The last city manager had left just as a public corruption investigation was starting. The one before that was fired after a private investigator uncovered visits to a dominatrix website on the manager’s city computer.
So in 2010, with Homestead’s city manager’s office empty yet again, City Council members opted for a national search to find a replacement. It was the first time in recent history that the insular city decided to look outside for help.
They found George Gretsas, a veteran administrator who had most recently run the city of Fort Lauderdale.
He came. He saw. He was shocked.
Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, records and interviews with city officials indicate, was all but running a parallel branch of government — badgering department heads, midwifing cut-rate land deals with campaign donors and business partners, interfering with hiring and firing. This, in a city where a professional manager is supposed to call the shots.
Still, nobody on the outside of this still-agrarian pioneer town paid much attention — until this past Wednesday, when police came knocking at Bateman’s door and carted him off to jail. He’s charged with using his mayoral office to land a secret $125-an-hour consultancy with a nonprofit with business before the city.
The arrest and Bateman’s subsequent suspension from office finally brought attention to the far-flung city of Homestead.
City officials quickly called a news conference, and the community center where Bateman ran council meetings only weeks earlier was packed with camera crews and reporters. Gretsas welcomed them as though they were guests he had been eagerly expecting.
“I’m fairly new to these parts. We’re here on the outer rim of Miami-Dade County, and it’s nice to see you all,” Gretsas said. “It took a while for people to start paying attention to what was going on here.”
Homestead clings to the southernmost swath of the continental United States, just before the mainland gives way to the Florida Keys. Most know it only as a pass-through to the island chain, or because it was nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
As though the mentality of its earliest pioneers never faded, Homestead’s residents have a reputation for fierce independence and self-reliance. It’s Miami-Dade County’s second-oldest city, with its own homegrown banks, hospitals, and even its own water and electric plants.
“We relish the idea that we’re a small-town people,” said 82-year old Nick Sincore, a life-long Homesteader. “It’s nice and comfortable, and we don’t want it to change.”
Sincore sat on Homestead’s council for 30 years — six of them as mayor. His son is a Homestead cop. His son-in-law is now running for mayor.
Within Homestead’s small circle of politically involved residents, personalities can clash in a big way. On more than one occasion, bar fights have broken out between opposing political factions.
Other times, the close-knit nature of Homestead’s political class has proved personally profitably for a select few. Nowhere in the city is this more evident than in Homestead’s quaint downtown.
Stretching several blocks along Krome Avenue, Homestead’s main street is equal parts charm and decay. It’s dotted with medical clinics, an iconic-but-abandoned theater and a small park. There are also boarded-up storefronts, for-rent signs on buildings with peeling paint, and vacant lots.