MIAMI — Six months after the election of Carlos A. Gimenez to his first full term as mayor of Miami-Dade County, some African-American leaders are applauding his efforts to reach out to their community.
That initiative, they say, includes an apparent “open-ear, open-door” policy toward them, as well as his choice of the Joseph A. Caleb Center Auditorium in Liberty City, the heart of the county’s black community, to deliver his recent “State of the County” address.
“It is a powerful thing for the mayor of the county to do his State of the County address in the black community,” said Otis Wallace, mayor of Florida City, whose predominantly African-American population constitutes the county’s southernmost municipality.
“It speaks volumes about his commitment to embrace all of Miami-Dade County,” added the Rev. Walter A. Richardson, chairman of the county’s Community Relations Board.
Wallace and Richardson are among dozens of black leaders and county
workers the South Florida Times interviewed over a five-week period to assess Gimenez’s impact and effectiveness in the black community.
They laud the mayor’s inclusion of African Americans in top-level county positions – seven of 25 department heads are black – but decry the impact of his budget cuts on black workers and in the poorest neighborhoods.
The mayor’s austere measures, many say, cost hundreds of black county workers their jobs, cut salaries for many more and curtailed essential services that had benefited the black community.
Some county employees say Gimenez’s policies have resulted in a “demoralized workforce” in which black employees feel like second-class citizens in a work environment that caters to the Hispanic majority with regard to jobs, promotions, services and county contracts.
They complain that English may be the official language for conducting county business but Spanish is the language in which deals and decisions are made, often to the exclusion of non-Hispanic speakers.
Miami-Dade branch NAACP president Adora Obi Nweze said she has several concerns about the future of blacks in the county.
“When we lift up the real cloth of life, what does it look like for us?” said Nweze, who is also president of the NAACP’s Florida State Conference. “That’s the speech for the year.
We know what the county is doing for people at the top. Are poor people getting the proper training to compete for jobs that are taking place in their communities? I want to hear about environmental issues, healthcare and job issues; talk about what is being done to make our communities safe.”
Against that backdrop, Gimenez addressed about 500 people at the Caleb Center on Feb. 27, when he outlined key goals for the county, including improvements in arts and culture programs and the park system and mass transit.
The program featured other African-American leaders, including Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, whose district includes the Caleb Center. Police Director J.D. Patterson Jr., a minister at the Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, who Gimenez recently appointed the county’s top cop, gave the invocation.
But bringing the State of the County address to the black community is only a starting point, said H.T. Smith, a prominent lawyer and longtime community advocate.
“It is more important for the black commissioners and black community to demand that Mayor Gimenez move from positive symbolism to positive results,” Smith said. “We must demand that we get a fair share of the contracts and quality-of-life projects that make life better for all people.”
Jihad Rashid, president/CEO of the Collaborative Redevelopment Corp., a community and economic organization focused on bringing affordable housing and business to Coconut Grove, said it is too soon to tell if the mayor’s Liberty City appearance was merely symbolic.
“Overall, I think he is a work in progress,” Rashid said. “I applaud, enthusiastically, the start. But if he is window-dressing, we still got work to do.”
Gimenez, who was making his first visit to the Caleb Center as mayor, said his decision to give the keynote address in Liberty City was not about reaching out to one community. “I am the mayor of all of Miami-Dade County, not just one area,” he said in a telephone interview.
“Government has too long been centered in downtown,” said Gimenez, who is the second mayor to give the address at the Caleb Center. Alex Penelas did so in 1999, also a time when the county was tightening its fiscal belt, to the disgruntlement of the black community.
A former county commissioner, Miami fire chief and city manager, Gimenez was elected in 2011 to complete the term of Carlos Alvarez, who was forced out of office in a special recall vote. Gimenez was re-elected in August. Both times, his opponents won a majority of the black vote.
Elizabeth Judd, one of Gimenez’s supporters in 2012, defended his budget priorities. “No matter what level of a budget you have – family, business, government – sometimes you have to make hard decisions and people are not always going to like it,” said Judd, a retired union business agent with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
“There was brutal criticism of him,” said Judd. “He stood up for what he believed in. He did what was in the best interest of citizens.”
“We did a lot of things we had to do the first year,” Gimenez said. “To be financially and structurally sound, we had to make the changes.”
One of the more contentiously debated programs affected was Head Start which offers early childhood education in low-income communities.
“I was furious that not only were female employees laid off but there was a reduction in pay,” said Barbara Jordan, one of four black Miami-Dade county commissioners. She said 85 percent of the employees were minority women.
Jordan commends Gimenez for having lunch or breakfast with commissioners to hear their concerns. The job cuts, lack of economic development and high crime rate are still of concern, she said.
Gimenez was criticized for removing Head Start from under the county’s supervision. “We thought that program belongs with the school system,” Gimenez said. “Educating young people is not the core mission of Miami-Dade County. I feel the school system will do a better job. They will do it cheaper and add more kids.
The program is designed to help kids, not employees.”
Given the circumstances, said Retha Boone-Fye, program officer and director of the county’s Black Advisory Board, austere budget measures throughout county government were warranted. Her office, in fact, has been downsized several times.
“We are faring like everybody else,” she said. “We’re making do.”
Despite the cuts, Boone-Frye said, Gimenez has appointed capable people to run the county.
“He looked at capability versus the ‘old buddy’ system,” Bonne-Fye said. “I admire him for that.”
Russell Benford, one of five deputy mayors Gimenez appointed, is an African American. “Some of the feedback that I have gotten is that folks feel that they have a good level of access,” said Benford, former city manager of North Miami and West Park in Broward County. “We respond to the community equally; there is no favoritism.”
He said he is proud of Gimenez’s record on providing opportunities for black leadership. Kathleen Woods-Richardson, director of the Solid Waste Department, said she has a good working relationship with the mayor. Black leadership in the county is good but it could and should be better, she added.
“I think that we still have ways to go in terms of having enough African Americans in responsible positions.
I want to see more people filling manager and supervisory positions,” Woods-Richardson said. Realistically, she said, working in the public sector is not as attractive as it used to be when government jobs meant steady paychecks for black workers.
There are not many blacks in the county’s hiring pipeline to move into managerial positions, Woods-Richardson said.
Nweze echoed that concern. “Many of the blacks in top leadership positions have 20, 30 and more years in the county or in public service. Who will replace them?” she said.
*Pictured above is Carlos Gimenez.