Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Miami-Dade’s Juan Zapata has a peculiar sense of grievance

Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan Zapata, District 11
Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan Zapata, District 11

Who’s smirking now?

“Wipe that smirk off your face,” my dear mother used to say as she chastised her wayward son, adding a whack to my head for emphasis.

So you can imagine the wave of nostalgia that swept over me, learning that Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan Zapata himself had reprised momma’s favorite phrase as he berated the county’s finance director. “Wipe that smirk off your face,” he demanded at a commission meeting. Zapata, thank goodness, refrained from smacking the fellow.

Me? I had a terrible time trying to undo a smirk, the default facial expression of my adolescent years. Still, an unruly kid expects that kind of admonition from a parent. An adult county employee might not appreciate a condescending scolding from an elected official at a public meeting. Of course, that’s hardly an uncommon scenario in school board or city and county commission meetings: elected officials making a banal public show of pummeling staffers, knowing that professional protocol prevents the beleaguered saps from hitting back.

So Zapata chides the staffers (and, by extension, their boss Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez). He rebukes them. Expects them to stand there like stoics, to take it like Uncle Charlie’s mule. But who knows? Maybe they smirk.

Zapata’s problem was that even while he was giving the county’s number crunchers hell in public, he was quietly trying to persuade the budget office to reimburse him for a large and peculiar expense. He wanted the county taxpayers to pick up his tuition costs for a Harvard University master’s degree program.

The budget office, after some back and forth on the details, said, yes, the county’s elastic rules allow a commissioner to be reimbursed for an “expense that is for the benefit of the District 11 constituency.” Citizens of District 11 might puzzle over what benefits they accrue by pumping up their commissioner’s resume, but on Aug. 5, the county cut Zapata a check for $30,961 to cover the upcoming school year.

Nothing illegal here. No rules broken. Apparently other county commissioners have been reimbursed for various training courses. Several have charged the county for a $12,000 three-week governance program at Harvard. And no one can argue that our local elected leaders couldn’t use some enlightened guidance in public administration. But a two-year stint at Harvard pushed the concept to a pricy new level. And Zapata wanted more than tuition. His office also inquired about reimbursement for travel expenses. My Herald colleagues Doug Hanks and Michael Vasquez reported an email exchange between a Zapata assistant and the budget office. “Commissioner Zapata asked me to follow up with one last question,” his staffer wrote. “Could the office budget route be used to cover his travel?”

The answer was yes. Just as long as his travel back and forth from Cambridge, Mass., could be classified under the magic rubric: “for the benefit of his district.”

But apparently word about the $30,961 somehow dribbled out of County Hall. A reporter from Univision Channel 23 asked some discomfiting questions. The deal may have been legal but the aesthetics were unseemly. Here was this mean-talking budget hawk hitting up the taxpayers for his college tuition. Zapata got zapped.

On Aug. 13, he fired off an angry email to the budget office. “Yesterday it came to my attention that the budget office maliciously leaked this information in order to cause political embarrassment.”

Zapata wrote, “Please let me know how to reimburse the county for the full amount.”

He added, “You all should be ashamed.”

What an odd sense of grievance he harbors. The commissioner seems to be rebuking public employees for revealing public information about an unusual use of public money.

Zapata was fine with taxpayers paying for Harvard masters degree as long as no one noticed the deal. But once it became public, he quickly reimbursed the county the amount the county had reimbursed him. And he did it with self-righteous indignation. As if he had been cheated out of his rightful $30,961 by these sneaky tattletales down at County Hall. Zapata told the Herald that he planned to pay the money back all along, though the email exchange with the budget office — before Univision came nosing around — contained no passages that indicated that he only considered the county money a quickie loan.

I suppose that spending 30 grand a year on educating a county commissioner in public administration might have some abstract value to his constituents. (Though the two-year program will keep him in Boston several days a week and away from his district.) At least, the tuition reimbursement was less gaudy than public money other elected officials have spent on expensive travel junkets to exotic locales. They like to call these paid vacations “trade missions.”

But Zapata’s master’s degree in public administration will do a lot more for his personal employment prospects than help his constituents. Unless his studies include a course in labor relations. Or maybe workplace psychology.

After all, those county bureaucrats Zapata likes to ridicule seem to have gotten the last laugh in this imbroglio. Or, at least, the last smirk.