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Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade's longest serving elected official, leaves environmental legacy

Harvey Ruvin memorial
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
A memorial for Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin was held at the Miami-Dade Amphitheater on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

The longest-serving Miami-Dade County official, Harvey Ruvin, died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 85.

And while Ruvin had served as the elected Clerk of Courts since 1992, his life as an elected official stretches back to the 1960s, and touched on some of the most consequential decisions and topics facing South Florida over the last half century.

Over the years, Ruvin earned a name for himself as a fierce defender of Miami-Dade's fragile environment. He rang many alarms about how climate change would negatively impact the region — for example, predicting the property insurance mess the state currently finds itself in.

Towards the end of his life, he became known for reshaping how the court system works in the county.

“He always felt that it was his honor and his privilege to serve his community. And because of his efforts, he leaves all the places that he touched better than he found them. He was a true mensch,” Risa Ruvin, his wife, told a crowd at his memorial service.

After earning a degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Florida in 1959, Ruvin was elected as mayor of the town of North Bay Village in 1968, at the age of 30.

But it was only upon being elected to the Dade County commission in 1972 that Ruvin felt that he hit his stride. Over a ranging conversation with WLRN last March, Ruvin reflected on his life’s work and legacy, beginning with his time as a county commissioner.

The 'Decade of Progress'

The county was at the time contemplating a giant leap forward, a public bond effort known as the “Decade of Progress” that would forever transform the urban landscape and streamline government services. Ruvin had a front row seat and a vote at every step along the way.

“We were one of the fastest growing counties in America, before Mariel [boatlift],” Ruvin told WLRN. “And we needed a lot of things. I ran because I was basically motivated by environmental issues.”

In retrospect, one of the most impactful projects Ruvin played a leading role in was a major beach renourishment project that began in 1977. At the time several stretches of Miami Beach had essentially been emptied of sand, carried away by erosion. Waves lapped along the foundations of some beachside hotels.

“We had just about lost our name, ‘Miami Beach,’” said Ruvin.

ruvin j albert diaz.jpeg
J. Albert Diaz
/
Miami Herald
Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s clerk of the courts, was reelected on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

As a result of rapid erosion, the number of tourists coming to visit South Florida was actually going down, a threat to the lifeblood of the local and state economies.

“We’re talking here about probably the most ambitious beach restoration project in the history of the world. It’s going to be ten and a half miles, from Haulover to Government Cut,” Ruvin told WFOR at the time. “The public will actually now for the first time have total access along this full ten and a half mile stretch.”

Through the county commission, Ruvin got the federal government under the Carter Administration to pick up most of the tab for the project. Upon completion, the beach renourishment project led to major erosion control efforts and thriving public spaces that remain in place today, although sand continued to be trucked in periodically.

The “Decade of Progress” was also a time when plans for the Metrorail and Metro Mover transit systems were debated, agreed upon and built.

The way Ruvin explained it, building the Metrorail was part of an effort of crystallizing a master plan of what Dade County would look like in the future, incorporating expected growth patterns into how government services were planned.

“The whole idea behind the master plan was tied in with Metro to try to keep the future development along the corridor as contained as possible on that corridor, to prevent urban sprawl. Urban sprawl generates what has happened, which is basically, huge amounts of dollars have been spent for sewage and water lines and all kinds of things to go with the development as it move further west,” explained Ruvin.

“They could recreate. They could go to work. They could go to school. They could do everything they needed to do along that corridor. That was the dream. I'm afraid that went bye-bye a long time ago”

"For decades, he was a fearless leader and a true public servant, embodying the best of government. Harvey was one of a kind: caring, visionary and wise."
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava

Even towards the end of his life, Ruvin stood by the attempt to manage growth in the early 1980s. But even he admitted the work was ultimately overcome by resistance from developer groups.

“We now have almost a half a million people living west of 87th Avenue, maybe more than that. There was nobody really living there when I took office,” said Ruvin.

Similar issues being addressed today

Echoes of the debates about single-family housing and the impact on the regional environment continue till this day in Miami-Dade County, with county mayor Daniella Levine Cava championing many of the positions that Ruvin prioritized in the 1980s, like funneling urban development along the major transit corridors.

As Ruvin put it, the vision was to use the county government as a “metropolitan government, not a scattering of small governments with no coordinated planning.” If every small municipality was left to their own devices, Ruvin believed, the region as a whole would suffer because of smalltown concerns that in the big picture meant little and did little to address regional problems.

Upon his passing, Mayor Levine Cava showered praise on Ruvin’s 50-year career with the county.

“For decades, he was a fearless leader and a true public servant, embodying the best of government,” the mayor said in a statement. “Harvey was one of a kind: caring, visionary and wise. I’m lucky to have also known Harvey as a dear friend. He taught me so much about our environment, about good government, and about leading a life anchored in service.”

Ruvin was a lifelong Democrat in a town that has grown increasingly conservative over the years. In his last election in 2020, he won more votes than anyone else on the ballot in Miami-Dade County – including the county mayor or the president.

At a memorial service for Ruvin on Thursday, longtime friend attorney H.T. Smith made light of Ruvin’s politics, and the fact that basically everyone got along with him.

“At first I was a little suspicious of Harvey’s politics. Because every time I talked to a Republican, they told me how much he loved Harvey. And I was saying – ‘wait a minute – is Harvey Ruvin an undercover Republican?’” Smith told a crowd to laughs at a memorial service on Thursday.

“But you see Harvey’s family and friends knew the truth. And the truth was that Harvey Ruvin was a community treasure. A treasure for all races. A treasure for all religions. A treasure for all ethnicities. A treasure for all political persuasions.”

A passion for the environment

Ruvin is widely praised for being one of the earliest and vocal defenders of Biscayne Bay, and he pioneered “Baynanza,” the annual clean-up of the troubled body of water. He played a central role in setting up the county’s recycling program and the endangered land preservation program.

Also in the 1970s, he helped pass legislation that created the Water and Sewer Authority, which bought up dozens of private companies operating in Dade County in order to create a unified, county-owned Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. The ultimate goal was to save rate payers money, and to coordinate regulation and how it all jived with county planning.

Over the years Ruvin chaired the county’s Climate Change Advisory Task Force as well as its Sea Level Rise Task Force, and he remained passionate about environmental issues until his last, even recording a rap song about climate change after encouragement from his son.

In recognition of his leadership, Ruvin was elected by his peers across the nation as the President of the National Association of Counties in 1987. The group represents more than 3,000 county governments across the nation.

“It was a tremendous benefit to Miami-Dade County to have the president representing us in Washington and elsewhere,” said Merrett Stierheim, who served two stints as county manager over the years.

Ruvin remained involved in environmental issues and advocacy, and estimated that he attended seven United Nations Climate Change Conferences over the years.

He served as the vice president of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives from 1998 through 2003 — a group consisting of thousands of local governments across the world with an aim at creating major environmental reforms on a global scale, but through local governments.

In 2014, Ruvin foreshadowed a crisis that has recently reached epic proportions in South Florida and the state in general: The idea that if major engineering projects were not undertaken to help stave off the worst-case scenario, climate change and intensifying hurricanes would soon make home insurance out of reach for thousands of Miami-Dade families.

“We're really gonna be at best inviting the worst possible insurance rates, and at worst to become uninsurable,” Ruvin told WLRN in 2014.

That warning has become a reality; in 2022 the Florida Legislature held two special sessions aimed at dealing with the crisis, with South Florida facing the highest rates.

Beginnings and endings

When he was a child, Harvey Ruvin moved to Lakeland, Florida, with his family from New York City, to pursue his father's dreams of getting into the booming citrus industry.

But once the family farm was producing fruit, big citrus companies and prominent white families discriminated against the Ruvins because they were Jewish, refusing to buy produce from the family, Ruvin said.

The ordeal nearly brought financial ruin to the family, but in the end the experience shaped much of Ruvin’s worldview of seeing things from the perspective of the little guy. The discrimination was also partly what brought him to South Florida, where a Jewish community was thriving in Miami Beach.

He bought his oceanside home for $290,000 about 35 years ago — and joked that real estate agents recently offered him as much as $8.5 million for the property, a number he struggled to understand.

Since 1992, Ruvin served as the Clerk of Courts for Miami-Dade County, a position that made him a familiar name for people paying parking tickets and serving jury duty, but a position that pulled him out of the limelight on the issues, even the issues he cared about the most.

As a county clerk of courts, his office made strides in making public records more accessible to the public online, earning him the “2003 Public Technologist of the Year” award from the Public Technology Institute.

Speaking to WLRN in March, Ruvin said slipping into the background of county government operations and politics was by design: To keep his name out of the headlines and avoid scandal at all costs.

Harvey Ruvin memorial 2.jpg
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
HArvey Ruvin being transferred into the Miami-Dade Auditorium for a memorial service and public viewing on Thursday, January 5, 2023.

Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable part of Ruvin’s 50 career in county government is that he did not have any major scandals, even while he leaves a legacy that will bear fruits for decades to come.

”I stay away from issues in general. Because it's clear I'm a custodian of the records,” said Ruvin last year. “I have to be like the neutral, trusted third party.”

The exception to that rule was climate change and environmental issues, he freely admitted.

At a memorial service held on Thursday at the Miami-Dade Auditorium, Ruvin’s wife Risa said she lived a full and passionate life with Ruvin.

The two shared a fondness for nature, she said, and the most important thing for them to do was to watch the sunset together in the backyard. “Harvey, my love, when I’m outside watching the beautiful sunsets to come, I will see you in each one of them," said Risa.

As a parting gift, Ruvin’s rabbi and brother-in-law Danny Marmorstein asked Miami-Dade County to name the new county courthouse, which is currently under construction, in Ruvin’s name.

“Harvey was too humble to make such a request,” said Marmorstein. “But I believe such a dedication will be a well-deserved reminder of his legacy.”

Ruvin is survived by his wife Risa; his sons Zachary and Eric; his granddaughter Jessica; and his sister Marcy.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.