Hours after announcing his new $1.2 million (and counting) senior staff, days after he proposed the elimination of 1,300 positions and cuts for the rest, and exactly one month after he was elected in a close and caustic race, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez pretty much coasted through the first town hall meeting on his hurried 2011-2012 budget with the $400 million discount.
Sure, the standing-room only crowd was mostly his friendly, hold-the-line Kendall and suburban supporters, so one would expect he would hit a homerun, even with many difficult and heart-wrenching questions that came from worried county workers (read: practically begging for their jobs). But he was much more than just visibly comfortable in his own skin. Gimenez was on his A game. He has an A game. He was funnier, much funnier, friendlier, happier, spontaneous, more confident, natural and -- dare I say it again? -- sexier. Sorry, sir. But it's that new swagger. It's how you naturally basked in the warmth of the mass well-wishing and respectfully rose to the challenges to the changes you champion. It's how you patiently and, like a public servant should, answered every single question -- there had to have been more than two dozen -- with specific details, consistency, context, authority, honesty and a frankness and openness that I've never seen in municipal government. For a new mayor, you seem to have an old hand for this, I told him after the dialogue with the community.
"Probably because I'm back at what I do best, or what I think I do best, and that's being a manager," Gimenez said. "I'm more comfortable in this role as mayor than I was as a commissioner."
And I think he's going to be much better at it if certain commissioners with aspirations of their own(read: Chairman Joe Martinez) do not put up too many roadblocks.
Ladra applauds his true and transparent public outreach -- and, yes, that was una indirecta al alcaldito Carlos Hernandez of Hialeah -- which should be the way all governments behave and bodes well for an open Gimenez administration. The mayor, photographed here talking with former mayoral candidate Gabrielle Redfern and her campaign coordinator/friend Kathi Waldhof, respectfully and politely scoffed at the suggestion that his town hall tour to at least seven and up to 11 communities -- which takes him next week to Little Haiti and (can't wait) Hialeah -- was a great start to his re-election campaign (the primary for county mayor is in 13 months). And even though that's what it felt like, especially with the three smart, pretty-boy "former" campaign staffers Ladra likes to call the G-Men (Alex Ferro, Tom Martinelli and Jeve Clayton) buzzing around, finger-punching messages into their expensive smart phones. And if they deny that they never even dreamed that this might be a chance to evaluate voter reaction and measure the mayor's likability, well then they are not as good as they think they are.
Still, the dream team went separately. Mayor Gimenez arrived alone -- he drives himself these days -- and stayed longer than he planned to, answering every single question. I repeat that because it is, in and of itself, beautiful and (unfortunately) remarkable. It is also worth mentioning that the Q&A ended took two hours, twice as long as intended. Then he stayed to talk to anyone and everyone who wanted to shake his hand and/or take a picture with him and/or, privately instead of publicly, ask the mayor if there was another place for this 11-year employee or that longtime public works man. He looked everyone in the eye, listened without rushing them, took cards (which Ladra later saw him give to one of the pretty boys) and told everybody that, while no guarantees, he or someone would follow up. He spent quite sometime with a young student from his alma mater, Christopher Columbus High (photographed here). When he left, a 15-year county employee walked with him halfway to where his car was parked. No security. No entourage. No staff. No sergeant at arms. Just this likely disgruntled employee and the mayor, who held his sports coat over his shoulder and casually chatted with no regard to his own safety. Ladra followed from an appropriate distance. It's the watchdog thing. Even though I love the honest everyman appeal of it, Ladra would feel better if he had one bodyguard (ojo, Candela). But one of the G-Men told me Gimenez hates it when they tag along. Whatever he said to the guy must have been good. "He's going to do whatever is in the best interest of everybody," said the employee, who would not tell me his name or the department he works for. "He's going to fix it." As they were walking, they stopped halfway when someone else driving a white SUV pulled up with his wife and three kids in the back seat -- coming to or from Chuck E Cheese's, probably -- and Gimenez stuck his head in the window to say hello. He even went to the back window to greet the kids and rub one's head. He was stately, elegant, kind, generous with his time and his words, almost noble, as ridiculously over-the-top as that sounds. He was the epitome of a leader, which is what everybody is really longing for.
"The antithesis of Alvarez," one Kendall resident noted.
And, while his senior staff of deputy mayors each making a quarter million has raised eyebrows and seems to mirror the mistakes that cost former county mayor Carlos Alvarez his job via recall (and is something we have to more on that later), Gimenez updated voters on the progress of his campaign promises. He cut his salary in half and commissioners' budgets as well (any leftovers of which he wants back into the general fund). He aims to bring real charter reform during one of the scheduled three elections next year -- if not through an agreeable commission then via a petition drive, he told me later. But, probably most importantly, he rolled the "Alvarez tax increase" back to the magic number of 9.7405, which equals $175 less a year for the owner of a $200,000 house, explained Budget Director Jennifer Glazer-Moon. And it was sooooo refreshing to hear her speak in straight-forward English and do the math for us. (Ladra hopes this government for the people thing is a trend. Where is the like button?).
"The people on March 15 spoke very loudly," Gimenez said. "More than anything else, the tax increase bothered the people in Miami-Dade County. Both me and my opponent said we'd go back to the 2010 rate, which is 9.7405." See? He said it again. He dreams that number.
But that $200 or so per home will mean some sacrifices, he said. The presentation seemed to highlight some details Ladra heard for the first time, including the layoff of 21 code enforcement officers and 62 fire department civilians, decreased funding for agricultural initiatives, the closing of the boot camp at the women's jail, new fees for the pick up of large dead animals ("I'm talking big, like cows and horses, which we get calls on," Moon said) and, last but certainly not least, "medical transportation fees," which sounds like another name for fire rescue or ambulance transportation fees, which have been controversial every time, deemed a danger to elderly and low-income residents who may think twice about calling 911 as well as double taxation for basic services, like a rush to the nearest hospital in the care of trained, taxpayer paid paramedics whose initial first steps basically save your life. Okay, if you can't tell, Ladra is not a big fan of unAmerican ambulance fees. More on that later, though, because people seemed to be kind of oblivious to all of those details -- well except the code enforcement layoffs; they heard that one -- and came with their questions already in mind. First, they were written submissions from the audience read by Suzie Trutie, from the county's communications department. But then Gimenez took queries from the floor.
More than 20 people lined up in the standing-room only community center (at least 150 people were there) in West Kendall and took turns asking questions -- and making suggestions. A constant stream of people seemed to feed the perpetual cue. Almost an uncomfortable number of them -- and I say that only because it was painful to hear their very authentic concern -- were county employees wanting to know, basically, if he could save their job one way or another. Some don't even know that they are on the chopping block. "There are rumors," one woman told me later. The layoffs of the nearly two dozen code enforcement officers was met with some concern. Gimenez said that would be one of the priorities to bring back when funding returned. He defended the elimination of 62 civilian positions from the fire department, saying the ratio of civilians (close to 500) to sworn personnel is 25 percent when the norm is 10. He also defended the retirement of both county fireboats, saying the service could be handled out of a waterfront station. Maybe the answers were not always what people wanted to hear, but he was honest and direct, and kind about it, and he didn't hem and haw and change his position or use a bunch of buzz words that mean nothing. He said top management was asked to provide the positions recommended for removal and that each would be evaluated individually. He also said he hoped that the bulk of the 1,300 positions could be cut from the 1,700 that are vacant, or that people who lose their jobs could transfer over to one that needs filling. But he said he did not think that everybody would stay at the end of the day. The one time he did not know the answer, he admitted the details were new to him and turned to Moon who he said did know. His natural, candid, intimate and unguarded dialogue with the audience gave him an air of honesty rare in county politics.
Yeah, okay, so Ladra is still admittedly a fan who got her Gimenez fix -- been having withdrawals since his swearing-in -- and feels vindicated about her vote. But I'm not the only groupie. Rosa Ortega got up from her seat to tell the mayor that he was "mucho mas simpatico en persona". See? I'm not the only one who noticed the swagger. One man waited in the question cue and publicly thanked God that Gimenez was elected. (Ladra already thanked the employees of Hialeah and the rebellious Republican women of the local GOP).
And, as always, I'm not forever listening to the same old hits. While still supportive in general, I'm concerned about the inner circle and am going to take up the new and improved Carlos Gimenez on this, I'll call it an invitation, to keep him honest. Okay, so maybe I will just invite myself. I don't think he has necessarily missed me, but I have certainly missed his sleepy face and the G-Men's constant attention (los interesados que son). So, Ladra thinks she's going to take a few walks downtown and sniff around in the coming weeks before September's budget hearings. Let's find out how the mayor's "top dollar" super staff will help reduce costs overall (and, really, can't you just do with the four deputies and not get that extra one, sherriff? So former State Rep. Marcelo Llorente, who came in third in the mayor's primary, can run for something else instead). Let's get details on his strategy for rolling out real reform (and, really, please don't align yourself with gypsy con artists who manipulate the process for private gain). Let's see how the details for the layoffs play out in real life. Let's see who on the dais will roll with the punches and who is going to try to punch the air out of the mayor's roll. Let's see him put our money where his mouth is and if he's really as open as he can be.
Let's see if he can really show us once and for all, like I think he will, that we elected the right guy.