Retiring Miami-Dade County building chief remains force to be reckoned with

01/21/2014 5:32 PM

01/21/2014 5:34 PM

Nearly three hours into a conversation — and 26 years on the job — the man who made stronger construction standards his crusade when he rewrote the Miami-Dade County building code after Hurricane Andrew remains filled with the fervor for reform.

Charlie Danger, the county building chief who is about to retire after a career that challenged builders and probably saved lives, is holding court behind his desk, leaning over to draw a diagram of broken street lights, expounding on his passion for protecting South Florida’s natural environment. (“The problem with politicians,” he says, “is they don’t listen to scientists.”)

He jokes about how much longer the Social Security Administration expects him to live — he’s 66, and the feds give him another 18 and a half years — and weeps at the memory of his late mother, Olga, who took her three sons out of Cuba and raised them on her own. He recounts with a certain glee the nasty letters he received from developers about the building code rewrite that took him to Tallahassee and endangered his job in 1996 when, as he says, “the you-know-what hit the fan.”

Charlie Danger is still an evangelist.

He preaches tolerance and compassion. He believes in a benevolent government, where dull regulations have the power for good and desk jockeys can make people’s problems go away.

When he retires Friday, County Hall will lose one of its last remaining old-school bureaucrats, the kind of undisputed expert who tells it like it is.

“We’ve been putting patches on problems for too many years,” he concludes. “The government should be proactive, should be progressive. We should take the bull by the horns and reinvent things.”

He has reinvented himself more than once.

He left Havana at age 13. His father, a Fidel Castro sympathizer, drove Danger, his brothers and his mother to the airport, predicting they would soon return to Cuba. Father and sons wouldn’t be reunited for 24 years.

Danger remembers the address of every meager apartment where his family stayed, including one for $3 a night where no one could sleep due to the sounds of a bed shaking rhythmically next door.

They moved to Oklahoma and later California, where Danger graduated from California State University. But the young men wanted to meet Cuban girls. The family returned to Miami.

Danger and his wife, Sarah, had two children and, now, four grandchildren. He is the father of the real Carlos Danger, a Miami psychiatrist whose name gained notoriety last year after former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner used it as a nom de plume to send sexual messages online. Dad advised the younger Danger to lay low when national news networks came calling.

Charlie Danger was a 40-year-old electrical engineer working for a contractor when a secretary handed him an advertisement clipped from the newspaper. Dade County was hiring a chief electrical inspector.

As a contractor, Danger often complained about inspectors. “In order to get your inspection, they expected a $20 bill,” he said. “Not all of them. But some of them.”

He got the job, eager to change the culture. A few years later, a grand jury recommended more building oversight. The hard-nosed Danger became the first head of code compliance.

The position might have remained little-known had it not been for the hurricane that hit on Aug. 24, 1992. Andrew exposed the shoddy construction inspectors had only begun to suspect.

“Everybody was too relaxed. Everyone was making money,” Danger said. “Unfortunately, [Andrew] gave us the ammunition to go after changing the code.”

Doing so amounted to political warfare between the county and influential builders, who objected to more stringent — and more expensive — standards.

They sued. Critics took to calling the compliance chief “King Danger” and “the most dangerous man” at County Hall. Neither was a compliment.

County auditors investigated Danger for handpicking a Seattle consultant to rewrite a portion of the code, awarding him a $700,000 contract without a competitive bid. Though Danger was spared a criminal investigation because he did not personally benefit and the work was completed, the auditors found the county overpaid.

Some builders wanted the king’s head.

His job appeared to be on such thin ice that supporters, from labor unions to average Joes, sent a slew of letters to the county, some of which remain in Danger’s personnel file. “DON’T YOU EVER GIVE UP!” says one from 1996, written by hand and sent via fax.

Danger lost some of his powers. But he survived. His code became a model for other coastal communities. Industry developed stronger roof tiles and impact-resistant glass.

He took his cause to Tallahassee, fighting to keep South Florida’s reforms in the new state building code. Things got so ugly that he resigned from the board drafting the document, calling the state building commission “garbage” and a “charade.” The reforms stuck.

Danger was put in charge of the county building department in 1998, after construction flaws were found at the Dadeland Station mall. In his new post, he automated building department records to keep better track of them, something contractors and residents now take for granted.

Several of Danger’s performance evaluations note that the infamously slow building department continued to take too long to process permits.

But one of his former bosses, Alex Muñoz, now head of the animal services department, credited Danger with looking for creative solutions and accepting responsibility.

“He doesn’t pass the buck on anything,” Muñoz said.

In a statement, Mayor Carlos Gimenez praised the colorful building chief’s legacy and “good humor.” A Spanish-language sign on the shelf behind Danger’s desk reads, “It’s a beautiful day. Watch somebody come and screw it up.”

Danger’s deputy, Juliana Salas, will take over the department of about 300 employees. Danger made a salary of nearly $212,000 a year.

His current boss, Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt, said the building chief’s philosophy is not to gouge people with fines but to get them to follow the rules.

“He will do absolutely everything he can to straighten out a mess for a customer,” Osterholt said. “Charlie always finds a way to not get $10,000 in fines doled out.”

The unpredictable Danger made higher-ups hold their breath when he was called up to the microphone at County Commission meetings.

“He’s always up in the corner, and he kind of saunters up to the mic, and I think, ‘Please, God, make this work out,’” Osterholt said, chuckling. “And it always does.”

Danger will drag himself to the front of the commission chambers for what will probably be the last time Wednesday. But it won’t be to defend building rules, cheekily answer questions or, as he did just before Thanksgiving, bring the commission chairwoman, a fellow cooking enthusiast, shishito peppers grown in his brother’s backyard.

This time, he will receive a proclamation for his years of service.

They were good ones, Danger said in his office, despite all the political battles.

“I’m going to remember that I enjoyed every day I was here,” he said. “Every day was an adventure.”

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