Good Luck In Retirement Joe And Thanks For The Memories
Written by Michael Lewis on March 16, 2006
By Michael Lewis
Let us be the first to wish Miami City Manager Joe Arriola well in retirement. For more than three years, he has worked diligently and donated all of his salary to the United Way. Bravo.
The city must never make that mistake again.
The manager should be both fully paid and fully accountable to taxpayers to do the right thing as a public servant – not a freelance gunslinger.
Mr. Arriola, a successful businessman who sold his printing firm and need not work, also has seen no need to behave as though he had to keep a job.
That has significant benefits – he couldn’t be pressured into doing the wrong thing.
But it also breeds painful side effects – he rode roughshod as no city employee should over citizens, subordinates and even a commissioner.
Those aren’t the reasons Mr. Arriola is now retiring or should be retiring – for to be very candid, he has yet to announce the departure that is clearly vital.
But he shouldn’t wait until formerly highflying Mayor Manny Diaz – who is his friend, employer, private business partner and potential co-defendant – must choose between keeping Mr. Arriola and his own political future, a day that is approaching rapidly as events at city hall get uglier and uglier.
First was a fire fee illegally assessed against 80,000 Miamians who might be owed as much as $70 million. To settle a suit over the fee, Mr. Arriola huddled in a restaurant with the other side’s lawyer and agreed to pay $7 million to just seven people, not 80,000. The mayor sat in at the end of that meeting.
Mr. Arriola says the lawyer fooled him about who would get the $7 million – but Mr. Arriola is no fool. Either he did know only a few would benefit or he didn’t do proper diligence for the taxpayers who pay his salary – excuse me, the United Way’s donation.
A judge is soon to rule on this, and the manager and the mayor may well avoid a legal blemish. But there’s no way they should get off the hook for recklessness at the helm of the ship of state.
As the fire-fee question burned, Mayor Diaz and Commissioner Johnny Winton were found to be partners in a real estate deal seeking a quick flip for a profit of several million dollars. It was Mr. Winton, remember, who pulled a non-agenda raise for his business partner out of a back pocket at the end of a long commission meeting. They wouldn’t say who their other real estate partners were.
Surprise – meet Mr. Arriola, the man who in 2002 worked for eight months running the mayor’s hunt for a city manager and then tapped himself for the job. He’s the business partner of the mayor and the commissioner.
Also surprise – none of the three can see the glaring conflict of interest. Three public servants who are supposed to serve as checks and balances over one another and who work as employers and employee are also equal partners in a quick-flip real estate deal in a neighborhood where the city is to make extensive improvements that will boost property value. All say "so what?"
Also surprise – Mr. Arriola forgot all about disclosing the relationship in a form he’s required to file but, surprise, says he thought was due later.
That’s not to say that the mayor, the manager or the commissioner are bad people. They’re not. All have done admirable things for this city, for which they deserve praise.
But they share one dangerous trait: They are all businessmen who operate the city as though they were running a private business – their own.
That was the aim, after all. Mayor Diaz in January 2003 brought in Mr. Arriola, who promptly discharged the key department heads and replaced most with businesspeople to make the city businesslike. And we all cheered because the city really did need to be more businesslike.
In bringing business practices to city hall, Mr. Arriola built a legacy he can protect if he leaves soon, for it is still largely positive.
But that legacy is rapidly being eroded because the chief operating officer – which is what Mr. Arriola is in the city – can do things in business that government cannot tolerate. That could include:
Make a private deal, in a restaurant, that cheats 79,993 customers out of $70 million.
Go into a secret partnership on the side with your bosses that lets you benefit from what your company is doing.
Turn the company into a private fiefdom for the benefit of the three of you – after all, isn’t that what a company is?
Shrug off questions of conflict of interest.
Knife one of your bosses in the back – actually, a full frontal attack – and treat clients like dirt.
Who is he knifing? Have you heard what he says about Commissioner Tom·s Regalado? (Full disclosure: We have said more or less the same about Mr. Regalado, but we don’t work for him – and Mr. Arriola is supposed to.)
What does he say about the commissioner and the public? See last week’s Miami New Times cover story on Mr. Arriola – this newspaper does not publish gutter language.
It’s time for a change when Tom·s Regalado, a radio commentator who missed the crucial vote on the fire-fee deal that left 79,993 Miamians out in the cold because he had to go on the air, starts to wear the white hat in a case of conflict of interest.
Mayor Diaz says he won’t force the change – yet.
In 2003 in this paper, Mario Artecona, executive director of the Miami Business Forum, called Mr. Arriola the "poster child for entrepreneurialism." Now he’s the New Times poster boy for intemperate outbursts.
That’s always been Mr. Arriola’s character. At a meeting of the Public Health Trust, he once told another member, "You are really a cancer at this institution, and the sooner we get rid of you, the better."
Now the cancer has come to city hall. It is time for the manager to leave voluntarily.
Mr. Arriola is hurting the taxpayers.
He is damaging the city hall credibility that he once helped restore.
He is harming the political career of the mayor, who aspires to higher office.
And he is doing damage to his business partners, the mayor and Commissioner Winton, because they’re all in the ethics soup together and the heat is being turned up daily.
Now is the time to go before Mr. Arriola winds up with a legacy that is negative rather than positive, turning years of truly selfless public service with no pay into self-service.
"With Joe, it’s ‘what you see is what you get,’" an activist said of Mr. Arriola in this newspaper’s Best of Miami section three years ago in hailing the manager.
That is undoubtedly true. Mr. Arriola is no actor. His directness – kept in check – is admirable.
Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now is not what the public deserves to get from a city manager. It’s not the dishonesty that landed several of his predecessors behind bars but the damn-the-public stance that has quickly turned city hall into an ethical quagmire.
That’s a shame, not just for taxpayers and for the city but for Mr. Arriola and his partners in governance, in politics and in business. The shame is just that, a partnership of governance, politics and business that cannot continue.
Mr. Arriola has every opportunity to enjoy either retirement or a return to private enterprise, where what cannot be tolerated in government may be considered admirable.
In that, we wish him good luck – soon.