September 1, 2014

Ethics: Matters of Perception - Miami-Dade- March 2004

David Villano | 3/1/2004
Robert Meyers has an unenviable task. As executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, how can he change the perception that government in the state's largest county is fraught with fraud and corruption when each new allegation of misconduct unleashes a storm of negative publicity?

"It's a classic Catch-22," says Meyers, a lawyer and former university professor. "The better we do at exposing and prosecuting corrupt officials, the more people read about it. Image is a difficult thing to change."

In the hope of doing just that, Meyers has released a comprehensive report outlining the county's efforts over the past seven years to rein in corrupt officials and to change what many say is a deep-rooted culture of political influence-peddling in the county and its 32 municipalities.

According to the report, Miami-Dade County alone has spent more than $50 million to address the problem through ethics programs and additional oversight and enforcement.

Despite a few high-profile cases that snared former Miami Police Chief and City Manager Donald Warshaw, former Miami International Airport construction chief Richard Mendez and longtime teachers union President Pat Tornillo, it is hard to pin down exactly how much fruit the initiatives are bearing. From 1996 to 2002, the State Attorney's Office filed public corruption charges against 377 officials and employees (10% of whom received jail time). Federal prosecutors filed another 33 cases. Although data for previous years were not released, Meyers says the numbers are up substantially.

The public still thinks corruption's a big issue. Last year, the county commissioned a survey that asked Miami-Dade residents to name the first thing that comes to mind when they think of local government. The No. 1 response: Nearly a quarter cited corruption.

Of course, Miami's sleaze-meter registers more than just corruption. Allegations of police misconduct are commonplace; and Miami-Dade is among the nation's leading centers of money laundering and private-sector fraud.

Coral Gables Mayor Donald Sleznick, who helped create the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Ethics in Business and Government section in 1997, says: "The word has been out that businesses were avoiding Miami-Dade County because government was less than honest."

"Success," the Meyers Report concludes, "is possible only after attitudes and perceptions change."

IN THE NEWS

Coral Gables -- Baptist Health South Florida has been named to Fortune magazine's list of 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2004. The non-profit company was No. 51, up from 85 a year ago.

Miami -- Miami is the second most stressful city among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, trailing only Tacoma, Wash. The rankings, compiled by the research firm BestPlaces, are based on divorce, suicide and alcohol consumption rates as well as on crime, unemployment, traffic and other quality-of-life factors. Despite the city's ranking, the study concludes, "Miami residents manage to maintain a positive mental attitude."

City officials have unveiled a proposal for a baseball-only stadium for the Florida Marlins adjoining a renovated Orange Bowl. The $375-million project is the latest in a string of proposals to lure the World Series champions closer to downtown Miami. Broward officials are also pursuing the team.

Kraft Foods International, which includes such brands as Nabisco, Oscar Mayer, Maxwell House and Post cereal, has announced it will relocate its Latin American regional headquarters from New York to Miami. An exact location has not been announced. Company executives say they expect to hire 97 employees within the next two years with an average starting salary of $76,000.

The city's fledgling Civilian Investigative Panel, created only months ago in the wake of allegations of police misconduct, has begun hearings to determine whether the city's police department violated protesters' rights and civil liberties during November's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit talks.

Florida's first black Burger King franchisee has shuttered five inner-city restaurants amid a bitter legal dispute with the Miami-based fast-food giant. About 200 workers have lost their jobs. Willie Taylor, who opened his first franchise in 1970, claims he had no choice but to suspend operations after suppliers refused to deliver food and supplies.

Miami Beach -- After more than two years of delays, the Ritz-Carlton South Beach has opened. The 375-room hotel is the third Ritz-Carlton in Miami-Dade.

Miami-Dade -- Total flights dropped 23%, and passenger-seat volume dropped 13% over the past three years at Miami International Airport, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation. County officials blamed high landing fees and the weakened economies in Latin America, a principal market. Meanwhile, nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earned the distinction of the fastest-growing airport in the nation during that period, with total flights increasing 8% and seat volume up 16%. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood has carved out a niche market servicing low-fare carriers such as JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Delta's low-cost affiliate, Song.

After months of tense negotiations, a state oversight board has agreed to release $44 million in construction money to the Miami-Dade School Board. The oversight board threatened to withdraw funding if local officials did not agree to revamp construction and maintenance programs, both of which have been dogged by allegations of waste.

VITAS Healthcare, a privately owned hospice-care provider, has been acquired by Roto-Rooter, the Cincinnati-based company best known for its plumbing and drain-cleaning business. The deal is valued at about $400 million in cash and debt assumption. Executives say there are no plans to move VITAS' headquarters out of Miami-Dade.

Only months after voting to incorporate as an independent municipality, residents of Miami Gardens are launching a petition drive to reconsider the move. Incorporation opponents are worried that city services could be slashed to help offset a $4.3-million debt owed to Miami-Dade County.

Monroe County -- Key West International Airport has received $195,000 in grants from the Transportation Security Administration to upgrade security.

Tags: Miami-Dade

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