Rules Are Not Made to Be Broken
City of Miami employees generally keep their lips buttoned. Despite pervasive incompetence and corruption, most employees decline to speak up. Manuel Garcia is not one of those employees.
The 58-year-old Watson Island marina aide has always been outspoken, even when candor has been imprudent. Before arriving in Miami in 1979, and long before taking a city job, Garcia was a political prisoner in Cuba. Four of his family members were also prisoners; a brother was even killed in prison. Yet Garcia never kept quiet during his seventeen and a half years of incarceration, despite the consequences. "He got beat up in prison something like 200 times," says Alfredo Rodriguez, a friend and a former city employee. "He always refused to tell the authorities what they wanted to hear, so they would beat him up."
Ten years ago, after a stint as a taxi driver, Garcia landed a temporary job at the city's downtown Bayside Marina, eventually working his way up to a full-time post managing Watson Island's marina, a row of 40 boat slips. City officials have never quite figured out what to do with Watson Island, and it shows: A ramshackle fish market sits next to an abandoned sailboat sunk to its mast; unpaved roads are punctuated with potholes.
Faced with such neglect, Garcia has improvised. There was no city office at the marina, so he personally purchased a small house trailer and parked it at the site. When the weeds get too high, Garcia trucks in his own mower from his Allapattah home. He earns $24,000 per year.
As a Miami taxpayer, Garcia is well aware of the city's financial crisis. That's why he's so upset with the owner and the skipper of the Gulf Stream Falcon, a boat he believes is not paying its fair share to the city. More important, he's ticked off at his city superiors' apparent lack of interest in collecting.
It all started with the Piling Incident.
The Falcon, a 95-foot vessel built for oil exploration but converted to a dive boat, is at the center of the controversy. Early last year the Falcon sought out a slip at Watson Island after leaving the more expensive Miami Beach marina.
Garcia assigned the boat to a slip at the far northern end of the marina, the only space large enough to accommodate it, and for a while everything went smoothly. The boat's skipper, Jeff Powell, paid the $500 monthly rent without fail. (The rate for a 95-foot boat at Miami Beach is $2185 per month.) Rules were followed. Everyone got along fine.
Then on the night of October 13, the Falcon moved to a different slip, one closer to the marina's other boats. But the slip it occupied was only seventeen feet wide, more than four feet narrower than the boat's 21.5-foot beam. As Garcia wrote in his log book when he arrived at work on October 14: "Obviously, the boat did not fit and broke the two middle pilings." (Boats moored at Watson Island are made secure by tying up to such pilings, which cost approximately $900 each to replace.)
"The day of that incident, I talked to [skipper Jeff Powell] and he told me that it was an accident," Garcia recalls. "No, no such accident. You know if you've got a boat 21 feet wide, you cannot fit that boat in a 17-foot slip. It's not an accident. It is intentional."
Garcia's immediate supervisor, Raul de la Torre, viewed the damage, agreed with his assistant, and ordered Powell to pay for the pilings and to vacate Watson Island by October 31. But by Halloween the Falcon had not moved and the broken pilings had not been paid for. The boat stayed through November, too, and because the pilings remain broken, it effectively occupied two slips instead of one. Furthermore, Powell began keeping a smaller boat in an adjacent slip.
Repeatedly Garcia ordered Powell to pay for the pilings and for all three slips he was occupying, and repeatedly he was rebuffed. Powell continued to pay only the $500 rental for a single slip.
Garcia then complained directly to Christina Abrams, the city's director of public facilities, who assigned her assistant, Terry Buice, to investigate. Buice began negotiating with the Falcon's owner, Alden Hanson. "I have followed up diligently," Buice says. "There must be some personality conflict. Basically I've spoken to the owner at least seven, eight times here and at his office in Baltimore [where Hanson spends about half his time]. He has already hired a man to put in the pilings. We have three letters of intent stating he wants to work with the city. The gentleman pays his bills on time. He even pays prior. He's a fine gentleman."
But Garcia remained unsatisfied. He didn't see any reason why the city should negotiate with Hanson or Powell. They broke the pilings, they took up two extra slips, and they had paid for none of it. "I am not asking for an increased salary," Garcia stresses. "I am not asking for another position. What I am asking for is the city to do what it is supposed to do. You have to try to give everybody the same treatment, you know?"
Suspicious that the Falcon was receiving special favors, Garcia contacted Joseph Centorino, head of the public corruption unit at the Dade State Attorney's Office. Centorino declined to get involved on the grounds that there did not appear to be any criminal activity. Undaunted, Garcia then went to a member of the city's Civil Service Board, who explained that the board had no reason to enter the fray.
"I don't know what else can I do now. I was thinking about writing a letter to President Clinton at the White House -- or something like that," Garcia huffs, his voice rising. "Because at every level of this country somebody has to do something. I don't know what, but what is happening there with that boat is illegal!"
On January 6 owner Alden Hanson toured the marina with Garcia's supervisor, de la Torre. Hanson insisted the pilings would be replaced and the smaller boat would be moved from the third slip. In a letter to Buice dated January 8, Hanson explained that he was shopping for the best price on new pilings. "I want to have someone local," he added, "so that when I have the money, I can add four more pilings so that the slip is very secure."
Garcia is still steamed about the continuing negotiations. "Now he wrote a letter stating 'when I have money,'" he huffs. "'When I have money, maybe next year, I don't know when. That's what I am going to do, I am going to put two pilings there or two pilings here.' He is telling them what they have to do."
Skipper Jeff Powell cannot understand why Garcia is making such a big deal out of such a little squabble. "We pay our rent promptly and we try to be good neighbors to everyone here," he says. "We have promptly resolved any type of complaint, except for this one issue, which is still being resolved. With the status with the city ... this is kind of minuscule in the grand scheme."
As far as Garcia is concerned, however, that line of reasoning is precisely the problem: If the city would pay more attention to the many small infractions, it wouldn't be suffering such big headaches. Rules are rules, he believes, and they must be followed. Anything less is unprofessional, if not unpatriotic. "I came here and I got my ideas of how you have to be honest and you have to be in the right way, and that is exactly what I did all my life," he declares. "It could be easy for me to close my eyes and say, 'Well, hey, do whatever you want to do. I don't care.' And I'd get my check and forget about it. But this is not my way. I am different.
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.