No Way Joe
After an acrimonious North Miami City Council meeting last October, the rancor spilled into the parking lot of city hall at 776 NE 125th St. Mayor Josaphat "Joe" Celestin accused David Burns and other community activists of being racists. "He also had the audacity to say that he was going to crown the city's next mayor," Burns says.
It appears that Celestin additionally intends to hold sway over the installation of North Miami's next city manager, and another ugly scene is bound to ensue when the city council convenes on January 27 to finalize a decision about filling that position.
For the past six months, Celestin, a Haitian American, has been locked in a quarrel with some of North Miami's affluent white activists and the two white city council members over decisions affecting the city's future. Celestin tainted the search for a new manager with the perception of favoritism at a time when North Miami government needs to hire a capable, professional administrator, complains Scott Galvin, one of the white council members. At a January 6 council meeting, Galvin relates, Celestin bullied the Haitian-American majority council into scrapping the work of a screening committee that had divided a list of 35 candidates into the following categories: "highly qualified," "qualified," "minimally qualified," and "not qualified." The council voted three to two to have each member nominate an individual from the list. Galvin and Michael Blynn, the city's other white council member, voted against the Haitian bloc of Celestin, Vice Mayor Jean Monestime, and council member Jacques Despinosse.
Galvin preferred that the council expand the slate and interview the five "highly qualified" candidates and the ten "qualified" applicants, eliminating the rest of the field. "My request fell on deaf ears," Galvin says over a Saturday-morning latte at the Starbucks on 135th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
Instead Celestin nominated Nadine Pierre-Louis, a family therapist and former banking and finance executive. Despinosse nominated North Miami's solid waste director Clyde Patterson, and Blynn put forth Delray Beach administrator Dennis Kelly. Of the three candidates, only Kelly was considered "highly qualified" by the city's screening committee. Pierre-Louis and Patterson were among the fifteen candidates ranked "unqualified." Monestime says he did not select an applicant because he did not have time to review their résumés. In protest of the procedure, Galvin selected no one. "I didn't want to give the impression that I favored a certain applicant," Galvin explains. "We needed to show some neutrality in the interview process."
Burns, a Celestin critic who sits on the board of the Keystone Point Homeowners Association, an affluent community east of Biscayne Boulevard, was dumbfounded by Celestin's decision to back Pierre-Louis. "Joe talks about bringing in someone who can provide us with financial stability," Burns says, "yet he wants to give the job to someone who has never handled a $115 million municipal budget, has never bargained with employee unions, and doesn't know a thing about city administration."
According to her résumé, since 2002 Pierre-Louis has been the executive director of the Family Enrichment Institute in unincorporated south Miami-Dade, a nonprofit agency assisting drug addicts and mental patients. Before becoming a family therapist in 2001 Pierre-Louis served stints as a senior vice president at both a branch of Barnett Bank (which has since been purchased by North Carolina-based Bank of America) and the Dean Witter Reynolds Coral Gables office. She has a master's degree in marriage and family therapy from St. Thomas University and a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Miami.
Pierre-Louis earlier applied to be the manager for the Village of El Portal, a municipality of about 2500 residents compared with North Miami's population of 58,000. El Portal's predominantly Haitian-American council did not even grant her an interview because of her lack of public sector and government experience. Pierre-Louis, whose home phone number is disconnected, declined to answer several questions about her background via e-mail.
Celestin's nomination of fellow Haitian-American Pierre-Louis is just the latest skirmish in the mayor's ongoing war with council members, city administrators, and North Miami's well-to-do white community. Galvin blames Celestin for creating the hostility. "Instead of focusing on the positive things that are going on, Celestin is set on wreaking havoc," Galvin asserts. "He is the caricature of the small-time politician whose head is bigger than his office."
The turmoil comes at a time when the city is undertaking an ambitious redevelopment plan. Officials are banking the city's future on Biscayne Landing, a mega mixed-use development consisting of thousands of high-end condos and affordable houses, a hotel, a town center, and a park to be built on top of a former twenty-year-old garbage dump and EPA Superfund clean-up site known as Munisport. The project, which stretches from Biscayne Boulevard to Biscayne Bay within city limits, is being built by hotshot developer Michael Swerdlow. Biscayne Landing also falls within North Miami's proposed community redevelopment district, encompassing 3600 acres, roughly 60 percent of the city. Officials, including Celestin and Galvin, hope the project will generate up to $400 million in property taxes to redevelop that area of North Miami.
Whoever is named city manager will be entirely responsible for overseeing Biscayne Landing and the redevelopment district. Galvin and Burns say Celestin's ambition is to control the city well beyond his second term, which expires in 2005. Under the city charter, Celestin cannot run for mayor again. But if he can convince the city council to select Pierre-Louis, Galvin explains, Celestin may have a city manager he can exert influence over. "Former City Manager Irma Plummer wasn't afraid to tell Joe no," he says. "I'm sure he will try to make Pierre-Louis, or whoever the council selects, his puppet." The city is going to pay the new manager an annual salary of $195,000. That's $45,000 more than Plummer was making when she left North Miami's employ after seven years.
Celestin has been a controversial figure in North Miami politics since his first campaign in 1996. During that campaign and three subsequent unsuccessful runs for public office, including his first North Miami mayoral bid in 1999, critics have lambasted Celestin as a temperamental political opportunist with dubious intentions. "His credibility doesn't go from here to the end of the room," Carline Paul, a prominent Haitian-American activist, told New Times during that election.
On May 15, 2001, the 46-year-old Celestin finally claimed victory, defeating African-American Arthur "Duke" Sorey by 352 votes. Celestin won despite allegations that he did not meet the city's residency requirements to hold elected office. Last year the State Attorney's Office cleared Celestin of those allegations, though in that same investigation prosecutors "strongly suggested" Celestin use better judgment in his business dealings. Last year, he faced no challengers and was automatically re-elected.
During a brief interview at his city hall office, a subdued Celestin refuses to answer questions about his general conduct. He insists that Pierre-Louis is qualified to be city manager.
"Nadine is an expert in municipal bonds," Celestin says. "She is an expert in pension funds. She is a grant writer and she is a newsmaker. My inclination is to look for someone who is well knowledgeable in money management and that is her expertise." Celestin says he called several applicants, including Pierre-Louis and Patterson. The mayor added that he used to do business at Pierre-Louis's Barnett branch. "I haven't seen Nadine in more than fifteen years until she applied for this job," says Celestin. "I recognized her name right away."
Celestin dismissed Galvin's assertions that he bullies the city council into voting in his favor. "No matter how you look at it, three council members each picked someone they want to give the job to," Celestin says. "I'm only one vote on the council. The entire council will decide who is going to be the city manager. It may be Nadine or it may be someone else."
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