Fabiola Santiago

Maybe Mayor Carlos Gimenez should wear a body camera

Ralph Garcia-Toledo
Ralph Garcia-Toledo adiaz@miamiherald.com

Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks with the confidence of a man who knows his job inside and out. He can talk science museum deal with the same ease and depth of knowledge as police body cameras. He can deftly switch topics from solar energy legislation to the way at-risk children are being identified early on and mentored to keep them from spiraling into a life of crime.

I’m not a gambling woman, but my best bet is that Gimenez — as well-funded by the powerful business interests that run this town as he is well versed on issues — is going to coast to re-election.

What he has a harder time doing, however, is winning the public’s trust. In this critical area of governance, the way he conducts big time county business is at odds with his words.

The mayor often evokes the concept of transparency and accountability. He ran on this platform and is doing so again, highly aware of the erosion of trust in government. He’ll tell you that the mistrust is what guided his position that everyone in Miami-Dade police who interacts with citizens wear body cameras long before the issue became a national talking point.

“I want as much possible interactions between police officers and citizens to be captured,” he told The Herald this week of the initiative to equip 1,000 patrol officers with body cameras.

Yet, when it comes to potential conflicts of interest and back-door dealing, the mayor has a blind spot.

He delivers done-deals like the megamall-theme park boondoggle in Northwest Miami-Dade to a spineless county commission that rubber stamps instead of properly vetting community-altering projects. His developer friends line up for tax incentives (aka corporate welfare) and get them despite promises to voters that there aren’t any, as in the SkyRise Miami giant steel hairpin.

But nothing quite captures the mayor’s peculiar sense of what’s fair game as well as the richly textured portrait of Gimenez’s relationship with his re-election finance chairman, Ralph Garcia-Toledo, a veteran county contractor, by Miami Herald county hall reporter Douglas Hanks. It’s a classic, required reading on how county government operates behind the scenes.

In his day job, Garcia-Toledo is a subcontractor who gets $200 an hour from the county contractor on a $3.3 billion sewer project to reduce the amount of treated wastewater the county dumps in the Atlantic Oceam. Contractor CH2M Hill, in turn, bills the county.

In his spare time, Garcia-Toledo has raised $4 million in campaign donations for Gimenez’s re-election.

Gimenez insists there’s no conflict of interest. He points to Garcia-Toledo’s G-T Construction Group losing, in 2014, another $90 million sewer contract to rival company AECOM because of a Gimenez decision during the procurement process.

“There’s a level playing field,” Gimenez said. “I let the procurement process run its course.”

Yet, Garcia-Toledo’s company ended up subcontracted for the even more lucrative sewer project Ocean Fall won by CH2M Hill and funded by revenues from the county water bills we pay. Garcia-Toledo says his company provides “construction management” services, which he describes this way: “You have to plan all this. [Once] you know exactly where I’m going to put that pipe, and how to go about it, and manage everybody who is going to be doing that work — that is what we’re doing right now.” As interesting is that CH2M lists him in county documents as doing “public outreach liaison” for that $200-an-hour pay.

The mayor has quite a peculiar way of understanding the concept of “a level playing field.”

Google the phrase, and easily find the crystal clear definition: “a situation in which everyone has a fair and equal chance of succeeding.”

Yet Garcia-Toledo ends up at private meetings like the session last fall on transportation policy at developer Armando Codina’s office with the mayor, a commissioner, and transportation officials. He has access to people and information most people in business can only dream of. What for others is a pipe dream, for him is a source of considerable income. He has amassed quite an impressive insider portfolio of government contracts since Stephen P. Clark was mayor back in the 1990s.

And in 2011, the former Texaco community relations man who found more profitable work in government services became Gimenez’s humble unpaid driver when the retired Miami fire chief and former city manager was campaigning on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

One of the byproducts of power and success is the loss of perspective.

In a government bureaucracy where services, let alone contracts, are so difficult to access that professional representation is often required, Gimenez’s self-assessment that he guarantees a level playing field to his friends is fantasy.

Perhaps the mayor and elected officials who dole out public dollars should wear body cameras too.

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