Pity the Poor Politicos
On a stormy Tuesday this past November, voters in Miami approved a measure that raised the annual salary of their five city commissioners to a reasonable $58,200. Since 1949 the salary had been set at a paltry $5000 per year. Although a pathetic nine percent of the city's electorate cast ballots on November 4, even many who didn't make it to the polls could see the virtue of such an increase. After all, as the resolution that put the measure on the ballot stated, the duties of a Miami city commissioner had "significantly increased, encompassing a major portion of each commissioner's daily activities." The fate of our "modern city" rested upon the provision of "appropriate salaries." The ballot item, however, asked voters to answer this basic question: Should commissioners' salaries be set at $58,200? The answer was Yes.
Now that Miami's commissioners are blessed with what most working stiffs would consider a full-time salary, all have gladly retreated from their stressed-out, private-sector lives in order to concentrate fully on the public's business, right? Of course not. Some of them wouldn't even do that for $92,600, which is what the city actually pays them each year.
Angel Gonzalez is the only member of the Miami City Commission to have quit his outside job. "I'm just working for the commission," says the District 1 representative, whose net worth is about $300,000, according to a financial-disclosure statement filed in June 2003. "It feels good. I'm glad to be able to have more time to dedicate to the city issues, problems. It is a full-time job. If you want to be on top of things, it consumes a lot of time. But it's good -- that's what we were elected for."
After the November election, convicted-felon Gonzalez (vote fraud, 1999) resigned from his $36,000 position as a security consultant. His employer was A&A Security and Investigations Group, a Miami-Dade company that guards construction sites, homes, and at least one celebrity whose name Gonzalez declines to reveal. "It was a shame that before, we couldn't dedicate as much time as we should," he says, adding that he still never gets home from his commissioner's labors before 8:00 p.m.
District 3 Commissioner Joe Sanchez plans to keep his job at the Coconut Grove-based accounting firm of Lewis B. Freeman, where the former state trooper works as an investigator. But after the salary increase passed, Freeman reduced Sanchez's workload from about 30 to 15 hours per week, and lowered his salary to $42,000. "He basically said now it's my obligation to put in more time at city hall," Sanchez recounts. "And I really have been doing that." But Sanchez, whose financial statement puts his net worth at $74,770, says he can't quit altogether. "I've invested a lot of resources in that company," he says. "I just can't walk away. It's not fair to my family."
District 4 Commissioner Tomas Regalado has no plans to change his current work routine. He will keep his gigs as an early-morning radio news director for four local FM stations owned by the Spanish Broadcasting Service and as midday talk-show host at Telemiami, a local cable TV station. "I have reduced a little the hours on the radio, but nothing spectacular," he says. "The good thing is that I start the radio at 4:00 a.m., then I leave around 8:30 a.m." Regalado earns about $14,000 per year from his Telemiami job and says his SBS contract forbids him from disclosing his radio salary. "I didn't campaign for the salary increase. I was surprised it passed," says Regalado, who last year listed his net worth at $4000 and reported about $62,000 in debts. But he's okay with the raise. "It sends a message saying that elected officials should be paid a decent salary so more people will decide to run for office. I mean, that's the philosophy and it's fine by me." Among other things, the raise has helped Regalado satisfy a $9000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service, which had been garnisheeing his paychecks for the past two years.
District 5 Commissioner Art Teele, who is a lawyer, plans to continue his work advising foreign companies interested in entering the U.S. market, especially in the areas of infrastructure and transportation. That labor earned him about $150,000 in 2002, he says. Teele reported $12,000 in "cash on hand" and a net worth of $312,269 at the end of 2002, according to his most recent financial-disclosure statement.
Nonetheless Teele resolved to become more available to the public after the commissioners' raise came through. "I think [the salary increase] will force people in elected office to spend even more time on the public business," he says, "because people will say, 'Hey, I'm paying you.' Before, nobody could say that. I'm more diligent now about setting up appointments and getting back on appointments, as opposed to just turning things over to staff."
District 2 Commissioner Johnny Winton deserves credit for pushing through the ballot initiative. He raised the issue during his successful first run for the commission in 1999. Then he persuaded his colleagues to put the matter before voters in 2001. They rebuffed him then, but this year he prevailed, thanks largely to his constituents in Upper Eastside precincts, who were especially motivated to go to the polls because Winton was up for re-election. But the blunt businessman will not be winding down his operations at Wynco Realty Partners, of which he is co-owner and president. "Are you hallucinating?" he huffs. "No, I'm not going to leave my other job. I'm not about to give up my company because I'm making $58,000 a year as a commissioner."
First, Winton doesn't consider 58K to be a full-time salary. And second, the self-confessed workaholic didn't campaign for the salary increase so he could take a breather from the private sector. He did it for "blue-collar" folks. "My pitch always has been to pay a salary that's high enough so that people who live in working-class neighborhoods can afford to sit in office," he explains. "That's always been my pitch. With a $5000 salary, you take a significant segment of the population of a city like Miami and you say unequivocally that they can't run for office, because people who have blue-collar jobs get paid by the hour. Blue-collar employers don't allow their employees off to do volunteer time and still pay 'em. So as a consequence when you pay $5000 a year, they're locked out of the system entirely." He thinks it's unreasonable to expect all commissioners to leave the private sector for $58,200 per year. "That was never part of any suggestion whatsoever to the public -- ever. Not once. So the answer is no, I don't expect that's the expectation because that was never a part of the pitch -- ever."
A reminder of the low voter turnout annoys Winton. "I don't determine who goes to the goddamn polls," he barks. "The polls are open for anybody who's registered to vote. And it was a November election. We didn't pick some obscure Tuesday, we picked a regular November election. So I can't help it. People get elected when only nine percent of the people come out to vote. So should those people not be elected because only nine percent came out to vote? It was on the ballot. The public knew it was coming. If they didn't want it, they could have come out and voted against it. That's my point. They could come out and vote against it if they didn't like it."
Indeed more voters might have braved the storms on election day had they known that city commissioners were already making much more than a measly $5000 yearly. Each commissioner was pulling in an additional $14,400 in the form of cell phone and car allowances -- money that is simply added to their paychecks. (Teele has chosen to forgo the car cash in favor of using a city-owned vehicle -- all expenses covered, including insurance.) In addition, in December 2002 the city's outgoing and generous manager, Carlos Gimenez, quietly implemented a little-known stipend he called "expense allowance." The unheralded gift came to $1666 each month, which fattened commissioners' compensation by $20,000 per year. Combined with the new $58,200 salary, each city commissioner will receive $92,600 this year.
Johnny Winton wasn't even aware of the $20,000 expenses booty until New Times pointed it out. Being a man who doesn't consider $58,200 to be a full-time salary (gross income in 2002: $800,000), the real estate broker and investor admits he's been too busy to pay attention to his city paychecks. "I'm opposed to this expense allowance completely," he declares. "Frankly I thought we got $200 or $300 a month for expenses. I have a huge problem with getting this giant increase in expense allowance and a salary increase." He plans to raise the issue at the January 29 commission meeting.
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.