Why Can't We All Just Get Paid $85,000 a Year?

Back in the old days -- which is to say before Miami became the laughingstock of the entire nation -- city officials weren't scrambling to fix a budget mess. They were busy creating one, by cavalierly throwing taxpayers' money around with no clue of the consequences.

Take Willy Gort's brainchild, The Unity Council of Miami (TUCOM). The first-term commissioner took office in 1993 with a dream of bridging the divisions between Miami's three dominant ethnicities. To that end, he began busing Little Havana residents into Overtown and Coconut Grove for occasional informal exchanges of food and culture. Pleased with the progress he saw, he resolved in June 1995 to formalize the symposiums into a new city program.

"In the last 30 years there has been great cultural change in the city," Gort explains. "With this diversity there is a lot of misunderstanding and fear, most of it out of ignorance. The main goal of TUCOM was to find all the common denominators. The secondary goal was that if we understand each other we can be more responsible toward each other. Cuban Americans would understand what African Americans go through, African Americans would understand Cubans, and so forth."

The details of Gort's vague plan were hammered out by Darryl Reaves, a special aide in the commissioner's office. The 36-year-old Reaves, who is black and who served from 1990 to 1992 as a state representative from the 106th District, had helped Gort capture the crucial black vote in his run-off against Joe Carollo (who has since been elected mayor). Largely because of Reaves's role in the victory, Gort had offered him a part-time city job, which quickly became a permanent, $40,000-per-year post -- $15,000 more per year than the sporadically employed Reaves had ever earned, according to his application on file at the City of Miami's personnel office.

Reaves envisioned a "United Nations of Miami" where more than 200 merchants, nonprofit agencies, ethnic clubs, and civic organizations would gather "to communicate on a regular basis," according to a TUCOM brochure. Monthly luncheons, or "bashes," as Reaves called them, would offer opportunities "to break bread together and discuss issues one-on-one." The bashes would favor food "themes" over set agendas. "One month, members swing to the samba of the Latin beat, feast on black beans and rice," trumpets the brochure, "and the next month the members dine in green on Irish cuisine."

Quarterly conferences were another component of Reaves's plan. There would be no debates at the daylong forums. Instead, participants would be allowed exactly ten minutes to speak their minds. Other unusual guidelines were set, all to show that TUCOM was to be an innovative program. "Each organization must surrender three typewritten copies of their presentation," reads the TUCOM handout. "Oral presentations may not deviate from the typewritten copy." Reprints of each speech were to be bound and sent to all TUCOM members.

When Gort unveiled the plan to his fellow commissioners, he assured them that private corporations had already agreed to fund the entire program: His push toward ethnic harmony, Gort promised, would not cost Miami taxpayers one cent. Not surprisingly, the commission unanimously approved the TUCOM plan. Gort became chairman of the board of directors, Reaves executive director.

Reaves moved into offices at the city's Dupont Center, taking with him an assistant, as well as desks and computers -- all supplied by the city. He drafted a $178,000 budget, a large chunk of which was accounted for by his salary of $85,000, including benefits. His assistant, the wife of one of Gort's campaign managers, was given a salary of $44,000 (also with benefits). Luncheons and seminars ate up the rest of the budget, along with cellular phone bills, office supplies, and perks. Then Reaves set out in a city car to shake down private industry.

Immediately he hit a pothole.
"I think the people you call on in the Miami area are the same people that everybody calls on. And they just can't spend," Reaves theorizes. "Miami isn't like New York City or Jacksonville, where you have tremendous corporate operations. In Miami you have the Dade County School Board, Dade County government, and one big airline. Outside of that, you really don't have the big corporations that can sustain such animals."

Reaves's grand total after two months of rainmaking: $1000, a personal check from Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence. "People had promised us the money," Gort recalls, sadly shaking his head. "But they just didn't deliver on the promise."

By December, with Reaves and his assistant on the clock, and without money coming in to cover their salaries, Gort made an emergency request to the city commission: He needed up to $200,000 to cover TUCOM's bills. "It's almost impossible for a company to bring in revenues without some kind of start-up capital," the commissioner rationalizes. "Darryl knew it was a onetime shot, though," he adds. "He knew that the city wasn't going to pay any more. He had to go out and raise money or he would be out of a job."

Reaves never raised another dime. And Willy Gort's little engine of community accord commenced to sputter.

TUCOM's first luncheon took place in March 1996. Hungry representatives of 50 charities and political groups chowed down while discussing "exposure for TUCOM." The April luncheon was canceled. By May, when TUCOM next strapped on the feedbag, enthusiasm had ebbed dramatically: Representatives from only twenty groups showed up. TUCOM never held a third luncheon.

The quarterly seminars fell victim to a similar fate. The first, which took place in February 1996, featured 106 organizations, a keynote speech by Monsignor Bryan Walsh, past executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami's Catholic Community Services, and a reception where participants nibbled petite quiche Lorraine. Maybe it was the quiche: The second forum, in May, drew representatives from fewer than half as many groups. At the same time, TUCOM board meetings grew erratic. "We wouldn't meet for two or three months," Gort admits. "I don't like to hold meetings when there is nothing to say."

Earl J. Carroll, Metro's first black commissioner, was a charter member of the TUCOM board. "I never attended but one meeting," he recalls. "I'm off that -- I wasn't interested." Other board members followed Carroll out the door. Banker Carlos Arboleya refused to sign a financial disclosure form and quit. Realtor Alica Baro missed a couple of meetings after her husband died.

Reaves, too, scaled back his participation. Last fall he ran for county commission. In an August 20 letter to Gort, in which he thanked the city commissioner for his "continued support and indulgence," Reaves explained that "campaigning for public office is a time-consuming activity"; he cashed in a total of two weeks' worth of vacation and sick time, then took a month of unpaid leave. He neglected to inform any of the member organizations of his absence. The TUCOM board did not meet while he was gone.

Reaves returned to work on September 16, having been soundly beaten in the District 3 Metro Commission race. But with no money to pay him, and with the city's budget deficit commanding headlines, Gort terminated Reaves's position, along with that of his assistant, on October 13. The TUCOM office shut down, and its files were shipped to Gort's commission office at Dinner Key, where they remain.

City of Miami records show that TUCOM -- a group that was not to have cost taxpayers a cent -- spent 130,000 public dollars during the fiscal year that ended September 30, 1996. The bulk of that money ($100,604) went toward salaries. Itemized listings reveal that another $7640 covered "travel and per diems." Only $37 went to postage. (Those bound copies of the ten-minute forum speeches? If they were ever made, they never went out.)

Gort admits the financial figures on TUCOM look lousy, but he emphasizes that the mindset was different when he and his colleagues granted all that money. "You have to remember that back then we didn't know we had the budget problems that we have today," he says. "If we had any real failure, it was in fundraising."

While he acknowledges the fundraising fiasco, Reaves denies it was his fault: As executive director, he claims, it wasn't his job to collect money.

Gort flatly disagrees. "Well," stammers the commissioner, "I mean, that's absolutely not true."

Despite the discord, he still wants unity. Gort recalls the third TUCOM forum, held in November, after Reaves's departure. Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas addressed students from ten local high schools, and Gort says there was an "unbelievable energy" in the mix of the privileged and disadvantaged attendees. He's talking to Penelas about the possibility of the county and the city coming together for unity. "TUCOM is my problem now," Gort says emphatically. "I am working toward a solution."

Last Friday the TUCOM board of directors attempted to hold its first meeting in five months. A quorum could not be reached, however, and the meeting was canceled. They'll try again this Friday.


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