Wish I Was in Dixie

Dania Beach still struggles to find racial harmony

James Meredith Baker, the man who would some day become Barron's on-the-job antagonist, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1952, and his family soon relocated to South Florida. He completed a year of business school at Broward Community College and joined the naval reserves. In 1972, he submitted an application to become a sewer plant operator in Dania Beach.

The city hired Baker (who declined to be interviewed by New Times) even though he had already been fired as a sewer plant operator at Pine Island Ridge. The dismissal was the result of his taking two days off after working four months straight, he said.

Former mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea
Former mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea
Former Mayor Robert Chunn
C. Stiles
Former Mayor Robert Chunn

Baker's personnel file shows that this stickler for correct procedure has been far from exemplary as a city employee, though he appears to have led a charmed employment life in Dania Beach. On May 20, 1977, he fell asleep on the job, and the water plant control room flooded. "Your next offense of this nature will be termination of your job with the city of Dania," utilities superintendent Julian Allen wrote. Still, on October 1 and 2, 1977, Baker failed to take necessary readings that needed to be reported to the state, for which he received a disciplinary memo. He kept his job.

Baker received another memo in July 1984 regarding his conduct in public. The city received one complaint from Steak & Egg restaurant about his alleged harassment of a waitress, then, five days later, another from the Sea Witch Restaurant.

"This will be your last warning that this type of conduct must cease," the memo in his personnel file said.

In May 1987, Baker was arrested by Dania police and charged with criminal mischief, disorderly intoxication, and resisting arrest after an altercation with some other men, who were also arrested. After being jailed, Baker became verbally abusive, according to the report, yelling motherfucker and trying to break free. He kicked a wall and smashed himself against another with enough force to crack it, the report said.

It added: "Officers tried to extend professional courtesy to Baker, but due to Baker's behavior and combative attitude, it left officers with no alternative but to carry out sworn duties."

In 1988, Baker received yet another disciplinary memo. He had been two hours late, "and worst of all, you had a very distinct odor of alcohol beverage on your breath," wrote the public works and utilities director. Baker was issued a formal warning about alcohol. Again, he kept his job.

In 1995, water plant operator Dan Cherian, who is Indo-Trinidian, wrote a letter to Public Works Director Bud Palm complaining about Baker's favoritism toward a white employee, who avoided undesirable tasks. "These sorts of discrimination will lower the morale of the employees," Cherian wrote. "Your interference is vital to release the tension." In the same year, Palm recommended Baker for Employee of the Month.

In 1996, Cherian wrote another letter to Baker, Bud Palm, and Leo Williams, now superintendent of public works, accusing Baker of having "a pervert mind" and showing prejudice, favoritism, and an attitude problem. The letter described an incident in which Baker mixed a black man's lunch with cat food. "You have a skin-color attitude, which is highly objectionable," Cherian wrote. "It is better that you change your attitude toward other operators and respect everybody equally."

The city did nothing.

In 2001, Baker allegedly cursed a female employee who was trying to help him fix his beeper. "This is unacceptable from anyone, let alone a division supervisor, who should be setting an example, not creating a problem," Palm wrote. "Many times you have let your temper and mouth get the best of you, only to apologize later on. This pattern and any other such behavior is to cease immediately... I will not tolerate any employees verbally abusing each other."

No one at the city had an explanation why Baker kept his job through those years. But Robert Chunn's got some ideas.

An October breeze shakes the blades of grass on either side of Phippen-Waiters Street — a suburban Dania two-lane street originally named for white developer George Phippen. The Dania City Commission modified the name in 1994 to include the surname of Dania's first black commissioner, Boisy Waiters Sr., as a symbol of racial unity.

With each passing car, a smiling driver waves at Robert Chunn, who is perched on the edge of his pickup truck, talking about what it was like to be Dania's black mayor.

"It was hell," he says of his 2002 mayoralty. "It was the worst thing I ever did in my life."

That's a bold statement coming from an ex-heroin addict and high school dropout. Chunn isn't proud of his past, he says, but around the time he decided to run for mayor, atoning for that past through public service had become his goal.

Chunn got into politics through participation in Turn-Around-Dania, a citizen patrol group that renowned Philadelphia crime fighter Herman Wrice helped found. The group's goal was to clean up Dania, Chunn says, and not just the streets but the political leadership. In showing that drug crimes could be taken care of properly, he says, Wrice hoped to expose the ineffectiveness of the city's politicians.

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