MIAMI – About two dozen people, including former board members, directors and staff of the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust, along with Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, gathered in the Miami-Dade County Manager's conference room Wednesday, Jan. 7 for the second joint meeting of the Trust’s interim board of trustees.

They were there with an oversight task force named in November to determine the embattled organization's future.

Wednesday’s meeting came weeks after a scathing, 76-page audit shook the Trust’s very foundation. The audit, by Miami-Dade County's
Office of Audit and Management Services, suggested that MMAP’s independence may have been its key weakness.

MMAP was set up through a county ordinance, but with considerable operational independence. 

Several people at Wednesday’s meeting questioned whether the agency had strayed too far from its original mandate as an advocate for Miami-Dade's black residents, and whether it had become an unwieldy service provider.

“When I look at the original charter of the organization, it talks about creating an action plan for addressing the disparities in the black community,” said task force member and former County Commissioner Betty Ferguson. “But there's a big difference between creating a plan and advocating for that plan, and actually operating programs.”

Former MMAP Executive Director Vincent Brown, who runs the popular Mahogany Grille in Miami Gardens, leveled a number of criticisms at the organization, calling his tenure on the board “one of the hardest, if not the hardest jobs I've ever done.”

Brown, who has often butted heads with fellow Trust members, said the board often lacked the vision and leadership to look beyond government sources of funds, and government-backed solutions.

“Giving people $200,000 for a house doesn't make them responsible, it just makes them feel that there is always a government program there,” said Brown. “MMAP was living in the ‘80s.”

Task force members H.T. Smith and Darryl Sharpton quizzed founding board member Larry Capp about whether “in the real world” it was possible for an organization to do both full-time advocacy, and run multiple service programs.

“In the real world? I think you get the most bang for your buck in a policy advocacy role,’’ Capp said, “because then when trustees and staff are out talking with business leaders and stakeholders, people know that they’re speaking for the mayor and the commission, as opposed to being just one of many service providers.’’

Capp, who directs the mayor's Office of Community Advocacy, is pushing for a plan that would implement a race-neutral approach to advocacy for “those at the bottom of the economic ladder,” similar to a mayoral initiative that has achieved success in Seattle, Washington, rather than the race-based focus of MMAP.

For any initiative to work, Capp, Ferguson and former board member Sherwood Dubose stressed that it would require the kind of executive support MMAP received from then-mayor Stephen P. Clark when the organization was formed in 1983.

“The difference between Seattle and here is the buy-in at the top,” Dubose said.

“Mayor Clark was in those meetings at the beginning, when MMAP was created,” said Capp. “After a while, when there were no more civil unrest, and I guess you could say the natives were no longer restless, you started seeing the number twos, and even the number threes at the meetings. After a while, you don't even get the number threes.”

“I think it's clear that no matter how powerful the bully pulpit is,” Smith added, success or failure at rebuilding struggling communities “comes down to the perception of how committed the mayor is.”

County staffer Betty Bennett attended the meeting. Mayor Carlos Alvarez was out of town. County Manager George Burgess was at a management retreat and unable to attend.

MMAP, a quasi-governmental agency, was created three years after the deadly riots sparked by the acquittal of five white police officers in the beating death of a black man, Arthur McDuffie.

Three days of rioting in 1980 left 10 people dead, nearly 300 injured, and nearly $100 million in damage, mostly in Miami's predominantly African-American Liberty City area. These events awakened politicians to stark socioeconomic disparities between different ethnic groups, and how those disparities could fuel social unrest.

But the organization has since stumbled along the way. Among the mishaps: Granting $50,000 to Karym Ventures, Inc., a company whose board of directors included Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones and members of her family, and a $25,000 grant in 2005 to a non-profit organization called Friends of MLK, much of which authorities allege wound up in the pockets of the non-profit's director, the Rev. Gaston Smith, who is the senior pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City.

That caused some to question the judgment of MMAP's board. Smith was charged last year with second-degree grand theft for allegedly spending more than $10,000 of the grant on hotels, classes at the University of North Florida, and a trip to Las Vegas that included a $500 bar tab.

MMAP has also had successes: helping to launch Opa-locka Flightlines, a black-owned airline refueling company, granting scholarships for students to attend an annual black history educational bus tour, and operating a Teen Court youth diversion program.