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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
June 2020

At home and in government, time for change

EPix_MarkSell_6-20ven plagues bear gifts. They can illuminate surprising things about ourselves, our towns, our nation, our Earth. They bring out our best and worst. They change habits.

As we uncurl from our COVID-19 shells and blink at a changed world, Miami-Dade’s salons, shops, hotels, and beaches are starting to open. We’re wearing masks inside stores, washing our hands, keeping our distance. If you used to bite your nails, maybe you’ve stopped.

Perhaps you’ve actually had some time. You haven’t had much time if you’re an “essential worker” with the attendant risks, or if you’re tending to your kids, your grands, your parents, or if you’re out of work and spending hours on the state’s “reemployment” website and circular phone bank. Maybe it’s been an aching, lonely slog.

Even powerful people with big bucks have cracked up in unguarded moments. So pick up the phone, write that snail-mail letter, make amends with the person you ghosted or slighted. It may help and cannot hurt.

If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of money, forgo that chain restaurant for the local mom-and-pop diner or pet shop, and tip at least 30 percent, or pay that furloughed school bus driver who picked up your kid and just might be behind on the rent or car payment.

You know the story. April’s unemployment figures came out May 22, showing Miami-Dade’s rate at 13.2 percent. That’s the appetizer. May figures will come out June 19. Statewide hospitality, leisure, and restaurant unemployment hovers around 40 percent.

If you’re able, don your mask and gloves, and volunteer for all those food distributions going around, like the 1.5-mile car line on May 16 at Arch Creek Elementary in North Miami, organized by Curley’s House Food Bank in Liberty City and operated by LaVern Spicer, who is running for Congress as a Republican against Frederica Wilson in District 24. All kinds of people volunteered, including North Miami regulars and a contingent from the Church of Scientology.

“We’re struggling to keep our doors open, and there’s a real need,” Spicer says. “We have seniors on $5-a-month food stamps and $200-a-month Social Security. Some are in their 70s and still paying student loans.”

Now that the economic meteor has struck, governments are just starting to survey the damage.

That will be the big first job of Theresa Therilus, who was appointed North Miami’s city manager on May 26 by acclamation after an initial 3-2 vote (with council members Scott Galvin and Carol Keys voting no on the first round).

The fix was in. The public wasn’t even given a list of the final 15 candidates. The North Miami charter states that the city manager is to be chosen “solely on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications.”

While Therilus does not have city management history, she is an experienced attorney with a Harvard law degree. She is now interim director of procurement for Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has strong South Florida roots, having served three years as assistant director for procurement for Miami-Dade County and two years as a Florida assistant attorney general after seven years as an attorney in private practice.

Shortly before the vote, interim city manager Arthur “Duke” Sorey III, who has overseen personnel matters and deficit spending in recent years, announced indefinite furloughs of 140 part-time workers, with some full-time layoffs and spreading pay cuts likely. The city recently got a one-time $10.7-million boost from selling land to Solé Mia, and on May 26 approved a $10.25-million land payment from The Oaks, which owns the One Fifty One at Biscayne residential towers. City offices are closed every other Friday effective May 29.

An idea for the city council: Rescind those 20 percent pay raises you gave yourselves in 2019, on top of those boosts you rewarded yourselves in 2017. Cut that “part-time” mayor’s salary back from $71,880 to $59,880, and the council salaries from just under $60,000 back to $47,910. Cut back on the travel money and the whopping 48 percent state pension contribution.

Wipe out those abused slush funds the city gives you for special events and taxpayer-paid constituent services, which go to Christmas cards and $2400 T-shirt orders with your name on them. And kill those blasted coronations. After the 2021 election, a simple swearing-in at council chambers with five-minute remarks will do just fine. How about it?

Therilus will have plenty to unsnarl. We’re still not sure of the true cost of the Luther Campbell Super Bowl weekend Red Garden event, shepherded by Sorey and ex-city manager Larry Spring, and estimated at well over $1.1 million by blogger Stephanie Kienzle and activist Laura Hill, squaring with our own rough estimates. We wish Therilus the best and community support in making needed tough calls and instituting best practices.

This isn’t personal. We find the council members individually likeable and concerned for the needy. We want them to set modest, diligent examples in this city whose median household income sits below $40,000, whose poverty rate is nearly 23 percent, and whose probable unemployment rate is 15 percent.

Less puffery and self-importance and more modesty, please. It’s more important to do something than to be somebody. By thy works, not thy titles, thou shalt be known.

Up in Tallahassee, the strain is showing on Gov. Ron DeSantis, with accusations afoot that the state held off on COVID-19 information, cooked the COVID-19 numbers to make things look better, and botched the response to unemployment.

DeSantis said May 13 that he isolated nursing home patients early in the game, but a Palm Beach Post investigation found that he dithered on identifying outbreaks and is now scrambling, and new nursing home cases keep popping up around the state. According to Washington Post-Ipsos and SurveyMonkey polls, 58 percent of Floridians approve of his coronavirus handling, ranking him No. 47 of 50 governors, but ahead of dead-last Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and President Trump, at 43 percent.

We don’t have the facts in, but transparency and empathy count. At this writing, thousands of unemployed have received no payments at all, or only partial state and federal payments. Call-center employees, forced to stick to a script, have quit in exasperation.

Here’s an idea: Roughly 40 years ago, Florida Gov. Bob Graham did 400 “workdays” as a citrus packer, construction worker, waiter, bellhop, even a journalist. Suppose Governor DeSantis quietly goes undercover for one day as an anonymous outsourced reemployment call-center worker. He might get some ideas of his own. How about it?

 

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