The City of Miami's former archaeologist says she was fired for not being friendly enough to developers.
"Citizens ... should be aware of what they are trading in for this 'new city,'" says Alison Elgart-Berry, Miami's first (and so far only) city archaeologist.
Elgart-Berry has a doctoral degree from Cornell University and worked for Bob Carr at the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy for three years. With Miami's strong archaeological preservation ordinance in mind, Elgart-Berry was hoping for more discoveries like the Miami Circle, a site where the remains of a Tequesta Indian structure dating back two thousand years were discovered on the south side of the mouth of the Miami River in 1998, when she accepted the job with the city in May 2004. But by this past February, she had been fired. What she encountered, she says, was a bureaucracy that thwarted its own preservation rules in order to make developers happy.
"They did not understand that having an archaeologist on staff meant that if a development was going to destroy a significant archaeological site, I may object to it or, at the very least, try to get a developer to preserve part of the site," Elgart-Berry recounts. "I was told [by planning department director Ana Gelabert-Sanchez] that we never fight the developer, we always try to work with them, apparently even if this means that hundreds of human burials will be destroyed in the process."
Miami's ordinance requires developers building on land along the Miami River and Biscayne Bay south of the river to hire consultants to draw up antiquities management plans. These plans, which include a survey of any possible significant findings on the property in question, are submitted to the city for review by the city archaeologist. Ryan Wheeler, chief of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, says Miami's ordinance is among the most protective in the state. "It's a very strong, very good preservation ordinance," he says.
However, as with any other rule of law in South Florida, the statute can be misused. Elgart-Berry says the first hint there was trouble in the Magic City came when she reviewed archaeological plans for a Sheraton Hotel parcel just off Brickell Avenue. The land is adjacent to the Miami Circle. Archaeological excavation takes patience and time and usually entails analyzing small portions of land by painstakingly sifting through bits of rocks and soil. Jorge Perez, developer of the parcel, wanted to dig up everything at once.
"You can excavate a site to death," says Elgart-Berry. "It's just not possible to do 100 percent excavation quickly without possibly disturbing or destroying something important."
Also at issue was Elgart-Berry's suggestion that a portion of the land remain undeveloped for possible future exploration. "There may have been human remains there, and in that case you don't want to disturb them," she says.
Hoping to win allies in her quest to slow down the excavation and conduct a serious search for remnants of Tequesta society, Elgart-Berry e-mailed a National Park Service colleague, saying she'd fight the developer to preserve the parcel. Within a couple of days she was confronted by Gelabert-Sanchez, who directly referenced her e-mail and told her that the city "works with developers." City officials would not comment on why Elgart-Berry was fired, but spokeswoman Kelly Penton stated in an e-mail that Elgart-Berry was a consultant hired to provide archaeological expertise, not the official city archaeologist, and that the Planning Department is "working on opening a permanent position in their staff for an archaeologist."
In late 2004 a second tribal circle was discovered on the north bank of the Miami River. Construction crews digging up a parking lot made the find, and when archaeologists started digging, they began to uncover skeletons. "I thought the Seminoles and Miccosukees and the state should know, in part because of the number of human remains we were finding, but also because of the overall significance of the site," Elgart-Berry says. "Tensions were rising, and I informed a bunch of people."
Within days she was summoned to a meeting with a human resources staffer who told her that city manager Joe Arriola had ordered her termination. Her contract stated that she could be fired with or without cause; the city chose not to explain why she was being canned. "I asked, 'Why?' and they said, 'There is no reason.'"
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.