Riviera mayor relishes role as low-key activist
RIVIERA BEACH — When the door is closed, the sign on Mayor Thomas Masters' office directs visitors to the city manager. But few can resist peering into Masters' office when he leaves the door open.
That's the way Masters likes it: a mayor with an open-door policy.
Whether it's a high-profile developer or a frustrated single mother of four, Masters has an ear to listen. In fact, hearing from "the people" has defined his first 100 days in office.
"I don't want to lose the connection with the people," he said.
The minister-turned-mayor is working hard to distinguish himself from his rival, former four-term Mayor Michael Brown.
Since being elected in March, Masters' credits include:
• Starting five crime-watch groups.
• Generating two citywide job fairs, including one especially for ex-offenders.
• Declaring June Gang Awareness Month.
• Helping a group of nurse practitioners find space to launch a new nonprofit health clinic in the city.
• Turning his former campaign headquarters into a satellite mayor's office.
As the list shows, Masters, the bishop and pastor of New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, hasn't abandoned his community-activist role. Three weeks ago, he hosted a town hall meeting with residents living near Jerry Schultz Park, where two youngsters were wounded in a Sunday afternoon drive-by shooting.
"I feel I've been doing this all along as an advocate," said Masters, 54, who earns $20,000 annually as mayor. "Now I have the office of the mayor behind me."
After losing to Brown in 2005, Masters returned to the race two years later assisted by a political consultant. He abandoned his trademark bishop hat for a business suit and spent more time courting Brown's disillusioned supporters.
That, coupled with growing anti-Brown sentiment on his failure to make good on his waterfront redevelopment plan, helped fuel Masters' unexpected victory.
Masters' advocacy approach couldn't be more different from Brown's aggressive method. The former mayor pursued the city's redevelopment with a vengeance and had little tolerance for those who disagreed with his agenda, especially his colleagues on the city council.
They, in turn, dubbed Brown a bully. He also was characterized as a mayor who alienated Riviera Beach from other governmental bodies such as the county commission.
Masters has a more laid-back presence at council meetings. He rarely speaks, but when he does, it's in support of his colleagues or to remind residents to speak respectfully when addressing the council.
Masters makes no apology for his most visible work being away from the council dais. And although his approach differs from Brown's, Masters' goal is primarily the same: to rid the city of its crime and poverty.
The Rev. Herman McCray, one of Masters' key supporters in the March election, said the goal was to oust Brown. McCray, along with another old guard black activist, Dan Calloway, joined forces with Singer Island residents to unseat the three incumbent council members along with Brown.
Masters is delivering on what voters elected him to do, which is be a ceremonial mayor, McCray said. His purpose isn't to run the city or control the council.
"He's not indulging himself in the policymaking of the city," McCray said. "He's not overzealous. He's trying to do what he promised the people that he would do."
That doesn't mean Masters hasn't delved into redevelopment, the hottest issue facing the city. But he's done so without much fanfare — a big change for a man who relishes media attention.
Masters said he has met with representatives from the city's three key developers: builder Dan Catalfumo, Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of Miami Dolphins owner and billionaire Wayne Huizenga, and Bob Healey, chairman of Viking Inlet Harbor Properties.
The new mayor and council are faced with finding a way to jump-start the city's waterfront redevelopment. Pending proposals have run into opposition from residents who fear the plans are too massive, don't include citizens' input and exclude local businesses.
Masters, meanwhile, has taken the role of peacemaker rather than power broker.
"I think we've been able to stress to the developers to make the projects people-friendly," Masters said. "The people must be at the table."
As a developer, Healey understands Masters' message.
"The mayor is very sincere at trying to create something," said Healey, the New Jersey yacht maker who the city selected as its master developer in 2005. "He's trying to bring everyone into the fold."
Healey's task is to turn 400 acres of mostly blight along the Intracoastal Waterway into shops, restaurants, a hotel, marina, aquarium and condominiums. The project has stalled since last year when Florida lawmakers stripped local governments of their power to take private land and give it to developers.
The city's possible use of eminent domain angered residents who feared losing their homes and businesses. A backlash sparked a series of lawsuits against the city and basically nixed Healey's deal.
But Masters isn't willing to give up. He believes a better redevelopment plan that involves residents can happen without using eminent domain.
"We have to do something in our city to create a climate that's conducive to people wanting to invest and stay in Riviera Beach," Masters said.
That explains his push for cleaning up the city and its crime problem. He has asked county Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to send inmate-staffed road crews to help with neighborhood cleanups.
He also has requested that Port of Palm Beach Commissioner Wayne Richards head a committee to oversee beautification efforts of Blue Heron Boulevard, the city's main east-west thoroughfare.
Unfortunately, people focus on negative elements of Riviera Beach when "positive things are going on in our city," Masters said.
But for residents such as Antoinette Bass, the city's crime tends to overshadow anything good. So Bass began a crime watch group after meeting Masters at a crime scene following the recent shooting of pregnant woman near Avenue S.
"The day of the shooting I saw the mayor, and I flagged him down and said something has to be done about the crime," said Bass, 40, who lives at the corner of Avenue S and 26th Street. "I'm a product of S Avenue. Things were not like this when I was growing up."
Bass acknowledged that she was a Brown supporter but didn't participate in his bid this year after watching all the infighting on the council. From where she sits, while the city leaders battle back and forth, youngsters in her neighborhood are dying.
"These children can actually be saved," Bass said. "I don't want anybody else to lose their child to the streets."
Former Councilman and retired Circuit Judge Edward Rodgers said Masters is off to a good start. His focus has been providing community service, and that's well within the parameters of his duties as mayor, he said.
"I personally feel that if he can save five lives by reducing crime,"
said Rodgers, one of a long list of former Brown supporters who parted
ways with the former mayor, "that's more important than building five