In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Mr. Mayor: Please listen to the people

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

Librarians. Firefighters. Pets.

Only three words, but they’re harbingers of an untidy stack of political trouble for Miami-Dade’s mayor, who underestimated the cost of not suitably funding much-appreciated county services.

And if that wasn’t enough of a miscalculation, the mayor skipped town when he was supposed to face citizens at two town hall meetings in South Dade.

In days of greater civic malaise, Mayor Carlos Gimenez may have gotten away with little criticism for traveling to Washington D.C. to cheer on the undefeated 1972 Dolphins at the White House at the expense of residents eagerly waiting to meet with him.

In days of greater civic malaise, he might have chosen a front-row seat and photo-ops over constituents safe in the comfort that his no tax-hike budget — approved by a majority of the County Commission — would go largely unchallenged.

But, in a post-Marlins ballpark fiasco ambiance, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Fiery local activism similar to the kind that ousted former Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a recall election is back.

This time around, however, the activism isn’t fueled by a millionaire businessman’s leadership and funding, but by ordinary citizens — and the powerful communication tools of social media.

“I have not been involved in anything in years,” retired teacher Ruth Trencher told me, “but I am an admirer of reading and libraries and I feel fiercely about them. Libraries are the heart of the community.”

Armed with her own tax documents of the last several years, investigative footwork at various libraries and the county’s website, and conversations with people in government, Trencher has charted a storyline that shows how the libraries — funded by a separate property-tax rate and once award-winning and hailed as an example of what was done right and thriving — have been milked of its funding by county administrators.

Restoring libraries to their 2010-11 levels would cost a Miami homeowner like herself only another $7 and change a year, Trencher will tell you.

“I wrote, called and begged the mayor to bring it [the budget & taxation level] back to a discussion, to talk about it some more with the people, but I was told, ‘The mayor supports no new taxes,’ and that’s it,” said Trencher, who also supports funding the Pets’ Trust and the fire-rescue department, which stands to lose three fire trucks and 59 firefighters.

The retired teacher is one of scores of activists energetically engaged in a last-minute bid to stop library closings and layoffs — many of them part of the agile and smart “Save the Miami-Dade Libraries” campaign organized by Vanessa Reyes-Herridge, a former Miami-Dade librarian working on a doctorate in library and information science in Boston, and her brother-in-law, Andrew Herridge, a clinical psychology graduate student.

One need only go to the campaign’s crisply written and constantly updated Facebook page, liked by almost 5,000 people, to gauge the level of activism the mayor’s proposal to shut down libraries, lay-off librarians, cut hours, and take away two floors of the grand Main Library in downtown Miami has generated.

One need only read the group’s open letter to Miami-Dade residents — “How to run a 49-branch library system without laying off 251 library staff” — to realize this is an informed group of people who’ve done their homework.

Or, one need only visit the Pets’ Trust page, liked by 7,725 people urging the mayor and commissioners to fund the Pet Trust overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall and to open a needed no-kill pet shelter in South Dade.

In other words, these are people who vote, who once may have stood on the sidelines, but are now acting to get the mayor and the county commission to listen.

At first, Gimenez wasn’t exactly gauging their commitment accurately.

“It is what it is,” the mayor said earlier this month at a North Dade Regional Library meeting packed with supporters of firefighters wearing yellow, of pet lovers in red, and library lovers holding up emotional signs that said things like “Librarians are inspiring!”

But what a difference engaged citizens can make.

That cliché Zen attitude of resigned acceptance seemed to have changed by late Friday when the mayor’s office sent a memo to county commissioners proposing the dissolution of the current “restrictive” library special taxing district so that libraries could be funded by the county “to respond to the entire community’s priorities.”

By Saturday morning, word of the mayor’s new proposal spread: No library closings, but they would operate about three quarters of the hours they do now; 169 librarians would still face layoffs.

The response from Save Our Libraries: “Again, we must ask ourselves the question — is it enough?”

Three words: Librarians. Firefighters. Pets.

Fund them.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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