Three years ago we said Ricker was our Best Gadfly. Given his dedication and perseverance, this new honor, Best Citizen, is well deserved. Ricker goes to 2500 mind-melting meetings annually, from the Public Health Trust's purchasing subcommittee to the Efficiency and Competition Commission to the Alliance for Human Services' nominating council to the school board's audit committee. Sometimes he's the only public observer. Object: to be the Public Citizen for all those out there who can't attend, and to connect and serve as an information bridge among the special-interest-dominated Miami-Dade governmental institutions that seem so problematic and indifferent to the democratic process. This month his e-mail newsletter, The Watchdog Report, celebrates its fourth anniversary. In a former life Ricker made a handsome living as an international salesman of heart pacemakers. As the hard-working publisher of Watchdog, though, he's struggling financially -- this despite the fact that his weekly compendium of meeting summaries, analysis, interviews, and commentary has become essential reading for anyone involved in public affairs. What his written work may lack in polish, it more than makes up for in comprehensiveness. So raise a toast to the man whose official slogan says it all: "A community education resource -- I go when you cannot!"

Ever since the Miami Herald killed Balmaseda's column last June, the paper just hasn't been the same. Frankly, we miss the flood of woeful tales about hapless Cuban immigrants who pine for the homeland. Her weepy prose was like a warm blanket. We also miss the fact that when it was pointed out she wrote endless columns about hapless immigrants who miss Cuba, she reminded us she won a Pulitzer Prize. And of course we miss the way she injected herself into the story, like the time she joined a prayer vigil at Elian Gonzalez's house. But we understand, however reluctantly, that change is good and necessary, though Balmaseda is quick to point out she's still writing for the paper, as well as working on screenplays. There was a time when her writing had genuine intensity. And she did kick butt years ago with her immigration reporting. So here's hoping that a newly invigorated Balmaseda emerges from the ashes of the old one.

Ever since the Miami Herald killed Balmaseda's column last June, the paper just hasn't been the same. Frankly, we miss the flood of woeful tales about hapless Cuban immigrants who pine for the homeland. Her weepy prose was like a warm blanket. We also miss the fact that when it was pointed out she wrote endless columns about hapless immigrants who miss Cuba, she reminded us she won a Pulitzer Prize. And of course we miss the way she injected herself into the story, like the time she joined a prayer vigil at Elian Gonzalez's house. But we understand, however reluctantly, that change is good and necessary, though Balmaseda is quick to point out she's still writing for the paper, as well as working on screenplays. There was a time when her writing had genuine intensity. And she did kick butt years ago with her immigration reporting. So here's hoping that a newly invigorated Balmaseda emerges from the ashes of the old one.

When a guy can afford to donate his salary to charity, you know he's loaded. Arriola, Miami's blue-eyed angel of death -- er, city manager -- made off with a cool $42 million when he sold Avanti/Case-Hoyt, his family's printing business, two years ago. Since then he's done a magnificent job of flaunting his wealth. First he joined Merrett Stierheim's team trying to straighten out the public-school system (salary: one dollar), then quit in a huff, but not before insulting Stierheim by calling him a "horrible leader" who "doesn't respect women, or blacks, or Hispanics." More recently Arriola publicly insulted the reform-minded chairman of the county's Public Health Trust, attorney Michael Kosnitzky, labeling him a "cancer" in that organization. Then he accepted Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's offer to become city manager and loudly proclaimed he'd donate his six-figure salary to the United Way, but not before unceremoniously, gleefully, firing several veteran city officials. Is this what it means to be filthy rich?

The terrible situation that has befallen the country that was once the most solidly middle-class in Latin America has resulted in an exodus. Many Argentineans, especially the younger generation, have relocated to Miami. It is our gain and their homeland's unfortunate loss. Yes, we recognize that a hefty percentage are here illegally, but like other immigrant groups before them, we appreciate their willingness to work (it seems every valet and restaurant hostess hails from Argentina) and the cultural and culinary sensibilities they carry with them. Argentineans have long embraced café culture; even the most humble of their establishments here will have tables and chairs inside as well as outside if there's room. Plus they have a special way with a number of key food groups: beef, pasta, pizza, gelato, dulce de leche, and coffee. ¡Che, bienvenidos!

Nothing like it has ever happened here -- a spectacular success for both Miami and the world that came to see it. It was also a quince of sorts, our own coming out and maturing party. We were ready to host the planet's biggest international art fair and to impress those who followed it here. The Switzerland-based event dropped into the Miami Beach Convention Center with thousands of pieces of the most vaunted contemporary art; local collectors opened their doors and were received with international applause; local artists put their very best faces forward at the Design District's ancillary event -- and everyone smiled. Did people party? Yes. Did art sell? Yes. Were the well-heeled global art-setters awed? Yes. Will the fair return bigger and most likely better next year? Yes.

Readers Choice: Coconut Grove Arts Festival

The Count, as he's known at Miami Beach City Hall, is a small man struggling to balance magnificent obsession with an abiding interest in historical minutiae. Both qualities are satisfied by the Count's 27-year quest to claim a share of the European fortune of distant German relatives, lost somewhere between the demise of Prussia and the Holocaust. But since 1994, when the Count moved from New York to Miami Beach, local politics has been his all-consuming hobby. Nearly every day he can be spotted lurking around city hall's fourth floor, sometimes smoking a cigar on a balcony and keeping a keen eye on the comings and goings of the movers shaking down the latest city deal. "To be honest with you, I have nothing to do," he shrugs. The Count's passions run to public access and the rights of the working class, from opposing the closing of public roads to demanding low-cost housing, to promoting candidates he feels aren't beholden to the Beach's entrenched power structure. "The greed here is unbelievable," he observes. "If I can do a little to upset that, it's a good thing." Of course the Count has his detractors. Some believe he's actually evil, having cast a spell over weak-minded elected officials, and that he has subverted the best intentions of well-meaning bureaucrats. The Count merely laughs at that. "My objections are philosophical, not personal," he says. "I mean, I love these people, but it's one thing after another."

You know who you are. On September 10, 2002, you voted to maintain the county's human-rights ordinance after a bruising campaign spearheaded by religious fanatics who wanted to delete the words "gays and lesbians" from the local anti-discrimination law. For many the repeal effort evoked the days of Anita Bryant's vicious anti-gay campaign, the stain of which still clings. You kept us from becoming a poster city for backward-thinking and intolerance. But it was close. The SAVE Dade campaign squeaked by with just 53 percent of the vote. That's why you're heroes. You voted when it counted.

Most drivers en route between Miami Beach and Miami via North Bay Village likely pass unawares through this North Beach neighborhood. Overshadowed by nearby Little Buenos Aires (Collins in the Seventies), Normandy Isle is a discrete entity, surrounded by the bay and canals, including one that divides the island in two, offering many residents water access and providing a training ground for crew teams and skullers out of the Miami Beach Watersports Center. The northern half is rooted by the Normandy Shores Municipal Golf Course while the southern half has the commercial district centered around the fountain, informally dubbed the Place Vendome (nearly all the Normandy Sud streets have French names). With sections of single-family homes and predominantly small apartment buildings dating from the Forties and Fifties, it's home to a mix of long-time residents and newer arrivals, Anglos and Latinos (of which Cubans and Argentineans are only the most visible), families and singles (straight and gay), who manage to co-exist. The area is in transition, though, as Section 8 rentals give way to condo conversions, with the accompanying dislocations. But the City of Miami Beach is also investing millions in fixing up the streetscapes and in refurbishing the Normandy Isle Park, to the benefit of all.

The trick is to stash your skank bag (the sizable trash or cloth sacks in which the homeless drag their stuff around) somewhere else before you start holding up a palm tree. That way the cops won't know you're one of them. Then you get a pair of shades, clean up as much as feasible, hide your bottle of Natural Ice behind your back, and sleep in peace. (The homeless are always tired because cops chase them around at night when they see them on the street.) Lummus is a glorious green oasis, and you can dream of the rich babes just across Ocean at the News Café, the Cardozo, or the Tides, who might discover you here, and unlike most other folks, recognize your good qualities.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®