MIAMI GARDENS — Shirley Gibson’s leadership training began early. As the eldest of six children, she was often responsible for her siblings’ care as they grew up, first in Georgia, then in Key West, then in what is now Miami Gardens, the city she governs.
The mayor of Florida’s largest predominantly black city said she had a wonderful childhood that included freedom unheard of today and an opportunity to hone the “take-charge” attitude that has been instrumental in Miami Gardens’ rapid progress since its 2003 incorporation.
In a wide-ranging interview in her office, the “almost 65” year-old daughter of George and Elizabeth Murray reflected on the area’s first unsuccessful attempt at incorporation, her unconventional use of a master’s degree in pastoral ministry, and her new role as president of the Miami-Dade League of Cities.
For her leadership role in the city’s birth and growth into a clean, neat, commercial magnet, Gibson also will receive honors from the Miami-Dade NAACP on Saturday, Oct. 11 at the civil rights organization’s 2008 Freedom Fund Gala.
Miami-Dade County Com-missioner Barbara Jordan, whose district includes the city of Miami Gardens, said of Gibson’s new position with the League of Cities, “I’m extremely proud that Mayor Gibson was chosen. I don’t think it could’ve gone to a more deserving and innovative person.”
Jordan said she is especially pleased with the city’s improved appearance.
“I used to be embarrassed when I left Broward County and came into [Miami]Dade to see the difference in how the aesthetics and the roads looked,’’ Jordan said. “Well, I’m no longer embarrassed. That’s largely because of the fine work that the mayor and the city council have done in order to bring the city into the 21st century.”
The first effort to incorporate the area now known as Miami Gardens happened in 1995. Then Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty Ferguson was a key player.
“The main thrust behind the effort was that we felt that we were not getting enough attention from the county. Being on the county commission it was difficult, that was a major, major struggle to get my fellow commissioners to allow us to even have a say-so as to whether we were going to incorporate,” said Ferguson, of Miami Gardens.
When Gibson got wind of the incorporation effort, she decided that she wanted to become involved because she also believed the area was underserved by the county and “it was the right thing to do,” she said. Gibson became the chairperson.
The effort to incorporate as the city of Destiny was guided by Eugene Stearns, a lawyer and former chief of staff for former Florida Governor Rubin Askew who spearheaded the successful incorporation of Key Biscayne. Stearns also provided guidance to Aventura, Pinecrest, Sunny Isles and Destiny, the only one of the four to be defeated.
Gibson took the defeat hard (the initiative lost by 700 votes).
“The night we lost, when the vote came in, I was devastated. Tears were brimming in my eyes, my heart was broken,” she said, adding, “I didn’t think the community would vote against itself.”
In a cathartic move to alleviate her pain, the retired Miami-Dade policewoman wrote an editorial that was published in The Miami Times. In it she declared, “We went to war and I met the enemy and the enemy was us.”
Gibson was bewildered that many blacks balked at the idea of taking ownership of their own community, especially, she said, after being labeled a “recipient community” by the county (one that pays less in taxes than the valued amount of services it receives from the county – services Gibson said were inadequate).
Convinced that an independent city could better serve itself, Gibson regrouped seven years later and, having learned valuable lessons from the defeat, employed a different strategy.
“What do you do with defeat, if you know something is good and it’s the right thing to do?” she asked herself.
She made it her business to get to know the business people in the area.
“You need to know who I am and what I’m all about and why this is so important,” she told them.
She said she was able to convey to them that their survival and the survival of the community were mutually dependent.
“Basically,” she said, “We’re all in this together. And if we don’t survive, you won’t survive.”
Because she realized that her opponent’s funding was essentially “someone else’s money,” and they were not committed enough to raise funds on their own, she asked the business owners not to fund the opposition.
“What they said was, ‘We won’t fund the opposition, but we won’t commit to giving you money, either,’” a proposition she gladly accepted.
Her strategy worked, with several in the business community eventually deciding to fund the incorporation effort.
Gibson said her deepest source of disappointment came from blacks in the area who remained unconvinced that a black city could thrive.
“There was still this opposition in our own community that we don’t want to be in a city – a black city – managed by black politicians because they don’t know what they’re doing,” she lamented.
Ray Williams, a Miami-Dade firefighter and Miami Gardens resident, was opposed to the city’s incorporation, but has since acknowledged that, “thus far a fine job has been done,” and that many of the city’s efforts have resulted in “enhancements to the community.”
Williams does, however, lament the unavailability of barbecue sandwiches since the city outlawed the sale of food on street corners, and would like the city to consider installing speed humps on certain thoroughfares to deter speeding.
Another key aspect of Gibson’s new approach was to learn about effective governance and sound fiscal management.
“I tried to learn as much as I could. I went outside of the community,” she said.
Because of Stearns’ success with the incorporation of Key Biscayne, Gibson met with him.
“I had gone to sit with [Stearns], a real guru with budgets and numbers. I went to his house on Key Biscayne and sat in his day room with [him] and his wife, like for three hours,” Gibson said, adding that the meeting also led to introductions to Key Biscayne’s city manager and other key officials.
“They trained me,” Gibson said, still reeling from the county’s condescending treatment. “The county had said that we were too poor, that we couldn’t take care of ourselves. That we were a recipient community; that meant that someone else had to take care of you. And I just knew better. If we had the dollars we would do better, and we would get better.”
The city of Miami Gardens was incorporated in May 2003 in an election that saw just 3,558 of the city’s 50,548 registered voters decide the city’s fate. And in a crowded race for mayor, Gibson was elected with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Stearns is proud of his pupil.
“Shirley’s always been one of my favorite people. I think she’s just a terrific person …an extraordinarily gifted political leader in this community. We’re fortunate to have her,” he said.
Stearns said the city’s progress is extraordinary, but would be infinitely better if not for the county’s disparate treatment of Miami Gardens, post-incorporation.
“It’s somewhat disappointing that the county has imposed burdens on Miami Gardens that other cities don’t have,’’ Stearns said. “Miami Gardens has had to contribute millions of dollars to the county for [specialized police] services while Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Indian Creek and all the other rich cities in Dade County don’t pay a dime for those services.”
His frustration extends to the board of county commissioners.
“I find it one of my great disappointments that the county commission has not fixed that problem. It’s typical Dade County, unfortunately,” he said.
The city’s police department began providing the specialized police services (investigating rapes, murders and other serious crimes) on Oct. 1, according to an emailed response from Matthew Boyd, Miami Gardens’ police chief.
The city paid the county $5,380,000 annually to provide the services. Now that the city will provide the services itself, Boyd said, “An agreement was subsequently reached where the price was reduced 1.5 million after each year.”
Of the city’s progress, Ferguson said, “It was a long hard struggle, but we were successful. The city of Miami Gardens is doing much better than any of the naysayers ever expected it to do. From that perspective, I don’t think that anyone can say that the city of Miami Gardens has failed.”
CITY IS HER MINISTRY
Gibson said that during her coursework to obtain her master’s degree in pastoral ministry, which she earned in 2003 from St. Thomas University, one of her professors asked her small class to define who they were and what their ministries would be.
Gibson said that in retrospect, her 30-year involvement with her church, New Way Fellowship Baptist in Miami Gardens, offered clues to what would become her unconventional ministry.
She said, “I’ve never attached myself to any particular ministry in that church. That wasn’t my ministry, I couldn’t get into it. As I reflect back, it was too traditional for me. I wasn’t going to fit.”
After giving the professor’s request serious thought, Gibson realized that running the city was her ministry.
“All that I had been doing in the community was my ministry. This is where I was ordained to work.”
She steers clear of political “cliques,” preferring to stay focused on providing sound leadership to her city, with over 500 full-time employees and an annual budget of over $116 million. Gibson points to the development of a strategic plan as key to the city’s success. Surprised that other cities do not also employ the technique, Gibson is convinced of its effectiveness.
She said she and her administration are pleased with Miami Gardens’ progress. Chief among the city’s accomplishments: beautification and code enforcement efforts (complete with a hotline to report litter bugs), the establishment of a signature cultural event to increase the city’s exposure (Jazz in the Gardens), the creation of its own police department and major improvements to the city’s parks.
LEAGUE OF CITIES PRESIDENT
On Oct. 4, Gibson was inducted into another leadership role when she was sworn in as the new president of the Miami-Dade League of Cities, a 55-year old organization created to assist “its members in cultivating and maintaining the most proficient ways of administering government for the general welfare of the residents and business in the County,” according to its website.
Gibson sees her role with the league as two-fold: trying to maintain the cohesiveness of a group with 35 cities and essentially 191 leaders and making sure that each city’s needs are met.
“Every one of those cities is different,” she said.
Gibson will undoubtedly share with her colleagues some of the wisdom that has served her city.
“I know that this was the absolute right thing to do. Sometimes it’s a kind of chilling thing. I knew we would be successful, but I didn’t think we’d make the kind of strides that we have made in such a short period of time,” Gibson said.
Gibson eased into her second term with no opposition in the 2008 election. Because of term limits, and just knowing when it’s time to go, she has stated that the next four years as the city’s mayor will be her last.
Her goals after serving as mayor include writing a book about the incorporation and mayoral experience, serving on a good corporate board, and hitting the speaking circuit.
The desolation in other communities of color saddens Gibson. As she and her daughter returned from Jay-Z’s “Last Chance for Change” concert last Monday night at Bayfront Park, they detoured through Liberty City to escape the heavy traffic.
“My heart just sank,’’ she said. “This is such a desolate-looking place. When I look at it and look at us…it hasn’t happened because they don’t have their own city.”
See story in the Metro section about the Miami-Dade NAACP’s Freedom Fund gala on Saturday, where Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson will be honored.
Pictured above: Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson