Jean Monestime made history when he became the first Haitian American elected to the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners last November.
In a grassroots effort, Monestime, 48, pulled off a stunning 54 percent to 46 percent upset against incumbent Dorrin Rolle, who was believed to be entrenched in the majority African-American District 2 seat.
Monestime’s victory was sparked by widespread discontent over conditions in the district. Building on strong support among Haitian Americans, he secured backing from some leaders in the black community who expressed disappointment with Rolle's track record over 12 years on the commission. Then Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Rolle to the seat in 1998 after Commissioner James Burke was indicated on corruption charges. Rolle went on win election to the post.
Although proud of being a Haitian American and the first to hold the seat, at the end of the day, Monestime said, “I am just another black commissioner trying to serve a district that is in dire need. And I need the help of everybody to make the district succeed and take it to a higher level. That’s the task at hand, not just laying the ground for the next Haitian American to come in after me. It could be anyone.”
District 2 has 160,000 residents living in sections of Miami, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Opa-locka, Hialeah, Biscayne Gardens and unincorporated areas of North Central Miami-Dade.
Monestime is already winning praise from the colleague whose district is closest to his. From the beginning, Monestime “has really come on and contributed, especially on fiscal matters,” said District 1 Commissioner Barbara Jordan.
In an interview, she described his election as “wonderful for the Haitian-American community and Miami-Dade County, in general.”
“When you think about the fact that we have such a large population of Haitian Americans within Miami-Dade County, and that there has not been representation on the County Commission, it was inexcusable,” Jordan said.
Monestime, she said, “is getting into the process of finding out exactly what impacts his district and trying to come together with his plan of action.”
That plan of action, Monestime says, includes creating jobs through a program known as Local Jobs for Local People; revitalizing the district’s major corridors; creating “green” business zones and attracting more businesses to the area.
One of the first items on Monestime’s agenda was the Gratigny Expressway extension project. At a meeting in January, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) discussed the idea of connecting the Gratigny to Interstate 95. Currently, motorists coming east on the Gratigny connect to I-95 via Northwest 119th Street.
The idea was not welcomed, Monestime said.
Residents of the affected communities—Gratigny, Sun Kiss Grove and West Grove—expressed the view at community and homeowner meetings, which Monestime attended as a candidate, that the plan would not only “forever change their neighborhood but wasn’t really necessary.”
“Gratigny is a residential community and the increased traffic right in the heart of it would have been detrimental,” he said. “I listened to their concerns and agreed with the reasons behind their opposition.”
Eventually, MDX put the project on hold, Monestime said.
“He weighs the facts, makes a decision and then votes his conscience on what he feels is in the best interest of the people he represents,” Jordan says.
Monestime is pushing for job creation, starting with the development of the district’s major corridors: Northwest 79th Street, Northwest Seventh Avenue, Northwest 119th Street and Northwest 27th Avenue.
“We have asked the county for a better zoning outlay, laws that are more conducive to best business practices and best redevelopment practices in the district,” he said.
He wants the district rezoned to bring in a more diverse mix of businesses. Rezoning would provide flexibility in the type of business that can be attracted to the area. Residents within the district, he said, began the push for rezoning prior to his election.
There are things in commercial areas that cannot be done because of existing zoning laws, Monestime said. “For example, Seventh Avenue has a lot of mechanic shops and used-car lots, and that’s good, but we need our community to be able to attract more diverse businesses.”
Under current zoning laws, he said, “if it has been predetermined by the county to have a certain type of business, then other types of businesses will not be there. We need to make sure the infrastructure is in place so the right type of businesses can move in.”
County officials are preparing to present a new zoning plan for the district to county commissioners for approval, Monestime said. The issue is still at the committee stage, he said. “We are looking at some time in March. Residential areas will not be affected.”
Monestime is also seeking to introduce legislation to create a green business zone along Northwest 27th and 37th avenues, between Northwest 135th and 79th streets.
A “green” business is one that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient, in areas such as its design, structure and method of disposing of waste.
Designating those specific areas as green will “attract green businesses, which attracts federal dollars. We know that the federal administration is interested in creating green jobs and we want to build on such a trend.”
The 79th Street corridor, he said, is important because it connects the beaches with Hialeah and is a main thoroughfare that he would like to see spruced up, with increased traffic.
But revitalizing the district, Monestime said, “starts with us.”
“We are encouraging our citizens to take pride in our community,” he said. “That’s the first step in inviting someone into our home. We need to clean up and green up our areas and make it more secure. And, based on my conversations with the business stakeholders in Miami-Dade County, that would be sufficient enough to attract new businesses to the area and, thereby, creating jobs for our people.”
Monestime said that he is working with the Public Works Department to “green up” the Little River and Gratigny areas by planting trees, doing more recycling and creating litter-free neighborhoods.
“What we are trying to do is not spend the dollars the county allocated to this district everywhere at the same time, but to go into an area and make an impact,” he said.
There is money in the district’s budget for public works and sidewalks, according to Monestime. Focusing on Little River and Gratigny, he is asking the Miami-Dade Park & Recreation Department to plant trees and Public Works to make improvements in some areas.
The district, he said, has “a little over” $500,000 in Quality Neighborhood Improvement Program (QNIP) funds. Its annual allocation from People’s Transportation Plan (PTP) funds is $614,000 through fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
Local Jobs for Local People is a program developed to encourage people who do business with the county, particularly within the district to comply with the stipulations within their agreements to serve the local community.
“We have been hearing a lot of complaints about people not finding the appropriate number of jobs designated for citizens in the area,” Monestime said. “So we are making an effort to actively reach out to everyone, to get their input.”
He said he has met with the Beacon Council, local businesses and county staff. Local jobs, he said, must be driven by small businesses in the private sector but those firms will need support from the county government.
“We need the residents to buy into the program, because, without their involvement, success is unlikely,” he said.
Overall, Monestime is hoping to create a “true partnership” with all those having an interest in the community, including church, homeowner associations, businesses, law enforcement and local leadership.
“We want to have what we would call a North Central Dade renaissance in the sense of having a community that we all take pride in and we are happy to see it as a major part of our lives,” Monestime said.
Cynthia Roby can be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net