Dan Ricker Wants You!
Late in the afternoon on a recent Wednesday, the Metropolitan Planning Organization meets in the county commission chambers. Up on the dais, Commissioner Natacha Seijas is droning on about the necessity of widening a street in her Hialeah district. Only a couple of lobbyists sit in the gallery, joined by a handful of bureaucrats waiting to answer questions. Technically this is a public hearing, a chance for the residents affected by the street widening and other transportation matters to voice their opinions. No one from the public has spoken.
"They don't have time to be here," Seijas explains, leaning forward to speak into a small microphone. "They are working too hard. They are trying to raise the quality of life for their children, so they don't have time to be here. When they come home from work, they watch TV. They're tired."
But there is, in fact, one member of the public in attendance. And he's furiously scribbling notes. Meet Dan Ricker, a dapper gent who dresses in a double-breasted blue linen suit and slicks his hair back with pomade. Ricker is utterly convinced that there is a fruitful role for him to play in government. And for precisely the reason Seijas just articulated.
Ricker works as a sort of freelance citizen, attending every gathering of the Miami-Dade County Commission, the Miami City Commission, the Public Health Trust, and the school board, as well as countless obscure meetings that few people have neither the time for nor the interest in attending.
"He's very cool," comments Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "He goes everywhere, every time there is a meeting. He attends more meetings than an elected official. And these meetings are usually boring. Absolutely boring."
Ricker does not know boredom. He can think of few things more exciting than a zoning dispute. School board land purchases work him into a frenzy. A city commission debate about the illegal dumping of tires can keep him jazzed for hours. That's why he's taken a scalpel to his life and pared away anything that might distract him from his patriotic mission. No job. No time for his girlfriend. No room for virtually anything else.
"I see myself as an information electrolyte," says the 49-year-old Ricker, who until a few years ago worked as a salesman. "My goal is to improve the communication of all these interrelated governmental entities so that they can better work together."
Unfortunately there is not much money to be made as an electrolyte. None of the bodies Ricker monitors pays him for his labors. He exists solely on donations and voluntary subscriptions to his weekly Internet government digest, the Watchdog Report. Although he envisions a six-figure income for his work, he's been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for more than a year.
"Dan's on a mission that people don't quite understand," says his Coconut Grove neighbor Glenn Terry. "I know I don't understand it. But he's obsessed. He can't stop. I'm not sure if what he's doing serves any good. I'd like to think that it does."
Ricker is in his office, on the second floor of his Coconut Grove home, trying to explain what he hopes to accomplish with the Watchdog Report. So far his analogies run to fertilizer. "I feel like Miracle-Gro," he observes. "If we can get people excited -- give them hope -- then we can change government. If through what I'm doing I can activate two people out there to get involved, and then they go out and each activate one other person, then ... we can change society in a very random yet profound and aggregate way."
The office is littered with paper, countless agendas, budgets, and business cards. Schedules of public meetings hang by thumbtacks. Near the door he displays a few e-mails he's received from supporters: "Dan, I can't believe that anyone interested in the public process doesn't already subscribe to your newsletter!" writes Harve Mogul, chairman of the United Way of Greater Miami. "You really do perform a service ... and save people like me a bunch of time!"
Ricker depends on these fans for more than moral support. It was a booster who donated the new Gateway computer system on the desk in front of him. A copy editor reads his Internet roundup each week for free. A Grove lawyer represents him pro bono. Someone gave him a free cell phone. Written on the checks that supporters send him are the words he has adopted as his mantra: "Keep going!"
Ricker never thought he'd be so reliant on the kindness of strangers. Heck, he never thought he'd be involved in government. When he was a boy he wanted to be a spy. In school he developed a fascination with China, along with a talent for electrical engineering. He assumed he would take a position with the CIA, yet after college he found himself in another career that combined his interests. He became a heart pacemaker salesman, working in Asia.
For two decades he shuttled between the United States and the Far East. He lived in Japan. He lived in Australia for a while. In the early Nineties, he won an assignment in Miami, a city he loves more than Sydney. He bought a condo in the Grove and fell in with the kind of governmental activists that flourish like the neighborhood's ficus trees. In 1992 Ricker circulated petitions calling for the Grove's municipal independence from Miami.
Work kept getting in the way, though. About three years ago, after being assigned another tour of duty in Asia, and after discovering that his heart wasn't into heart surgery anymore, he quit his job and settled in Miami full-time. His brief, happy exposure to local politics, coupled with his knowledge of foreign governments, fed a daydream. Instead of looking for a new job, he decided to spend six months immersed in Miami's political landscape. Call it a citizenship sabbatical.
Initially Ricker was more of an activist than an observer. He demanded that the city's Charter Review Board make its meetings more accessible. He lobbied for the electoral defeat of long-time city Commissioner J.L. Plummer, whom he considered to be too arrogant for public life. ("He's entitled to his opinion, as wrong as he usually is," Plummer maintains.) Ricker became so involved in the campaign to oust Plummer that he briefly considered running for the seat himself. Eventually a candidate he could support, realtor Johnny Winton, entered the race and won.
After Winton's triumph Ricker looked around. He was enjoying himself more than he'd ever imagined. He liked mingling with politicians and activists and the news reporters who cover them. Although his goals remained vague, he decided to become even more involved. "When Winton got elected to office," Ricker recalls, "I had more time, which I chose to spend at the school board and the county. I soon realized I could do something even bigger than hold office myself. I could somehow try to make these people work together and know what the hell they're all doing."
So he began attending meetings. On a typical Thursday recently he attended a Miami City Commission meeting, a county commission meeting, a Domestic Violence Oversight Board meeting, a meeting of a little-known county finance committee, and a meeting of the Public Health Trust, the body that oversees the operation of Jackson Memorial Hospital. He might attend 60 meetings in a single week. Sixty percent of the time there aren't any reporters there, he says. Sometimes he's the only member of the public present.
"He sits through a lot of the meetings I don't know I would have the tolerance for," offers Miami Daily Business Review columnist Tony Doris. "These meetings are so damn boring half the time that it's amazing that anybody is willing to sit through any of them. I don't think I could."
Early on Ricker worked informally, without any real objective. He took notes at the meetings, but he didn't know what he was going to do with them. Occasionally he'd send tips or observations to reporters at the Herald and elsewhere. One e-mail earned a response that gave him the direction he was looking for.
"At that point I was regularly e-mailing a couple of reporters at the Miami Herald," he recounts. "I was telling them what's going on, saying, Hey, check this out. What do you think?' One time I wrote a memo about, oh, I don't know, the meltdown in the City of Miami, and [Herald reporter Joe] Tanfani came back saying to me: You know, this is really a thorough and cogent analysis of the situation.' That blew me away. I looked at these Herald guys in awe, and here Tanfani was telling me I was doing great work. That's when I decided to send out the e-mails."
That's when Ricker was reborn as the Watchdog.
The Watchdog snuffs out a Marlboro, adjusts his trademark red bow tie, and swings open a side door to the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. It's showtime. Walking with the pace of a man who draws energy just by being in the womb of county government, Ricker hustles past volunteers who are setting up a booth for a blood drive. "Hello," he says to one of them. "Hey there," he calls out to another. A man wearing what appears to be a fire department administrator's uniform comes into range. "Anything going on?" Ricker asks the man. "No? Okay." Two security guards manning a metal detector return Ricker's wave.
"These little people," he confides, "they see me around and they all raise their fists up and say, like, Go, Dan, go!'"
Ricker is dressed like the businessman he once was. The linen suit. The hair slicked back. Sure, his white dress shirt is frayed around the collar. And he's wearing black sneakers instead of his Gucci loafers, which he allows are too beat-up for public presentation. Still, the overall look is sharp, which is how he likes it.
"I want people to be able to see that I'm taking this serious," he says, riding an elevator to the top of the county government monolith. The doors swing open on the 29th floor, home of the executive offices of Mayor Alex Penelas and County Manager Merrett Stierheim.
Ricker strides past a receptionist, turning down a narrow hall lined with cubicles. After about twenty feet, he opens an unmarked wooden door. Before him unfolds an interior boardroom occupied by about twenty people in dark business suits. There is a meeting of some sort going on, though few people outside this room are aware of it. Ricker picks up an agenda from a credenza near the door, grabs a metal folding chair, and joins the cast of support staff ringing the conference table.
Hazy florescent lights bathe the room in a sickly green tint. It is so somberly quiet that Ricker can hear the ticking of the watch worn by the man sitting next to him. Around the conference table, committee members bandy about arcane terms: surplus funds, the 1954 transit agreement.
The paperwork Ricker just picked up indicates this is something called the manager's finance committee. The task before the committee this afternoon is to review "the financial advisor's review of various unsolicited bids related to aviation facilities bonds and past bonds." A second packet is titled, "Updated restructuring info relating to the Miami-Dade County Aviation Facilities revenue bonds."
This is probably a very important meeting. Bonds mean millions of dollars in taxpayer money, funds the county has a history of misspending at the airport. Ricker seems more impressed by the presence of a minor political celebrity.
"See that guy?" he whispers excitedly, indicating a dark-haired man seated near the head of the conference table. "That's Ed Marquez, the former Miami city manager!"
As if on cue, Marquez, who works these days as the senior vice president at a private bond firm, speaks up. "I've got Rudy here from our Dallas office, who can walk us through the nuances of a tender program," he explains to the room. Rudy, who is sitting next to Ricker, stands up and proceeds to lecture for ten minutes on the subtleties of a tender program. To lay ears Rudy might as well be speaking Russian. Whether or not he understands what is being said, Ricker records nearly every word in a small spiral notebook given to him by a sympathetic Herald scribe.
The meeting is almost unbearably boring, even to the people participating in it. Yet Ricker picks up something from the handouts, a nugget of information compelling enough to stimulate the sensibilities of any journalist covering county hall. "The bid and work to be done by Gilbert Southern Corp. on the northside runway project at the airport is drawing Federal Aviation Administration interest," Ricker jots in his notebook. "The company claims they made a mistake in the bid calculations, and the work could cost over 40 million more to complete. The FAA has threatened to deny all federal funds for this project if the county does not go forward with the lowest bidder."
Ricker's tip is disseminated the following Monday morning in the Watchdog Report. Every week he e-mails his report to a secret list of politicians, bureaucrats, and activists. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people read the report each week, he insists, though he refuses to reveal his distribution list. Some 400 journalists are included in the readership total, he says, which is what gives the report its teeth. Ricker's electronically distributed serving of spinach is a dense digest of the past week in government, presented in bullet form. He reduces almost every one of the dozens of meetings he attends to a one-paragraph summary. Not everything is interesting. Some examples:
"-- Millions of tires dumped in canals and lakes contribute to flooding problems throughout our community. Frank Vecin commander of the environmental unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department said that recently they have taken 150 cars out of lakes. This unit seems determined to make a dent in this county-wide problem. He believes that this dumping is being done in an organized way.
"-- The County Manager's Office is in disagreement with the Miami-Dade Inspector General's office over its findings in the assignment of Globetrotter's lease to Carnival Rent A Car. This disagreement exemplifies the independent nature of the I.G. In the county organizational chart the I.G.'s office is an independent agency. At Tuesday's commission meeting the I.G. will present its findings.
"-- Channel 10 reporter Olga Bichachi was in the pressroom while Miami-Dade school board member Manty Sabates Morse lectured her from the dais. Morse was unhappy about the recent negative stories on school construction."
There's not a lot of analysis. Little of the information is ranked according to news value. An entire report can be a tough meal to digest.
"There's this peppermint soap that has been sold in health-food stores since I was a hippie 30 years ago," says Glenn Terry, a long-time Grove activist. "It's called Dr. Bronner's soap. On the bottle Dr. Bronner filled up the label with everything he thought was important, the peppermint, the other ingredients, and such. I look at all the words printed on the label, and it's too much to comprehend. I see Dan [and his Watchdog Report] as a Dr. Bronner with his soap bottle. It's hard to read it all. It's hard to read any of it after a while."
Herald opinion section editor Tom Fiedler shares Terry's view. "Dan's shortcoming is that he has all the eagerness of a young reporter. He gets involved, and he wants to share all his information," Fiedler offers. "But he doesn't really have the skills yet. I think it does take some training."
Back in September 1999, when Ricker was still only sending occasional e-mails to Herald reporters, Fiedler offered to run a compilation of Ricker's observations as a weekly column in that paper. "The guy is kind of endearing," recalls the editor. "He was doing this Internet stuff. It wasn't really polished or professional, but his passion was obvious. He was going to meetings from 7:00 a.m. on, every day, to places where reporters aren't going. At the time we didn't really have anything at the Herald that attempts to get at little inside-baseball nuggets. So we thought we'd polish his writing a bit and give him a column. That was the hope. The reality is it didn't quite reach the level we had anticipated. Frankly I don't know if there was enough of a response."
While the gig paid only $150 per week, publication in the Herald gave Ricker the exposure and credibility rarely dreamed of by the average activist. Soon Ricker was appearing regularly on WLRN radio (91.3-FM). WFOR-TV (Channel 4) named him a citizen of the week. New Times awarded him the honorable title "Best Gadfly 2000." Even the Spanish-language press began reprinting his columns and calling him for radio interviews.
"I did a search the other day on the Internet," Ricker says. "The Washington Post has now quoted the Watchdog, the New York Post twice, Palm Beach [Post], St. Petersburg [Times]. I didn't know that. It's kind of cool."
The Herald column ran for fourteen weeks until Ricker, pleading poverty, decided to take a hiatus from his rounds. Fiedler wasn't exactly crestfallen. "There is some value in having somebody simply as an extra set of eyes," he says. "And this guy loves to go to meetings. How many reporters love to go to meetings? He really enjoys that. Beyond that, is there a public purpose to what he does? I don't know. I don't know exactly who benefits beyond Dan."
In his last year selling pacemakers, Ricker says he earned about $220,000. By the time he quit writing for the Herald, he was flat broke. He is trying to make the Watchdog Report a self-supporting for-profit business, albeit one with the noblest of intentions. He admits it has been a struggle.
The Report, much like Consumer Reports magazine, doesn't accept money from advertisers, lest such money compromise its integrity. Ricker is requesting that corporate subscribers pay $1000 to receive the e-mail installments. Suggested individual subscriptions cost $150. Students should pay $75. That's a lot of money, a lot more than most magazines charge, even political journals. The weekly newspaper Miami Today, which sends reporters to many of the meetings Ricker covers (though not nearly as many) is distributed free of charge.
"The way I see it, I need to take in about $120,000 a year, minimum," Ricker explains. "The first $20,000 will cover my expenses or will be a bonus or whatever; the rest will be my salary. What do reporters make, about $70,000 a year? $80,000? $90,000?"
Actually less than half that, on average.
Although Ricker works diligently to attend more meetings than anyone else, little of what makes government interesting happens in the public eye. Votes frequently are decided in advance, often in backroom discussions with lobbyists or other commissioners. A good reporter illuminates the true workings of government as opposed to merely transcribing what happens in public view. Not that stenographers don't have their place.
"I would say that for what he does, he does it well," says the Daily Business Review's Tony Doris, one of the better government reporters in Miami. "He finds things out and sends them out in telegraphic form. As far as that goes, that's an important role, and no one else does it enough. But he's not an analytical or in-depth reporter. He doesn't have time."
At one point Ricker explored the possibility of incorporating the Watchdog Report as a nonprofit organization. He even began assembling a board of directors. He abandoned the plan when he realized that nonprofit status comes with a host of restrictions on how donated money can be spent. "I could have ended up in jail," he laughs. Ricker insists he is living a "hand-to-mouth" existence, paying his electric bill at Jorge's Pharmacy on Coral Way. Yet he also says he's on target to reach his salary goal.
Only he knows the actual state of his finances. He refuses to divulge, for instance, how many subscribers pay for his service. The Miami Herald purchased a subscription, Tom Fiedler says, though it is not known if the newspaper paid the full $1000 corporate rate. Ricker won't say. Tony Doris gets his report for free, as do the editors of Miami Today and Miami New Times. Ricker pays $2200 per month just to rent his Grove home. He'd love to move, he says, but he can't afford to.
"The other day I was listening to the Public Health Trust discuss indigent health care," he says, "and I looked around the room and realized that I was probably the only indigent person there." Finances have been so precarious as he pursues this project, he says, that he once put a rifle in his mouth and toyed with the thought of pulling the trigger.
"That's how bad it was," he says flatly. "I had been doing this for about a year. My car was broke, so I had to ride to meetings on my neighbor's kid's bicycle. Then my entire list of e-mail addresses was erased from my computer. On the same day the $800 or so I had left in my bank account was wiped out by an ATM scam thing. It looked pretty bleak. And to be honest, that Saturday night I'm sitting there thinking, I did it. I did what I could and maybe it's time to ... It's been a great life or whatever.'"
Ricker has long described his adventure in government in life-or-death terms. Pleading poverty is almost a pastime for him. On January 3, 2000, Herald reporter Tyler Bridges wrote a profile of Ricker with this headline: "Miami-Dade Watchdog will be missed." Ricker was quoted as saying he no longer can afford to serve the public for free. Yet three months later he was back in the Herald with an editorial, still wearing the Watchdog label.
After New Times awarded him the title "Best Gadfly," Ricker responded with a long letter gently taking issue with the term gadfly and passionately announcing that his watchdogging was over, that he couldn't go on anymore.
"Contrary to the perceived public impression," he wrote, "I have destroyed myself financially doing this, and in the near future will be filing for bankruptcy. The business world perceives me as radioactive, a whistleblower on steroids who seems to have ties with the press, police, and government officials. In other words way too dangerous to have around. Thus, after 21 months of trying to keep the pressure on, it will soon be over for me. I will become just another example of this community's motto: No good deed goes unpunished.'"
He concluded by predicting that he would soon sink into oblivion. "I wish I were more upbeat, but this town has finally taken its toll on me," he wrote. That was May 18, 2000.
By September he was back in the Herald with another editorial, again begging for donations. "Frankly, every time I should have quit this activity something new and incredible would occur, thus keeping me in the game," he wrote. "I am now, more than ever, committed to continuing all of my activities and to publishing the Watchdog Report 48 times each year."
In November he manned a Watchdog Report booth at the Miami Book Fair. His report is coming out weekly as planned, and it looks better each week. The reporting is getting more digestible as well, as Ricker learns how to "slant" information, as he says, to make it more palatable to his readers. Yet every Watchdog Report still ends with a plaintive plea for funds. "We cannot continue without your support though I wish it were otherwise," he said. In a January e-mail request for a donation from New Times's editor, Ricker warned that he may be out of business before this article could be published. "This last [issue] was really close," he relays.
One of the main arguments Ricker uses to justify his salary goal is his work ethic. "I feel I work fairly hard," he opines. And it's hard to argue his point. Few if any reporters work harder or as steadily as he does. No reporter attends more meetings, that's for sure. "It's part of the gig," he shrugs. "I'm usually the only reporter willing to be at the Public Health Trust at 7:00 at night."
In fact it's 7:30 now, and Ricker has just left the Public Health Trust meeting to return one last time to Dinner Key. He's been working since 8:00 this morning, but he wants to stop in at Miami City Hall for one last sweep of the city commission meeting. "Just in case I missed anything," he says.
It's late. It would be a good time to go home, or maybe to the Taurus for a drink. Ricker has a girlfriend, though he admits his work drives her nuts. "I'm never around," he explains. "On the weekends I never do anything but write the Report. Last Saturday we went to the circus but could only stay from 3:00 until 4:00 because I was working again by a quarter to five. She argues with me all the time."
Ricker has been married to three different women. Each time, he says, his wife left him for another man. While he points out optimistically that he hasn't had a divorce since 1987, he allows that publication of the Watchdog Report is the main force in his life right now. "If I can do one thing to bring the spark plug of information to the engine of civic government, then it will all be worth it," he declares. "Of course I do have a Pollyanna attitude. I mean, I almost got goose bumps down at county hall when I watched them do the electronic recount the day after the presidential election."
Arriving back at city hall, Ricker discovers a parking lot full of cars. The city commission is still meeting. Poking his head into the chambers, Ricker receives an earful of an argument between Commissioner Regalado and the city manger concerning Miami's cable television channel. Ricker looks at his watch. "This is great!" he exclaims, scanning an agenda crammed with issues yet to be discussed. "This could go all night!"
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