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Soroka’s Long Goodbye PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
November 2017

Aventura’s first and only city manager steps down after 21 years

ESoroka_1ric Soroka has been Aventura’s city manager pretty much from the beginning. During his 21 years in the position, he was instrumental in building the police force, city hall, cultural arts center, five city parks, and a K-8 charter school for this condo-dominated municipality.

But soon the City of Excellence will be taking a journey into the unknown. Soroka, 61 years old, is retiring.

This past August he announced he’d be stepping down by January. But he’ll still be around for another 18 months, earning $6700 a month as a consultant, guiding the city on the construction of a charter high school on land near Waterways Park that was purchased from Gulfstream Park in neighboring Hallandale Beach for $3.5 million.

“It’s time,” Soroka tells the BT. And what does he plan to do? “I’m going to relax.”

Jeff Perlow, a former Aventura mayor, was among the elected officials who hired Soroka back in 1996. Perlow acknowledges he’ll be sad to see him go. “I think he’s done an unbelievable job with the city,” he says. “He’s been the steady captain at the helm.”

Fifty-eight administrators applied for the job Soroka will vacate. Recruitment consultant Colin Baenziger, along with Aventura’s mayor and six commissioners, whittled those 58 candidates down to seven: Danny Alfonso, city manager of Miami; Alex Rey, town manager of Miami Lakes; Jason Nunemaker, city manager of Fellsmere, Florida; Jeffrey Brown, city manager of Panama City; and Susan Grant, deputy city manager of Coral Springs.

On October 12, after interviewing the finalists, the Aventura City Commission unanimously picked Susan Grant as the municipality’s next city manager. Unless negotiations fall apart, Grant’s contract, which will likely include a $220,000 annual salary and benefits valued at around $80,000, will be approved by the mayor and city commission sometime this month. She’ll also be strongly encouraged to move from Broward County to Aventura. Once she does, the city will reimburse her moving expenses.

“Thank you for the trust you placed in me, and I will not let you down,” Grant told Mayor Enid Weisman and commissioners after being informed she got the job.

A certified public accountant, Grant was hired by Coral Springs back in 1991 as a comptroller. Two years later she was named that city’s director of human resources, a position she held until 2011, when she was named deputy city manager.

When Erdal Donmez declared his intention to retire as Coral Springs’ city manager in January of this year, Grant was one of 50 people who applied for the job. By March, Grant was among seven finalists, but in the end the Coral Springs City Commissioners decided to hire Michael Goodrum, the assistant city manager of Sugarland, Texas.

Grant will be heading to a municipality very different from Coral Springs. At just 2.7 square miles, Aventura has a population of 37,724, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. In contrast, Coral Springs is 23.8 square miles and has a population of 130,059. In Coral Springs, the average resident makes $29,774 a year. In Aventura, the average residents make $49,290 a year.

Property tax rates in the two cities differ, too. Since Aventura incorporated in 1995, the city’s tax rate has remained at $1.73 for every $1000 of a property’s assessed value, the lowest in Miami-Dade County. In contrast, this past October, Coral Springs raised its tax rate from $4.80 for every $1000 of a property’s value to about $5.90.

That property tax increase initially worried Commissioner Howard Weinberg. “Why a 25 percent tax increase?” he asked at the October 12 special commission meeting. “I would never recommend a tax increase that high.”

Grant explained that the Coral Springs city commission wanted to enhance its budget reserves, which remained low following the Great Recession, and invest more funds in capital improvements. But Grant pointed out that even with the millage rate increase, Coral Springs still had the second-lowest property taxes in Broward County. “We were as lean as we could be,” she insisted.

Tax rate increases aside, Aventura officials present at the meeting liked Grant’s background as a CPA and her 24-year tenure as an administrator in Coral Springs. Stability and financial acumen were among the top priorities of the mayor and commissioners.

Grant’s experience in crafting budgets, negotiating union contracts, and assisting the day-to-day supervision of Coral Springs was also noted. But what Aventura officials really liked was Grant’s part in overseeing the Coral Springs Charter School, a grade 6-12 school that was created from the shell of the former Coral Springs Fashion Mall back in 1999.

Coral Springs Charter School, like the Aventura City of Excellence School (ACES), is run by Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that manages 70 schools in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina, and is slated to manage Aventura’s charter high school. The charter schools in Coral Springs and Aventura give enrollment preference to residents of their respective cities.

Frida Lapidot, an Aventura activist who campaigned for the construction of a charter high school, and later got a job at ACES as a teacher appreciation coordinator, was the first person to speak in favor of hiring Grant during the October 12 commission meeting. “She’s a great fit,” she said at the meeting. “She needs to learn some things, but that’s good. That’s why we’re here.”

Most of Aventura’s first elected officials had to learn on the job. Under the leadership of Mayor Arthur Snyder, the other winners of Aventura’s March 1996 inaugural city election divided up tasks and met in a conference room at Aventura Hospital. Among their first priorities was hiring a city manager. Within a month, they were interviewing four finalists.

One of those finalists was Eric Soroka. In 1980, at age 24, he’d become the youngest city manager in Broward County when he was hired by the City of North Lauderdale. After a decade at that job, Soroka became Miramar’s first city manager, which had just ditched its strong-mayor form of government. Soroka reportedly ran Miramar like a corporation “where commissioners are the board of directors, the city manager is the chief executive officer, and the residents are stockholders,” according to an April 1996 profile.

That attitude impressed Aventura officials, who hired Soroka at a salary of $105,000 a year plus benefits. (He now makes $250,000 a year plus benefits.)

During his time as manager, Soroka managed to build two public buildings and create a police force without raising tax rates. “We’ve been blessed with a very significant tax base,” explains former mayor Perlow, who still lives in Aventura. That tax base includes Aventura Mall, the largest shopping center in Florida, as well as Turnberry Isle Country Club and a number of high-end condominium complexes.

However, Perlow mainly credits Soroka’s stewardship for Aventura’s low taxes and efficient services: “He puts together a very good budget and sticks to that budget.”

And he does that by not hiring a lot of employees. Aventura has 80 sworn police officers and just 59 other employees, including Soroka and department heads, directly on its payroll. Private contractors handle most services.

Fines from red-light cameras help, too. Although officially cited as a public safety feature, Aventura collects around $2 million a year in “code violations” levied on drivers for running red lights at various intersections, thanks to red-light cameras provided by American Traffic Solutions (see “Cash Cow, Sacred Cow,” March 2017). This month the Aventura City Commission may extend the cameras contract for another five years in exchange for technological upgrades and a fee reduction.

But Soroka’s tenure hasn’t been without controversy. His wife, Teresa, served as city clerk until she retired three years ago. And son Eric Soroka held a seat on the influential Aventura Marketing Council, something that Jack Pinkowski, director of Nova Southeastern University’s Institute of Government and Public Policy, once noted to the BT as unusual and problematic, since the goal of a manager form of government is to “isolate administrators from political influence” (see “Vertical City,” February 2011).

In 2007, Katherine Murphy, the founding principal of ACES, sued Soroka and Charter Schools USA, alleging that Soroka had defamed her when he fired her in 2006, after a student skipped the wait list and was admitted into the school. She also claimed that Soroka accused her of accepting kickbacks from the student’s parents, and that he routinely called her a “whore” and “slut,” and tormented her when she attended events with Aventura elected officials.

In November 2012, a jury agreed with Murphy and awarded her $155 million in damages. That verdict was later overturned by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez. In September 2015, the judge ordered Murphy to pay Soroka $16,912 in legal fees.

Perlow, though, stresses that Aventura has been largely without any major political, financial, or legal crises since its inception.

And although Soroka is departing, Perlow remains confident that Aventura’s stability and strong fiscal health will continue under the new city manager: “She should be able to do a very good job if she stays focused on the job.”

 

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