Fuzzy Math

September 7, 2009 - One Response

Those who know me well will tell you: I am not a numbers girl.

Sure, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide. I can figure the cost of a dress on the 25% off rack.  But Budgets?  Taxes?  Amortization?  Debt Service?  Even those words make my eyes glaze over.  I’m one of those people who have to work extra hard to wrap my head around those numbers.

And so I’ve worked diligently to do that these last few months, covering the debacle that is the Miami-Dade County budget.

Seems to me it should be a pretty simple equation: income (taxes, fees, interest, investments) has to cover outflow (services, salaries & benefits, debt).

Only here’s the problem, if you believe the calculations. The county is $444 million dollars too short to cover the budget that begins October 1st, some three weeks away. No question, some amount of mismanagement and bad judgment got it there. But the immediate issue is – it’s here, and in less than two weeks, 13 county commissioners are going to sign off on a plan to somehow make the equation work. Eight of those commissioners voted against even thinking about raising one penny of anyone’s property tax.

So something is going to go. But what? and who?

More than a few county insiders tell me they believe majority of the commission is in fantasy land.  Those commissioners are quite convinced that all they have to say is, “we will not lay off one employee and we will not cut any services”, and some staffer in some office somewhere will magically find the money to pay for it and make them right.

And so some commissioners say that.  We have it on tape.

What will happen at the budget hearing and vote September 17th is anyone’s guess.  The sure bet is – it’s going to be a long night.  And there is going to be a morning after. 

But the fallout may be hard to handle.

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Who’s Your Daddy

August 26, 2009 - 48 Responses

Two Miami courtrooms, two cases, one very interesting juxtaposition of Florida law:

In criminal court, prosecutors dropped a child abuse case against a man named Loscar Rodriguez, a father, who decided that a good belt lashing would teach his 8 year old son to get better grades.  Did the boy get better grades?  Not sure, but he did get raised welts on his leg and backside, bruises big and purple enough to alarm a teacher, and a butt that hurt him to sit upon.

At the same time, across town at the District Court of Appeals, a man named Frank Gill fought to protect his status as the father of two boys he first fostered then adopted.  He and his partner had taken in the two young brothers who had known no other healthy family, and were eventually called exemplary fathers and family, but the state is appealing the adoption because Gill is gay.

Florida law bans gay people from adopting children.  But it protects the right to beat a child with an object until he/she is black and blue.

Back in criminal court, prosecutors cited case law that helped them decide the belt-wielding, lash-giving Rodriguez is not a child abuser under the law.  Turns out, in cases past, Florida appellate judges have opined “even significant bruises or welts from paddling” is discipline, not abuse; that “a strike on the face, a split lip, forced feeding” is – you guessed it – discipline, not abuse.   Exactly what does a child learn from that?  How and when to dole out the same violence when he/she grows up?

Back to the DCA.  Attorneys for Gill argued Florida’s exclusion of gays in the adoption process is unconstitutional.  The ban has been law for decades and has prevented countless children from the benefits of loving, responsible, nurturing parents.   

The appellate court ruling usually takes a few months.

The criminal court case was dropped in 12 minutes.

http://www.justnews.com

When Here is not Really Here

August 17, 2009 - 4 Responses

There is so much to ask Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

South Florida’s tenured Cuban-American Congressman became Governor Charlie Crist’s surprise list-topper to fill the temporary caretaking post of retiring Mel Martinez’s U.S. Senate seat.  A chess move in Republican Party strategy?  Conservative credential-building for the Governor?  What’s in it for the Congressman to be a temporary placeholder? 

The questions go unanswered today because the Congressman’s Miami district office staffers said he is missing.

Not missing as in South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford Argentina-Hook-Up-via-Hiking-the-Appalachian-Trail missing.  Just incommunicado, unreachable.

Respectfully, if Diaz-Balart didn’t want to talk about the pending Senate pick, he might have had his staff say something like “I’d rather not comment until the Governor makes his decision.” Or something as simple as “I appreciate the call, but I won’t be available today.”  (Even without the appreciation part.)

Instead, congressional staffers simply said they could not get in touch with him, didn’t even know where he was.   And that led to some baffling exchanges.

First, the call to the Miami district office about 9:30 Monday morning:

“Hello, This is Glenna Milberg at Local10 News.  I’m hoping the Congressman is available to talk today.”

“Oh, I’ll have to have someone call you back.”

“OK,” I said.  “Is he in Miami or Washington today?”   I didn’t think that would be a tough question.

“I’m not sure.  Let me have someone call you back.”

And so we waited about an hour, leaving other messages in the meantime for the Congressman’s Chief of Staff and press liaison in Washington.  Then, another call to the Miami district office.

“Hello, it’s Glenna Milberg again.  While I’m waiting for the press secretary, can you just tell me whether the Congressman is in Miami or Washington?  Because if he is not physcially in Miami, I’ll say thank you and be on my merry way.”

“Ok, hold please.”  A few minutes pass.  “Hello, ok I’m going to have someone call you back.”

“Can you just tell me whether the Congressman is in town?  Really, just his physical whereabouts, that’s all I’m asking at the moment.”  I try not to sound desperate.

“No, his scheduler is on a conference call.”

“You mean to say not one person in Congressman Diaz-Balart’s office even knows what city he is located in right now?”  I try not to sound condescending.  I really don’t mean to be.

“No, I’m sorry.” 

You may want to stop reading here, but keep going, it gets better.

I call the Washington office.

“Hello, this is Glenna Milberg, Local10 News in Miami.  Can you tell me whether the Congressman is in Washington or Miami today?”

“He’s in Miami today.”  

Ok, thank you.  Hmmm – back to calling the district office.  The next few conversations went much the same as the earlier ones.  No one knows where he is, if he is, or how to get in touch with him.

We decide to just go to the district office.

The very nice receptionist lady comes to the window.

“Hello, we were waiting for call backs for the last two hours and so we decided to stop by.  Is the Congressman here?”

“Yes, he is.  Wait one second.”

Ok, I think, progress.  Photographer Bob goes out to the news car to get his camera and gear.

But in the meantime, another woman comes out to the lobby to say that the Congressman isn’t in the office.

“But the receptionist just told me he was here.”

“No, she didn’t mean he was here here.  She meant he was here in Miami.”

Uh, no.  That is absolutely not what she meant.  

She continued.  “I will call you as soon as I hear from him.”

Have you heard from them?  I haven’t either.

The one person who did return the call late in the day was Diaz-Balart’s Washington DC-based press secretary, graciously apologizing for his delay.

He said the Congressman is pretty busy today, as it is his first day back working in the Miami district office. 

Hmmm ……

Some Justice is More Equal Than Others

August 13, 2009 - One Response

In the courtroom where a judge was considering changes to Donte Stallworth’s house arrest, you’d have thought The Media was the defendant.

The judge derided the press for the way some reported Stallworth’s request to leave house arrest for daily workouts with his trainer.  The judge poked fun at the media scrutiny (ie: public scrutiny) of a sports-celeb convicted of DUI manslaughter, even tossing out the address of his training facility in Weston in case anyone wanted to go watch.

You could tell the judge is thoroughly over the Donte Stallworth case.  Plea offered, plea taken, and so what’s the big deal in letting the suspended NFL player leave house arrest every day for the gym, so he can be in shape if the League decides he can still play?

“What’s the difference in this?” His Honor asked.  “The perception that someone is going to say he’s getting different treatment?”

Yes, Judge Murphy, Donte Stallworth did get different treatment. 

Legally, the facts of the case led to the plea deal: the actions of victim Mario Reyes may have contributed to his own death, as he darted across the causeway, against the light.   Would Stallworth have been able to avoid hitting Reyes if he hadn’t been driving drunk?   Who can know.  Would Reyes’ family have agreed to a downgraded DUI manslaughter sentence if Stallworth hadn’t agreed to pay them millions?   Hmmm.   But he did, and they did, and the legal case is over.

But the court of public opinion has a different verdict.  It’s certainly not a legal one, but it is no less valid.

Celebrity, notoriety and money contributed to the outcome of this case as much as alcohol and car keys.

Is Donte Stallworth a danger to society?  No, but he was that morning.   By all accounts, he is a generally good guy who made some really bad decisions and is now paying the price.  But would Regular Joe have paid the same price for driving very drunk in an accident that killed a man?

No.  Hell no.

Surprise, even some media treat him differently.

The big one-on-one “exclusive” first interview (for which an ESPN reporter was hand-picked by Team Stallworth) was no more than well-lighted,  highly stylized music-videoesque production featuring  Stallworth telling a well-rehearsed account of what he did, he saw, he thought that morning in March.  The toughest question posed to him was something like “What do you say to the people who think you got off easy?”  

The defense rests.

Code Blue

July 30, 2009 - 3 Responses

Somebody call President Obama.  We have a case of a police officer acting “stupidly”. 

 Hollywood Police Sergeant Dewey Pressley apparently orchestrated a cover up, reconfiguring the facts of a car wreck caused by his fellow officer to instead blame it on the young woman whose car he rear-ended.  After all, who (and what court) would ever believe the words of a 23-year old woman against a team of police officers sworn to uphold the law, to protect and serve? 

But that’s not the stupid part.  That’s the despicable, shameful and possibly criminal part.

 Except, uh-oh, there’s the tape.  Video and audio. 

 “… if I need to bend it a little to protect a cop, I’m gonna.”

 The voice of Sgt. Pressley,  21-year police veteran, taking charge.

 “I will tell you exactly how to word it so it can get him off the hook.”

 The sergeant didn’t know, didn’t realize, didn’t think to check that the dashboard camera and microphone were still on, recording his conspiracy. 

Duh.  Maybe logistics isn’t his thing.

 Acting stupidly isn’t a crime.  But perjury is.  So are fraud and conspiracy.

 I so admire the bond police officers have with each other, no matter what the department.  It’s the kind of bond forged between professionals who have chosen a life of public service even at potentially great risk to themselves. 

 But “I have your back” is far different than “I’ll throw someone else in front of the bus”.

And That’s The Way It Is…

July 19, 2009 - 5 Responses

Chances are you learned a lot about Walter Cronkite this weekend, if you watched or read any of the many tributes.  The pedestal is high, and he is firmly planted on it into perpetuity as the gold standard of journalists and a sterling human being.  

Chances are, through those tributes you relived, or even witnessed for the first time, the watershed events of the 20th Century Cronkite narrated and explained, play-by-play, from his front row seat on the ride of American History.

 The term “news anchor” was actually created for Walter Cronkite. 

 Which leads me to wonder, if Cronkite were starting his career in television news tomorrow, would he make it?  In South Florida?

I’m not so sure.  Because the career can’t start without that first job, that foot in the door.  And in South Florida, the Cronkites-to-be might not get a second look.

Demographically, Cronkite was what people might call Middle America, which is usually a euphemism for Average White Man.  And AVM’s are generally not in high demand in television markets like this one.

That’s not a judgment call, just an observation.  The cast of characters in television newsrooms typically reflect the audience they serve.

(By the way, I am blessed to have colleagues who fit that description who are some of the best journalists in this market, whom I admire deeply, learn from daily, laugh with often, and love. We are a better community because of their work.)

Back to Cronkite.  Would he play in Peoria?  Maybe.  What about Parkland, Sweetwater, South Beach, Lauderhill or Kendall?  Liberty City, Pembroke Pines, Wilton Manors, Homestead?

Sure, you’d like to think.  Every news consumer appreciates a rock-solid, smart journalist who is as real on the air as he/she is in person.  But he would have to get in first.  And what are the chances his first resume tape, the substance and the style,  would be that one among others to get a second look? 

What do you think?

Automatic Systematic

June 25, 2009 - 2 Responses
I covered the Jackson story today.
 
No, not that one, not Michael.
 
The report I worked on addressed the dire financial condition at Jackson Memorial Hospital.  In case you’re interested, Miami-Dade County’s public hospital is running out of money, and mobilizing to find a way to reverse a dire financial trend.  That has a potential life-altering impact on hundreds of thousands of our neighbors.
 
But then the gloved-one Jackson, the one that grew from adorable child pop prodigy to surgically altered, issue-plagued pop icon, suddenly died.  There’s the new lead, that’s a no-brainer, and oh, just the start. For the rest of the foreseeable future (which in the news business is usually no more than a few hours), Jackson’s death is the lead, the team coverage, the live satellite hookup, the analysis, the speculation, the predictions and for some news organizations, the whole darn program.   Tabloid and News merge, even more than they usually do.  Even the nightly political talk shows on cable are wall-to-wall Jackson.
 
Initially, I believed this might be one of those moments in history when we music-loving Americans would share a communal emotion, bonded and brought together by a sudden, sad event in our common culture.  But I’m not sure that’s happening.  
 
I guess you could say Michael Jackson is my generation’s Elvis, a man who made history, talented in the music and moves department, style-defining, controversial in various ways, self-destructive, able to draw cult-like masses both drawn to him and repelled.  There was even that prescription medicine issue. 
 
A little Milberg trivia: Michael Jackson’s mid-’80’s Victory Tour concert at the Orange Bowl (also RIP) was my first official date with the man I eventually married (and he got killer seats).
 
But here’s the real reason I write this blog entry: Barb, my favorite Webmeister, wanted a blog entry on Jackson, no doubt for the click-inducing headline.
 
Only my story was about the wrong Jackson.
 
RIP Jackson.   Michael, that is.

Dancing with the Feds

March 2, 2009 - 3 Responses

Helio Castroneves may be the happiest defendant I’ve ever seen.

 

He arrived at Miami’s federal courthouse for his trial on tax evasion buoyant and smiling.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was on his way to a victory lap around the track, or another interview on the Starstruck TV Network about mastering some fancy footwork on “Dancing With the Stars”.

 

Instead, he was about to watch some very smart lawyers pick the 12 people who will decide whether he, his sister and their lawyer hid $5.5 million in income in a corporation in Panama so they’d avoid paying their taxes on it.

 

The evidence promises to include some mind-numbing, eye-glazing complexities of the US Internal Revenue Code, which will require a bit more analysis than determining which colorfully-clad (and at times hardly clad) celebu-dancers to call in and vote for on any given week of the “Dancing With the Stars” competition.

 

One of the potential jurors admitted he did that.  Every week for 12 weeks, he called in to vote for Castroneves to win.   

 

Prosecutor Matt Axelrod: “Do you think the fact that you called in and voted for him all 12 weeks would it make it hard to be fair and impartial?”

 

Potential juror and die-hard fan: “To be honest? Yes.”

 

Thank you for your honesty, sir.  You’re dismissed.

 

By day’s end, seven men and five women were seated.

Judging from the questions posed by Castroneves’s attorney, his defense strategy seems to lie somewhere between “I counted on my excellent financial advisors to tell me how to handle my income” and “Wouldn’t you look for ways to pay as little tax as legally possible, too”.

 

Castroneves admitted he’s out of the driver’s seat in the tax and money department, has little idea of calculations and complications but trusts his fine attorneys to figure it all out for him.    He said it in that dimply, twinkly, self-deprecating way that makes successful people who admit an area of complete cluelessness seem sweetly humble, and even more appealing.

 

I’ve never seen an Indy race.  I’ve never called in a vote to a television competition.  But happy Helio seems like a nice guy.  I really hope he isn’t a selfish, conspiring tax cheat.   

The Inside Baseball

February 15, 2009 - 5 Responses

One sunny day more than a decade ago, I learned an intrinsic truth about the game of baseball: what you don’t see – the psychology and strategies of the game, the “inside baseball” – truly make the game.  For anyone who doesn’t realize that, sitting through nine innings is as interesting as watching the spin cycle on a washing machine.  Thanks to my friend and baseball maniac JT who did play-by-play for me at that spring training game, I learned there is much more to baseball than meets the eye, and that it is fascinating as it unfolds.

 

Sort of like politics.

 

Now combine the two, and you have the maneuverings and machinations behind what may eventually be a billion tax-dollar deal to build a new stadium for the Marlins. 

That said, some questions arise from the Friday the 13th vote-that-wasn’t, questions that probably won’t make the evening news:

 

* The Miami commissioner who raised concerns about the details of the deal was criticized for “rewriting” the deal on the dais.  But where else does an elected official officially and publicly question a deal crafted largely in closed meetings and not fully released until hours before?

 

* What is it about maternity leave that prevented Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones her from casting the all-important vote? (Congrats, by the way).  I’ve been on maternity leave.  Twice.  Tired?  Yes, but fully functional.  No, it wasn’t the baby that kept the up-for-reelection Commissioner Spence-Jones from showing up to be a certain swing vote.   If the commissioner wants to develop her parenting skills, she should start with role modeling responsibility and courage.

 

* Is the Miami Herald bi-polar?  The day before the scheduled vote, the newspaper’s editorial writers endorsed the stadium deal, even as its own reporters had spent weeks detailing every reason why the deal is a bad one for taxpayers.

 

* Why are “jobs” the big selling point now?  It was never about jobs, not during any part of the last decade of debate about whether to publicly fund a new stadium and how much to spend.  It was never about jobs, until the economic hemorrhage a few months ago added an opportunity for supporters to insert the new buzzword “stimulus” into the argument for a new construction project.  Certainly thousands of construction jobs, however temporary, would be a great benefit.  The question is – at what cost, and can half a billion dollars “buy” more and better.

 

 

Supporters of the stadium deal, including the Miami and Miami-Dade County mayors, have waxed poetic about the “intangible” benefits of a new stadium, the inherent value of baseball, the love of the game, tradition-building.  Filled with misty-eyed emotion, they envisioned dads taking their kids to the ballpark and team spirit that would build our civic bonds.  Contrast that with a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Marlins President David Samson, who helped craft the potentially profitable deal for his franchise using a lot of public money.  He said, flat out, the stadium negotiation is “a business deal”.  Nothing more, nothing less.  No passion, no drama, no emotion, just a numbers game to get to a profitable conclusion. 

 

March 12th is the next “at bat”.

Yes we Can! (Can’t we?)

January 25, 2009 - One Response

Quentin is 14 and ready to take on the world.

That’s what he told me, anyway, last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday, I and a few thousand of my new soul-mates-in-hope-and-American-optimism emerged from watching the Inauguration at the performing arts center. We shared the moment and the movement, and now it was time to document it for the 6pm news.

“So, Quentin,” I ask, “What does President Obama’s call to personal responsibility mean to you?”

Quentin did not even have to think about that.

“His call to responsibility means to me… improve not just the city or the country, but improve world peace, hunger and everything else.”

Wow, Quentin. “That’s a tall order! Are you ready to do that?”

“Yes I am,” he said.  And I believe he is.  Yes we can.

We, the people, spent the rest of the week on a high. Among all else, we have a leader who is a national role model for too many young people who didn’t have one.  Life was looking up this week.

Until Friday night.

On a street in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, the same old horrors converged: poverty, despair, injustice, neglect, anger, hardened souls and easy access to weapons. This time it was an AK-47.

Young black men, old Russian assault rifle.

The barrage of gunfire ended any chances for two teens, not even a week into what could be the most hopeful era in a young Black American’s existence.

Tuesday’s party is over.  And there is work to do.