Sally Heyman is a matronly Miami-Dade commissioner who represents North Miami. This past March, during a grueling discussion about reform, she spoke up against using the phrase ban on outside employment in a ballot question that voters will take up later this month. "I believe we should not chill a person's opportunity to serve outside... this body," she said.
Her colleague Barbara Jordan, a retired county bureaucrat who receives an annual $178,850 government pension, chimed in. "To me, what we're saying [is] you can only hold office if you're independently wealthy or retired or unemployed."
Miami-Dade County commissioners
Then Commissioner Audrey Edmonson — who is paid $54,954 a year by the Miami-Dade school board on top of the $51,681 she takes in for her county hall work — piped up, "This is supposed to be the land of opportunity. I can't support anything that puts a cap on what anyone can earn."
Finally, the commission voted 7-5 to not allow voters to take up the employment ban May 24 at the polls. They may decide only whether to give commissioners an $86,000 raise.
That's ludicrous. Commissioners are already rich. Consider the following:
• The average annual income for a county commissioner is $129,222 — more than three times the $36,357 an average Miamian makes.
• Two commissioners, Jose "Pepe" Diaz and Joe Martinez, have personally benefited from business relationships with people and corporations that depend on county government for contract work or zoning approvals.
• Commissioner Dennis Moss has seen his net worth balloon by more than six times, to $342,390, during 18 years in office. Javier Souto's has doubled over the same time period to $790,000, and Bruno Barreiro, who represents Miami Beach, has increased his net worth by more than four times, to $728,033.
In a charter authored by Harvard lawyer Dan Paul and others in 1957, the commission was designed as a part-time board of directors. A full-time professional staff oversees day-to-day operations. At least eight times, commissioners have proposed raising their salary. Voters have rejected the idea at every turn.
In 1990, before one of the commissioners' failed attempts to increase their pay, a Miami Herald investigation uncovered a clear conflict. Almost all the commissioners had personally gained from their elected posts. One commish couldn't explain how he earned $47,000 without ever going to the office.
Since then, the number of commissioners has increased from nine to 13. And a full-time mayor has been added. That post pays $233,123 plus $89,154 in benefits. Commissioners receive $6,000 in pay along with benefits worth as much as $55,388, including $2,000 a month for expenses and an $800 monthly car allowance.
According to a New Times survey, at least six of the 11 current commissioners (two slots are open) have seen their personal wealth increase dramatically since assuming office — despite the global downturn. One interesting example is Barreiro, who won his seat in 1998 after serving in the state legislature. He began his county commission career with $168,999 in the bank. During the same time span, the value of his stock price in a company he owns, BABJ Investments Inc., increased from $1,651 to $316,424. Since 2005, he has received an annual $104,000 salary from his family's health-care company, Fatima Home Care. (Barreiro didn't return a call seeking comment.)
In some cases, commissioners have created possible conflicts of interest in their private dealings. For instance, in 2004, Martinez — who is the chairman and represents West Kendall — bought a vacant lot from a residential housing developer who regularly seeks zoning changes from the county. A Miami Herald investigation found Martinez got a $4,000 to $6,000 discount on the land's actual worth. He also allegedly received thousands of dollars of free work from two contractors who helped build his house. The Miami-Dade inspector general confirmed the free work and discount but determined no crime had been committed.
Pepe Diaz, who represents a swath of West Dade from Sweetwater to Hialeah, increased his net worth more than $270,000 soon after winning his first election in 2002. The lucky pol was hired by Jorge and Carlos de Cespedes, brothers who owned and operated a multimillion-dollar health-care company called Pharmed. His $250,458 job: director for the brothers' venture capital firm the Astri Group. Diaz's only professional experience before the brothers came along was serving as a U.S. Marine and a Sweetwater mayor.
In 2006, when Pharmed had serious financial problems, Diaz cosponsored an ordinance requiring Jackson Memorial Hospital to give preference to local suppliers, including the de Cespedes's company. When the siblings were criminally charged in 2008 in federal court for health-care fraud and tax evasion, prosecutors claimed Diaz had received a $20,000 payment through a shell company that the de Cespedeses allegedly used to conceal fraudulent proceeds. Diaz was not criminally charged.
For the past three years, the commissioner has been employed as a $119,000-per-year director for U.S. Construction Corp., a firm that pulled nearly three dozen permits to build stores for concessionaires at Miami International Airport.
Diaz, who has served as chairman or vice chairman of the county commission's airport committee while his employer has been winning airport jobs, tells New Times he has no conflict. Though he voted for contracts, he never voted to hire U.S. Construction. "Everything is vetted," he insists. "Even the ethics commission's executive director said I could vote on these contracts."
He adds he will quit his job if voters approve the salary May 24. "My position is that if you take the salary, you can't have outside employment," Diaz says.
His colleague, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, concurs. "Of course I would resign from my current job," Sosa says. "The only reason I work is because not all of us are millionaires."
Indeed, she was more open than many of her colleagues in explaining her employment when New Times asked. Sosa is the workforce development marketing director for an adult education program. In a windowless office at Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center in Allapattah, she does data entry, develops advertising materials, and promotes the program in radio interviews.
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Sosa showed New Times a drawer full of forms notifying her supervisors to take time off her paycheck because she's had to leave work to tend to her commission duties. "But I still get my job done," Sosa insists. "If I have to come back here after a commission meeting and work into the night, I do it. I work from home and put in weekends when I have to as well."
She earns $78,718 a year. According to her 2009 disclosure statement, the former West Miami mayor reported her net worth as $439,418.
The only commissioner who probably doesn't have to worry about outside employment interfering with her public service is Jordan, who has 30 years of county service under her belt. When she retired as an assistant county manager in 2004 to run for her mentor Betty Ferguson's seat, Jordan received a six-figure annual pension. That year, her net worth was $890,000. In 2005, her net worth jumped to $1.84 million after she bought a four-unit apartment building in Key West valued at $937,205. In 2009, Jordan listed her personal wealth as $1.9 million.
Norman Braman, who sponsored the recall that brought down former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, is against giving these wealthy folks a salary bump. "I'm definitely opposing it," he says. "It doesn't provide any safeguards that an elected official won't mix the public's interests with their private interests. The whole thing is a smoke screen."