Poor Relations

The eighth item on the agenda at this past month's meeting of the Metro-Dade Community Relations Board regarded the touchy subject of business cards. Seated around a long, narrow table in a cramped Government Center conference room, the 26 board members learned that it is against county policy to distribute personal business cards imprinted with the Community Relations Board address and phone number. And a particularly bad idea if you've just rear-ended another car in traffic and you're about to leave the scene of the accident.

Lamentably, board member Gustavo Adolfo Marin had done just that after an April mishap in Hialeah. Handing the people in the dinged-up car a business card sporting the Metro-Dade logo and the impressive qualifier "Police Community Relations" beneath his name (he and fellow board member Waldo Faura had the cards printed at their own expense), Marin had announced that he didn't have time to wait for the police, and then had driven off. The startled victims took down Marin's tag number, the police got in touch with Marin, and eventually the case was resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The executive director of the Community Relations Board, Lloyd Major, learned of the incident when a relative of the victims phoned him at the number on Marin's card.

Discussion of the matter among board members followed a tortuous path. Jose L centspez-Calleja made a motion that the board adopt a rule that personal CRB business cards aren't sanctioned. Others stood up for Marin, who wasn't present at the meeting. "Excuse me, I don't see nothing wrong with the guy giving a card," protested Eddie Silva, co-owner of a security firm. "Maybe he doesn't have anything else." Retorted Rev. Cornelius Wilkes of Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church: "When you violate the law, you violate the law." The proposed rule passed; dissenting were Silva and his business partner Alfredo Hidalgo-Gato, Faura, recent appointee Mario Martinez Malo, and Marin's longtime friend Ada Rojas. Faura, however, vows to reintroduce the subject at the next meeting. "We should have some kind of identification when we go places and meet somebody," he argues.

If it could just get down to business, the Community Relations Board might be able to pursue its noble mission of working to smooth relations among Dade County's increasingly diverse ethnic and social groups. Inspired by the civil rights movement and formed in 1963, the CRB has enjoyed a reputation as an effective conciliatory force among often bitterly opposed groups. The all-volunteer board is credited with helping to make peace after the McDuffie and Mercado riots in 1980 and 1990, respectively, and with working to prevent violence amid last year's retrial of Miami police officer William Lozano, who was acquitted of wrongdoing in the 1989 killing of a black motorcyclist. Many of Dade's most prominent citizens have occupied seats on the board, says Lloyd Major, including the chairmen of Pan Am, Eastern Airlines, and Burdines.

But nowadays the CRB's role is muddled, thanks to the formation of the Community Affairs Department's Intergroup Relations program, which has essentially the same role. Further confusing matters, CAD director Aristides Sosa also oversees the CRB, which had been under the auspices of the county manager until about three years ago. Beginning with the November 1993 election that installed the revamped Metro government, each county commissioner makes two appointments to the CRB. (Executive Director Lloyd Major and four other county employees serve as support staff; they receive salaries but aren't voting board members.) The new protocol is a substantial departure from the old process, in which commissioners voted at-large on appointments from a list of screened nominees submitted by the CRB staff. Now there's no screening, no list: Each commissioner makes his or her own selections; appointees' terms are equivalent to those of their respective commissioner's. "So there are political appointments for the first time in the history of the board," says Major, a member of the board's staff since 1984 and director since 1990.

Wilkes, the CME pastor, an appointee of Art Teele, is a CRB veteran who also served on the board before the change in appointment process. "It's shot it all to hell is what happened," Wilkes says. "The commissioners are giving these positions to people who aren't sensitive to community relations. It's become a political plum. We come up with issues that have nothing to do with human relations in Dade County," adds Wilkes, citing racial polarization and stalemates over emotional matters.

Ergo the business card debate, and an upcoming battle over Rev. Arthur Jackson III's proposal that the board formally congratulate Nelson Mandela on his election to the South African presidency -- the man Miami's Cuban leadership snubbed during his 1991 visit, prompting a sixteen-month black boycott of the city's tourism industry. At the June meeting, when Silva complained of Mandela's unpopularity among Miami Cubans, Wilkes snapped, "Well, this is the United States, not Cuba."

At least in part, the problem might be due to the fact that the CRB does not exactly "reflect the gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the community," as recommended by county ordinance.

"And it's called the Community Relations Board," points out Dr. Mireille Tribie. A certified M.D. in the Dominican Republic and currently director of the University of Miami's Hemophilia Program, Tribie attended her first CRB meeting in March, as an observer. (Usually only one or two members of the public show up.) She was disappointed, she recalls, that not a single black woman was sitting at the table, nor a single representative of the county's estimated 100,000 Haitians. In fact, Tribie adds, she couldn't help but notice the scarcity of women, period.

Indeed, only 5 of the CRB's 26 members are female. Black and Cuban-American men are statistically over-represented, relative to county demographics; and of the board's thirteen Hispanic members, only one is not Cuban. (The board also counts among its members at least one felon: Alfredo Hidalgo-Gato, a former Metro-Dade police officer and an appointee of Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who pled guilty in state court to charges of grand theft and insurance fraud in 1989.) Overall, the CRB more closely conforms to the Metro Commission's demographics than to those of the community at large.

After that first meeting, Tribie decided she would show up as an informal Haitian presence when the board convened every month. As it happened, one of the board members, a Hispanic woman appointed by Commissioner Javier Souto, resigned soon after.

It seemed like a golden opportunity for a commissioner to take a step toward remedying the CRB's ethnic imbalance and for Tribie to become a more active advocate for her community. Board Chairman Manny Crespo submitted to Souto a list of names of qualified black women interested in serving (including Tribie's), and Lloyd Major says he spoke with Souto's chief of staff at least twice about appointing a black woman. Tribie wrote to and phoned the commissioner's chief of staff, and at one point she introduced herself, in Spanish, to Souto at a public gathering -- all to remind him she wanted the appointment. In early April, Souto's office announced the appointment. It was neither a woman nor a Haitian. It was a another Cuban man.

Souto says he appointed Mario Martinez Malo to the seat because Martinez Malo is "an old friend from the Brigade," referring to Brigade 2506, the Cuban contingent that invaded the Bay of Pigs in 1961; he adds that Martinez Malo had been visiting his office to express interest in the position. No one ever told him about any black women, Souto insists, nor did he see any letter from the CRB.

Martinez Malo joins a vocal Cuban contingent that in December attempted to unseat the board's officers, who had been elected before the November revamping. "The board was controlled by a certain group in the last two years; they want to maintain control, and the only way is to go back to the old system, so now they're creating the issue of Haitians not being represented, someone else not being represented," argues Alfredo Hidalgo-Gato, who also sits on several City of Miami advisory committees.

Tribie got a second chance at the CRB in June, when a Kaplan appointee was removed from the board for failing to attend meetings. Tribie went to speak with Kaplan's chief of staff. The office already had received a form letter from the CRB that was sent to all commissioners advising of the absence of black women on the board. Kaplan appointed Tribie on June 23, making her the first Haitian woman ever to sit on the board. "I'm ecstatic," she says. "I can fill in some gaps for my sisters until some others get onboard."

Non-Cuban Hispanics also are becoming more vocal about their lack of representation on the CRB. Victor Pinz centsn, president of a nonprofit organization called the Hispanic-Latin Foundation, attended the most recent meeting to complain that the board ignores the Colombians, Nicaraguans, Argentinians, and other Latin nationalities that make up a sizable presence in Dade.

Board member and erstwhile business-card toter Gustavo Adolfo Marin doesn't see what the problem is. "We are designated by the county commissioners," he explains. "You don't expect an Anglo commissioner to recommend someone from Colombia, or a Cuban to recommend people from Bosnia -- what is the point? If they want to be represented, they need a commissioner from Haiti, one from Nicaragua. You know what I mean. If they can be involved in community affairs, we are very glad, but we represent the commissioners.


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