The Downtown Bay Forum couldn't have known that their October 25 meeting — "Corruption & Scandals in Miami-Dade County: what are we going to do about it?" — would fall on the same day that former county commissioner Miriam Alonso would plead guilty to 20 felonies for looting campaign accounts. Or that the previous day, the public would learn that a former county Water and Sewer mailroom supervisor managed to steal $1 million budgeted for bulk mailing. Or that the day after, twelve Miami International Airport employees would be charged with grand theft for clocking in shifts they never worked.
Then again, had the meeting been scheduled in September, it would have coincided with the news that Water and Sewer was paying millions in unauthorized cell phone expenses. In August, two building department employees were fired for improperly selling licenses to contractors. In July, the forum would have had the fallout from the Herald's investigation of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency to discuss.
Last Wednesday's guest speakers were Assistant State Attorney Joseph Centorino, Miami-Dade Inspector General Chris Mazzella, and Robert Meyers, Director of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission. Centorino and Mazzella arrived late, having been held up at a press conference about the Alonso case.
"Corruption can sometimes be confused with a degree of incompetency and a lack of accountability. Some people think we're the most corrupt community in the country. I don't think that's true," said Meyers. He paused. "But I would say we're in the top five percent."
Joseph Centorino took the microphone next.
"Corruption is a bigger problem than just a law enforcement problem," he said, in a lawyerly way. "I would define it as any abuse of public office for private gain. It's a cancer that grows and infects communities. In the Eighties Miami grew very rapidly, and was very prone to corruption, and we didn't have any public outrage. The media did a terrific job with that in the Nineties. I said then it would take a generation to turn this ship around. We're about halfway there."
Mazzella laid out the numbers: The inspector general's office has a staff of 38 people. The Ethics committee has sixteen. The Department of auditing has 40 people. That's 94 watchdogs for a county with a budget of $6.9 billion that employs 40,000 people.
How about solutions? Mazzella advocated for better communication between agencies. Meyers advocated for a way to get rid of "dead wood in government." Centorino blamed weak, unaccountable management.
But according to Meyers, there's a limit to oversight. "There are three groups in government," he said. "There's the incorruptible, the corruptible, and the corrupt. The goal is to keep that middle group from going over to the dark side."-Emily Witt