Miamis Managerial Change Of Guard Goodbye Wild West
Written by Michael Lewis on July 6, 2006
By Michael Lewis
Miami’s incoming manager can have a major impact on a city awash in both cash and ever-growing needs.
At the same time, present Deputy County Manager Pete Hernandez can knit up gaping holes in the fabric of city governance.
The challenges should energize a career county executive who sees the approaching shadow of a vote to create a strong-mayor system that would imperil professionalism. Perhaps that’s pushing him to seek safe haven at the same time County Manager George Burgess is looking at greener pastures himself.
Next week, the City Commission is to vote on hiring Mr. Hernandez. As he prepares to jump out of the county frying pan into the city fire, we offer him a bit of unsolicited advice.
First, you’ll be moving from a professional structure to the Wild West, where outgoing manager Joe Arriola acts as sheriff, posse leader and hanging judge all rolled into one. He’s good at it, too. He can sit down in a restaurant and cut a fire-fee deal that leaves 80,000 taxpayers out in the cold. Don’t emulate him.
Next, remember whom you work for. Your boss is the commission, and your employers are the taxpayers. Don’t follow Mr. Arriola’s route of lambasting commissioners or taxpayers, especially in public. You’re the manager, not the sheriff, posse leader or hanging judge.
A corollary: Stay above the fray. Don’t get on either side of a commission battle because both sides, however bumbling, are your bosses. They set the policy – you just carry it out.
Another corollary: Watch your tongue. Mr. Arriola often has railed against alleged idiocies. Since you don’t plan to bully your way to success, that won’t work. The even-handed Mr. Burgess is a far better model.
Yet another corollary: Be non-political. When Commissioner Angel Gonzalez kicked off his reelection campaign with a fundraiser at Mr. Arriola’s home last month, it made a mockery of the non-political role of a professional city manager.
Which brings us to ethics and conflicts of interest. Follow the county’s rules, and you can’t go wrong – because if the city has any, they haven’t applied to the manager during Mr. Arriola’s tenure.
A fundraiser at home. An outside business partnership with his bosses, Mayor Manny Diaz and City Commissioner Johnny Winton. Failure to disclose the partnership as required. Not the best examples, Mr. Hernandez. Again, don’t emulate them.
For more than three years, Mr. Arriola generously has donated his entire city salary to the United Way. He could afford to – he sold his printing business for about $40 million. But even if you were also independently wealthy, Mr. Hernandez, you shouldn’t do the same – because since Mr. Arriola takes no salary, he does whatever he wants, public be damned. Better to take your paycheck and remember who gave it to you – taxpayers.
Next, keep the guillotine under wraps. Mr. Arriola’s parting gift was to promote members of his team and keep you from bringing in your own. But before you chop heads, as Mr. Arriola did on his arrival, evaluate carefully. Despite his bluster, Mr. Arriola was an entrepreneur whose judgment of staff may be keen. You’re likely to find some gems there.
On the other hand, bring along somebody you trust. City hall isn’t a party you want to attend alone.
No matter how well you do, prepare for scrutiny. Mr. Arriola has been larger than life and has made the manager’s role more public than in the past – Merrett Stierheim’s tenure excepted. That, plus ethics blind spots, have made Mr. Arriola a target of press criticism, and he fired back with volley after volley, zeroing in on the Miami Herald.
"It appears to be high time to re-evaluate our hometown newspaper and which media sources we can trust. … The Herald today seems more reminiscent of a cheap supermarket tabloid," he wrote to a local magazine.
As you doubtless know, Mr. Hernandez, such comments would only intensify press scrutiny. Duck that fight.
Meanwhile, mend fences at the county. If George Burgess is still there, you’ll have little trouble ending wars over things like the deal on Parrot Jungle Island’s loan payments Mr. Arriola unilaterally abrogated. You can win just by keeping your word. That, in turn, would trigger a rapid deal to retain a tax district to fund the losses of the Miami Performing Arts Center.
See how much good you can accomplish just by doing the right thing?
Once past concerns about broken promises and ethics and backroom fire-fee tricks, you can get on with the real business of running the city.
With luck, you’ll focus on big-picture issues and keep above the petty battles that fill commission chambers.
You’ll look at burgeoning revenues spurred by increased construction and rising property values, and you’ll channel them to meet needs the development boom is causing. You’ll look at transportation deficits and infrastructure, and you’ll work closely with your good friends at the county to close the gaps.
Remember the lesson Mr. Arriola did not teach: You can’t go it alone. Mend fences, listen to advisors, treat subordinates well and forge strong ties with county, state and neighboring cities. Then, offer advice – not pronouncements – to mayor and commissioners and try to lead them to think big-picture along with you.
At the same time, plan for rainy days. Miami is only a few years past the time that the governor had to install an oversight board to keep it out of bankruptcy. The current commission knows only boom times. Put some money away.
Is all that enough of a challenge?
Welcome to Miami, Mr. Hernandez. You’re not in Kansas anymore.