They discuss their ongoing power struggle and never-ending legal battle with the evil county commission, which refuses to grant the board more authority. ( At least give me a county car, for cryin out loud, one fire board commissioner could say.) Fire board lawyer NEIL FLAXMAN (try Jack Klugman) updates his clients on the latest lawsuits.
The session is living up to its tedious reputation until Marcia, the board s administrator, introduces a hot item not on the agenda. She announces that she will recommend Ana s termination at the next meeting. Ana, sitting nearby, is stunned. (As commissioners bleat, Wait a minute! Hold on! Hey! et cetera) Marcia declares that she has placed Ana on administrative leave. Ana s jaw drops. But you don t have the authority to do that! Ana protests. Accompanied by her mother, JUANA, who is sitting in the audience, Ana leaves the room distraught and angry. She calls the meeting a fiasco, then she and other staff members return to their offices. An uneasy tension fills the workplace for the rest of the afternoon. At about 5:00 Marcia leaves for the day. Ana and Juana are still in the office.
Maybe it s time for a commercial.
Now it's the next morning and Marcia arrives for another day of work at the fire board office. (More happy-go-lucky music.) She looks for audio cassettes of the previous day's board meeting. She cannot find them. Marcia also notices that several photographs of Eddy are missing. She calls the police. A Miami-Dade cop arrives at 8:24 a.m. and begins to make a report. Marcia suspects Ana took the tapes and photographs.
Meanwhile Ana is at her parents' humble west Miami-Dade home, where she has resided since her divorce a few months earlier. That afternoon, she and Juana, a portly woman who suffers from high blood pressure, leave the house and climb in Ana's white Jeep Cherokee, which has a Tweety Bird decal on the rear window. They intend to drop off some posters at the office of fire chief R. DAVID PAULISON, a tall, preppy, affable man whose annual salary is $148,000. (Probably about one-fifth of what don Roberto makes, right?) Ana also plans to pick up a videotape of the prior day's fire board meeting. She wants to collect evidence of her nemesis Marcia's malevolence.
Okay, Rob n' Bob, this is where our saga becomes -- what's the word? -- intense. It is about 4:15 p.m. when Ana and Juana pull into a lot at the Miami-Dade fire department headquarters at 6000 SW 87th Ave. Ana is carrying a bundle of rolled-up posters as she and her mom enter the building. (Now the sinister, foreboding music begins.) They march swiftly through the lobby and down a hall when suddenly they run into LLOYD HOUGH, a beefy, six-foot two-inch, 62-year-old former homicide detective. Lloyd has been a fire department internal affairs officer for twelve years and pulls in a laughable annual salary of $83,050. (I mean, that's what you guys spend in a few days in Martinique, right?) Lloyd walks a little stiffly sometimes because he hurt his back years ago while lifting a corpse from the trunk of a car during a murder investigation. In a junkyard, no less. But he's feeling spry today and stops Ana and her mom in their tracks.
Lloyd advises Ana that she is not allowed in the building. Then he orders her to exit immediately. Ana declines to depart; the headquarters was paid for by taxpayers and is therefore open to both suspended employees and the public, Ana insists. ("Hell-OOHHH!" you could have her say to him, you know, in the Clueless vernacular so popular these days.)
So Ana and Juana turn around and amble back down the hall. (Dramatic music intensifies.) But instead of exiting, Ana turns and dashes up a flight of stairs to the public-information office. Ana's mother rushes after her. Lloyd chases them.
Ana gets what she came for. A clerk provides her with a copy of the videotape while Lloyd chills. Then the former cop demands that Ana sign a receipt. She refuses.
Now things become just a little crazy. Ana's mom starts to hyperventilate and grasps her chest. Lloyd grabs a telephone. Then for some strange reason Ana and Lloyd struggle over the receiver. "You bastard!" Ana screams at him. "If anything happens to my mother, I'll kill you!"
A fire rescue unit soon arrives and the crew wheels Juana into the truck. It speeds off toward South Miami Hospital, siren blaring. (You've seen it a million times on ER, so I suggest cutting right to the hospital scene.) While Juana is in the emergency room, Ana calls Miami-Dade Police and reports that Lloyd has assaulted her mom. Three county cops soon arrive at the emergency room.
Now check out this classic reversal, dude. Ana, accompanied by her brother and grandmother, appears relieved when the cops arrive. She reports that Lloyd grabbed Juana by an arm and shook her, causing her to collapse. After she finishes her account, the officers read Ana her Miranda rights and, WHAM! They clap on the cuffs and shove her into the back of a squad car. Her grandmother and brother stare in disbelief as the cruiser speeds off. At MDPD's Kendall station Ana is booked for battery on a law-enforcement officer, a crime that could land her in the slammer for five years. "What officer did I hit?" Ana demands. You see, Roberto-Jack, Lloyd called the boys in blue before Ana. He reported that the five-feet two-inch-tall, 145-pound Ana had assaulted him. We leave Ana at the station answering questions. It is now night. I'd recommend a shot of the building from across the street. (Commercial break, amigo. May the revenue roll in!)
When we return from the Grape-Nuts or Chevrolet interlude it is daytime and Marcia is putting her $57,713 annual salary to good use. She is assembling a 40-page document to bolster her recommendation for Ana's termination. Marcia accuses her charge of "lateness, absenteeism, being argumentative," and engaging in other "inappropriate behavior." (We could embellish on this potentially dull office action. This is, in part, why I suggested the dazzlingly beautiful Salma for the Marcia role. Salma could just banter on the phone and people would watch raptly. Then again, as long as we're paying Salma rates, why not throw in a phone-sex scene?)
Next Marcia (i.e., Salma), begins a little detective work of her own. She calls her husband JORGE MORIN, the Miami police sergeant, and requests a favor: Hop on the cop-shop computer and bring up Ana's driver's license record. Marcia wants to prove that Ana filed a false license number on her county job application. Jorge wisely refuses. (Now you could go a couple of ways with the dialogue here. "I can't run a background check on one of your colleagues, baby," Jorge could say, sweetly. "You can't use public resources for a private vendetta." Or try this on for size: "Oh my God, you idiot! You can't use public resources for some private vendetta!")
Marcia presses on with her investigation, hoping to discover other ways Ana might have lied on her job application.
CUT TO: Eddy's wife ORCHID BALLESTER at home. She is opening a manila folder with no return address. She pulls out the contents: the missing photographs of her husband. This, old chap, is what Hitchcock would call a mulligan, a mysterious little event. Who sent the photos? Marcia? Ana? A third person? And that, I dare say, would be a good place to leave the masses en la lurch and end episode I.
AS THE FIRE BOARD TURNS,
Now we shift into a kind of L.A. Law mode. People are going to start suing up the wazoo.
Ana is at home tending to Juana, who was released from the hospital on a regimen of Xanax and heart medicine after fainting during the videotape incident. Ana, who also has a heart condition, is on the phone with her lawyer DONNA BALLMAN, recapping her stay in police custody.
"One of the officers kept coming in and saying, 'You're going to be rich. You're going to be rich.' I have no idea what he meant," Ana recounts. Then she explains that the battery charges against her were dropped.
CUT TO: the lawyer's office. Donna hangs up and starts typing a letter to the fire board. The camera gives a classic closeup of the typewriter making the oh-so-hackneyed clack-clack-clack sound. Viewers follow along as Donna refutes Marcia's charges against her client. The lawyer accuses Marcia of falsifying Ana's time sheets.
CUT TO: the fire board office. It is another glorious Thursday. Marcia and her underlings are preparing for another semimonthly meeting. Ana is still on administrative leave. The commissioners are God knows where. ("Why the heck should I be there? They won't even reimburse me for mileage!" one could say on the phone from his law office.)
DISSOLVE TO: fire commissioners, Mel, and other staff strolling into the conference room, shaking hands, and joking around. (When you actually shoot this scene, Mr. B., you could subtly make it clear that these political bush leaguers really annoy one another.) During the meeting Marcia recommends Ana's termination. But the board defers a decision and adopts a new organizational structure that allows each commissioner an administrative assistant. In the past they shared the help. The board assigns Ana to Evaristo Marina. Then maybe we CUT TO: a flashback into Marina's past. We learn a little more about him. His military academy closed after financial troubles, a state reprimand for poor dormitory conditions, and a rape scandal involving a male cadet and a five-year-old female student. (Hey, bro', this kind of thing happens here, believe you me.) And now that we've attracted the lowest common denominators of couch-potato land, perhaps a few more advertisements would be prudent.
When we return Ana is working for Marina. She and Marcia have settled into an uneasy modus vivendi, if you will. But Ana smells a conspiracy: She believes the fire board reorganization will result in her termination. Marina asks her to work on his Sweetwater mayoral campaign, which would violate the principles of her religion. (Marina will later deny it.) I think now might be a good time to work in some of those action scenes with raging fires.
Sure enough, Marina types a note to Ana on fire board letterhead:
March 16, 1999
Dear Ms. Ballester:
This letter is to advise you that your services as my assistant are no longer required. Effective immediately, you will be placed on administrative leave....
Well, I'm sure that by now you will agree it is time for us to start making some sense of all this madness. Who better to do it than canny, cunning, and crafty investigator CARMEN DIEGUEZ, a specialist in the Miami-Dade Office of Fair Employment Practices. (These county investigations can be unbelievable snoozes, so let's see if we can get Demi to play the Carmen role.) One by one Carmen meets with our captivating cast.
First Carmen interviews Marcia: "I believe that Ana may have been jealous of my friendship with her brother. I know that she and her brother had communications problems." Marcia adds that Ana is intelligent but uses her skills to create turmoil and strife. Finally, and this is where the edgy orchestral music pipes up, Marcia admits that she called Ana "a conniving liar." She also acknowledges once terming Ana's religion "stupid."
Enter Mel. "My theory is that Ballester is not a good worker," he offers confidently. "She tries to get away with not doing her work. She is habitually late or absent, even if and when she is caught or scolded. She is a scam artist.... Her scam is accusing everyone of picking on her."
Finally the scene we've all awaited. The Madonna character, whose tip initiated this crazy flick, walks into Carmen's office. ("So you are MARILYN RODRIGUEZ?" Carmen inquires.) Then in that sultry and sensational voice, Marilyn speaks. "This relationship between Marcia and Eddy was quite unusual," begins the $40,000 per year secretary. "I had never seen such a thing: the constant calling, constant paging, fifteen to twenty calls a day.... If she ever got mad with Eddy she would stomp around and close doors loudly, fuming. If he would not call her back, she'd pull on her hair. And the comments to Ana and the group: 'I can't live without your brother. I don't know what I'll do if I don't have him in my life.' She had just had a baby and the baby fell out of the carriage. She'd say, 'I have to call Eddy. I don't call my pediatrician; Eddy's my doctor.' She'd say to Ana, 'I love your brother so much, no one understands how much I love him.' It's an obsession...."
Marilyn continues: "Once we were ... all talking women things, about sensuality. I was talking about myself in relationship to sensuality. [Marcia] started to cry. 'I can't be like that with my husband,' she said. 'My heart is somewhere else.'"
Marilyn speaks on: "Commissioner Marina came to me after a closed-door meeting with Mel and Marcia.... He said, 'I had a meeting and they want to get rid of Ana.'" Finally Marilyn makes a stunning claim about Marcia, confirming our worst fears: Marcia requested that Ana's time sheets be falsified to "make Ana look bad."
Marilyn leaves and Carmen begins to type her report. She types and types. Twenty-four pages. Finally she comes to these conclusions about Ana's three complaints and Marcia's actions:
Regarding religious discrimination: "Most of the comments, if not all ... are not 100 percent derogatory, on face value.... Other comments, albeit critical, perhaps uncalled for and inappropriate in the workplace, do not appear to constitute discrimination on the basis of religion."
Regarding sexual harassment: "Said comments ... are not of a sexual nature."
Regarding retaliation: "Without merit."
Regarding Marcia: "Should learn more about the county's personnel processes and procedures ... exercise more control in how she expresses herself around subordinates, and refrain from using inappropriate language in the workplace.... [Should] maintain a congenial and productive work atmosphere."
And that, Señor Benabib, brings us to our closing scene. We again see the fingers tapping nervously on the vinyl desktop. The phone rings. The hand picks it up. It is Marilyn calling. CUT TO: Madonna yabbering angrily into the receiver. "Marcia is on a power trip," she says. "If you ever go against her, you're history. You're up shit's creek."
Well, that's about all I could squeeze from my muse in one sitting, Bob-o-rella. As for identifying the person who sent the photographs to Eddy's wife, well, that will have to wait for a future episode. And who knows? Marilyn may file a lawsuit of her own after Marcia recommends her firing.
It's not over, though, Bobby-boy. I have a couple of ideas for the credits. I just love it when you art-cinema guys reveal at the end of the show what happened to the heroes:
ANA BALLESTER, no longer a county employee, is suing the fire board, the Miami-Dade fire department, and Miami-Dade County.
JUANA BALLESTER is suing Lloyd and the Miami-Dade fire department.
MARILYN RODRIGUEZ has been reassigned to a job at the fire department.
DONNA BALLMAN is representing Ana in her civil case.
R. DAVID PAULISON remains chief of a department that is now besieged with at least ten lawsuits filed by disgruntled employees.
THE FIRE COMMISSIONERS are suing Miami-Dade County for the right to control tax money. At the same time, the board members are lobbying the Miami-Dade County Commission to authorize $4000 to $6000 for salaries and several thousand dollars in benefits (retroactive, of course) for fire commissioners.
MEL MONTES is still earning $50 per hour as a fire board consultant. His contract guarantees him enough work to earn $2000 per month, but caps his pay at $50,000 per year.
EVARISTO MARINA resigned from the fire board in March, less than two weeks after terminating Ana, to run for mayor of Sweetwater. He lost.
LLOYD HOUGH is retired and living in Homestead.
EDDY BALLESTER is a lieutenant and paramedic based at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Station 3. He is happily married to Orchid, who still doesn't know who sent her the photos of her husband.
Special thanks are in order. Maybe to run in the credits. Something like: "We would like to express our gratitude to those valiant Miami-Dade voters who created the fire board in 1986 and rejected its abolition in 1997. Proceeds from the broadcast of this television movie will be used to help reimburse fire board commissioners for gas mileage."
One last thing, Rob-bob-bobbin'. I must confess: I didn't make this up (except for the stuff in parentheses). The material came from interviews, legal documents, Miami-Dade Police records, personnel files, and an April 1999 report by Carmen Dieguez. Had Dieguez found the harassment or discrimination allegations to be valid, the likely result would have cost the county (i.e., the investigator's employer) large sums of money in legal settlements. Therefore the truth in this case might never be known. Then again, maybe it will.
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