Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI GARDENS — The Florida city with the largest predominantly black population is getting ready for its first leadership change since incorporation nearly a decade ago.
Voters will decide Tuesday, Aug. 14, which of seven candidates will replace Mayor Shirley Gibson, who led the drive to create Miami Gardens in the northern section of Miami-Dade County in 2003.
Gibson is barred from seeking re-election because of term limits and is challenging incumbent
Barbara Jordan for the County Commission District 1 seat.
Those seeking to replace her at City Hall are Oliver Gilbert, Tanya Yolanda James, Willie B. Kelley, John Pace, Andre Williams, Katrina Wilson and Darin Woods.
Voters will also choose two City Council members.
Lillie Q. Odom and Sardebra Wright are vying for Seat 1 and Rodney Harris, Ulysses Harvard and Erhabor Ighadora are in the race for Seat 3.
The city charter limits the original mayor and council members to two consecutive four-year terms plus one additional year because the municipality was new at the time.
Miami Gardens is home to St. Thomas and Florida Memorial universities, Sun Life Stadium, as well as commercial businesses that include Chili’s, two Walmarts and a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Yet the candidates on the Aug. 14 ballot see much room for improvement in the 20-square-mile city.
The city has ranked second in the county only to next-door Opa-locka in murders per capita over the last two years, according to statistics compiled by Miami Gardens police. However, sexual assault, robbery and auto theft have decreased. Neighborhood Crime Watches now number 35, compared to a handful just a few years ago.
These concerns, added to taxes, unemployment and the city’s budget are top issues for mayoral and council candidates.
Gilbert, 39, an attorney and the city’s current vice mayor, says he “does not want to get elected based on what the problems are. I want to get elected because I am trying to fix them.”
Gilbert says he would add police officers. “It’s not enough that crime goes down but we need people to stop getting killed on our streets,” he says. “I take safety seriously. People need to know that when they leave their homes, they will make it back home safe.”
The city’s problems, he says, aren’t new. “It’s having the political will to get it done,” he says.
Williams, 44, also an attorney, is an outgoing council member. The city, he says, “has great promise” but is struggling with unemployment, which, he says, peaked at 16 percent at one point.
The mayor and council voted to raise property taxes to 11 percent last year because of financial difficulties. “They were spending money irresponsibly on budget items that were not essential public services,” he says, citing an allocation of $3 million for Jazz in the Gardens as “a luxury we cannot afford.”
Williams believes “a more accurate assessment” is needed of the state of finances. “I believe that the city is in dire financial straits and that I have not been provided all of the accurate information,” he says. “As mayor, I will be in a better position to have access to that information.”
Williams won Seat 3 in the 2008 election and had the option of running for re-election but set his sights on mayor.
Wilson, 49, a public school curriculum specialist, notes that crime is decreasing but not those that are considered heinous.
“And it’s time for a fresh, new approach,” she says. “When you hear about the loss of life so frequently, that is something that creates fear and anxiety within the community. I am going to tackle that. Whether we need to bring in the governor, assemble a blue-ribbon task force of law enforcement officers in the city or around the state, it’s got to be done,” she says. “It needs to be residents and the police against the criminals.” She added that she would emphasize community policing.
Willie B. Kelley, 66, a member of the Carol City Community Council which was abolished when the city was created, says Miami Gardens is “in bad shape.”
“I looked at the budget. It’s terrible and needs to be fixed,” said the retired Miami-Dade County educator, adding that the police department “is too expensive.”
He says if the county provides police services, the city saves $21 million. “It does not make sense to pay $30 million.” he says.
Kelley’s first task would be to examine income and expenditure, “tighten up” the budget and demand accountability.
Prior to incorporation, the Miami Gardens area was policed by the county and that service continued under contract until 2007, when the city established its own police department with 159 sworn officers. Since then, the department has grown to 259 members. Should the department be abolished, Kelley says, “they’ll need to find them other jobs.”
Woods, 49, is a mortgage banker who wants to “take Miami Gardens from good to great and make sure that our residents have the opportunity to share in the prosperity.”
Woods would continue Gibson’s plans for public safety, agreeing that the issue is of concern to residents “and that needs to be in the forefront.” He would also seek to boost the economy by wooing the hospitality industry to bring in a convention center and hotels.
“We will look at mixed-use development and what that can do for us. We hope that it would bring a Midtown concept to 27th Avenue,” he says, referring to the main city corridor.
Woods adds that along the Palmetto Expressway, which is the gateway into the city, “we are looking at an outlet mall comparable to Sawgrass.”
For James, 38, a health and wellness director and small business owner, greater support for local small businesses, specifically those that are minority and women-owned, would be a priority.
“Collectively, small business development will increase the quality of life for all of our residents, which includes economic needs, educational needs and fostering healthy, productive relationships with our adjoining cities,” she says, adding that, with the right leadership, Miami Gardens can become positioned as a destination city.
Pace, 61, a retired Miami Gardens police officer and community activist, says the city could be “on the brink of greatness or collapse. Thus it requires leadership of individuals who have faced a multitude of difficult and sensitive situations.”
Pace would make the city a partner with local businesses, initiate a career program for residents aged 12 to 27 to help them prepare for 21st century careers and work closely with the City Council to increase the morale of not only city employees but also citizens and visitors.
“We also need to identify heads of major corporations that will headquarter their companies here in Miami Gardens. This will attract professionals and open doors to professional careers,” he says.
The issues which the new mayor will have to deal with are certain to confront the two new council members.
The city is run by a weak mayor form of government, putting policy in the hands of the mayor and council with day-to-day operations the responsibility of the city manager.
Wright, 55, a retired postal worker and former chief steward for the American Postal Workers Union, is running against Odom, 69, founding member of the North Dade Municipal Advisory Committee, for Seat 1, which is being vacated by Aaron Campbell, the last original council member, who is terming out after nine years.
Wright says the council is “not making sound financial decisions” and its members “don’t really appear informed.” She also wants a better relationship between residents and the police. “All we have is mistrust,” she says.
“Our police don’t look like us and many are from various areas of the country. They are very heavy-handed with some of the citizens. Everybody is not in a gang,” she says.
A better community-police relationship would lead to a decrease in crime because people would cooperate with the police, she says.
Wright also says that the city cannot continue to increase taxes. “We can’t keep spending and putting it on the backs of the residents. We need to bring businesses in to the city,” she says.
Odom could not be reached for comment.
Among the contenders for Seat 3, Harris, 46, is a juvenile probation officer; Harvard, 55, is an insurance broker and former councilman; and Ighadora, 39, is a Florida Memorial University professor of Criminal Justice.
Harris would like to change what he says is the perception that people have of the city. “It’s a place that can be prosperous, a place for pleasure and luxury,” he says.
The city needs to begin attracting major hotels and restaurants to boost the economy and bring in jobs, he says. “We can make this place we call Miami Gardens beautiful. The people who live here want to be proud of our community.”
Harris’ top priority, though, would be the city’s budget. “It needs to be examined closely in order to be straightened out,” he says.
Harvard and Ighadora could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Incumbent council members not up for re-election are Lisa Davis, Seat 2; Felicia Robinson, Seat 4; and David Williams Jr., Seat 5.
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net