Can a new county commissioner bring fundamental change to the very identity of a district? Technically, yes. Just ask Joe Martinez as he poses for a photograph outside of the West End Regional Library.
“I met with the county attorneys yesterday and told them that was my first order of business,” the newly elected commissioner said. He was referring to the words “West End” on a library that until last year was called the West Kendall Regional Library.
It switched to a “West End” facility when District 11’s outgoing commissioner, Juan C. Zapata, passed legislation to rename it as part of his effort to create a geographic brand he thought was more appealing than “West Kendall” for the suburban area.
Since it was a county-owned facility in Zapata’s district, the 13-member County Commission backed his resolution in October 2015 to rename the library as a flagship of Zapata’s rebranding initiative. Martinez said his first resolution will be to reverse the change.
“People really don’t want it,” Martinez said as he puffed on a thin cigar outside a Cuban restaurant on the other side of the shopping center that houses the county library. “It’s all known as West Kendall. It’s the name we’ve had for such a long time.”
If the brief West End era looks slated for an abrupt end once Martinez takes the oath of office Tuesday as Miami-Dade’s newest commissioner, it’s not just a branding exercise that promises to make this a particularly noteworthy transition on the board.
I think the West End, somehow along the process, got a little bit of a raw deal. The West End was nothing but just a brand. A way for people to look at that area differently.
Juan C. Zapata, outgoing District 11 commissioner for Miami-Dade County
Martinez, 59, takes office with more experience on the commission than Zapata, 49, leaves with. Martinez served 12 years on the board before giving up his seat in 2012 to run for county mayor. He lost to incumbent Carlos Gimenez, and Zapata, a former state lawmaker, won the election to fill the open District 11 seat.
Out of office, Martinez didn’t give up the commission entirely. He briefly sold a customized cologne called The Commissioner before that venture fizzled. Now he’s set to be the official rookie on a board where he’s served longer than have five incumbents.
“I think he’s going to come back with a lot of history and knowledge,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who joined the board in late 2005 during the first of Martinez’s two stints as chairman. “He’s going to add a lot of excitement again to this commission. He’s fun. He gave me a lot of laughs.”
Zapata has declined interview requests since shocking the local political world on July 15 by dropping his reelection bid, weeks after the deadline passed for other candidates to join the race. He was facing a tough reelection battle with Martinez. Zapata’s decision to quit came so late in the process that the Elections Department had to post notices at polling places saying that even though the incumbent’s name was on the ballot, votes for him wouldn’t be counted.
Privately, Zapata blamed his withdrawal on general frustration with county government. He had also been snagged in a media storm over Miami-Dade reimbursing him $31,000 for tuition toward a master’s degree he was pursuing at Harvard University. He returned the money once Univision was preparing a story on the reimbursement in the summer of 2015, and Zapata blamed Gimenez’s budget office for leaking the information.
People really don’t want it. It’s all known as West Kendall. It’s the name we’ve had for such a long time.
Joe Martinez, incoming District 11 commissioner, on the “West End” brand
Zapata promoted the West End brand as a way to reposition a suburban area known for sprawl into something that conveyed a more bucolic community closer to the Everglades than downtown Miami. A 2015 study he commissioned from Florida International University concluded “the general image of the West End (whether right or wrong) is limited to the monoculture of ‘big box’ retail stores, service-oriented commercial ventures such as gas stations, fast-food restaurants, branch banks and supermarkets.”
But the attempted name change for Zapata’s district — complete with a West End Living app — drew criticism from some residents who questioned why a commissioner had the authority to rebrand their home territory. “When people ask me where I live, I say West Kendall,” said Enrique Isola, a 70-year-old retired physician who rode his bike to the West End library on a recent evening. “The West End? I don’t like the ‘end’ part of it.”
The West End campaign coincided with Zapata shepherding a process that would give voters the chance to incorporate cities out of a district entirely dependent on the county for municipal services. That was another flashpoint for Martinez, who said he plans to wrap up the incorporation effort without recommending Miami-Dade consider the creation of cities in District 11. “I will finish the study, and that’s it,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he saw the incorporation initiative as similar to the West End push —a bid by a commissioner to impose his ideas on the district. “If enough people say, ‘Hey, we want to change the name. We want to be known as the Hammocks Community,’ I couldn’t care less,” Martinez said. “But it has to come from the people.”
In farewell remarks at his final commission meeting on Nov. 15, Zapata thanked the “residents of the West End” before sounding wistful about the name.
“I think the West End, somehow along the process, got a little bit of a raw deal. The West End was nothing but just a brand. A way for people to look at that area differently,” he said. “Whatever you call it — West Dade, Kendall West, Kendale Lakes, the Hammocks, West Kendall, West End — it’s home for me.
“I’ve never lived east of 127th Avenue,” Zapata continued. “I’ve always been a Westie, and I probably always will be a Westie.”