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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
September 2018

Aventura’s new city manager lasted just six months

WAventuraManager_1hen Susan Grant was hired by Aventura, she was just the second city manager in its history. Her predecessor, Eric Soroka, had been Aventura’s founding city manager, and held the position for more than 21 years. Grant lasted less than six months.

On June 25, she resigned owing to “unforeseen circumstances.” Joanne Carr, previously the city’s community development director, is now the interim city manager.

Soroka, who was already earning $6250 a month from Aventura as a consultant overseeing the development of that city’s future high school, was also rehired as a budget consultant, for which he was paid an additional $4375 monthly between June and September.

On September 20, the Aventura City Commission will hold an early-morning workshop and discuss how to find Grant’s replacement, says Mayor Enid Weisman. The municipal recruitment firm of Colin Baenziger & Associates, which assisted Aventura last year in its quest to find a replacement for Soroka, will help again.

Grant, who had recently moved from her previous home in Coral Springs to Aventura, didn’t initiate her resignation.

As revealed by audio recordings released by the city, Aventura commissioners were conducting a performance review of Grant’s short tenure during a June 21 workshop. That’s when the mayor and six commissioners decided they didn’t want her to continue as their city manager.

Among the reasons: Susan Grant is not Eric Soroka.

“We were spoiled by Eric,” admitted Commissioner Robert Shelley during the meeting.

Under her separation agreement with the city, Grant received $84,620 in one lump sum, as well as compensation for 108 hours of unused vacation and sick time.

Grant couldn’t be reached for comment. Her Facebook page notes that she traveled to South Africa and Europe following her departure from the city. But even if the BT had reached her, she likely would not have said much. Under the terms of her separation agreement, she is not allowed to “disparage” Aventura or its officials. Aventura officials are likewise barred from disparaging her.

It’s because of the separation agreement that Weisman declines to discuss the city’s divorce with Grant. “I’m not at liberty to discuss it,” the mayor says, although she does tell the BT that Grant handled the news “very professionally.”

A graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, Grant worked for the City of Coral Springs for 26 years, starting as a comptroller in 1991 and finishing as deputy city manager. During her tenure at Coral Springs, she helped oversee the city’s charter school and invested taxpayer dollars in various capital-improvement projects.

By October 2017, she had beat out 58 other competitors for the Aventura city manager job, a position she officially assumed when Soroka stepped down in January 2018 (see “Soroka’s Long Goodbye,” November 2017).

During the June workshop, when Aventura’s mayor and commissioners discussed Grant’s performance, they noted that she was easy to get along with.

“I found the manager extraordinarily accessible,” said Commissioner Howard Weinberg. “I thought after Eric that it’s impossible to reach someone the way you can reach Eric because he always seems to be on his phone. But Susan was very responsive and what I’m particularly impressed with is her ability to run with the ball any time someone in the community has an issue.”

“Personally, I really like her,” added Commissioner Gladys Mezrahi. “She brought amazing energy to the city.”

At the same time, officials felt Grant was far from being a fiscal hawk, something Soroka was renowned for. It was Soroka’s insistence on an efficient budget that enabled Aventura to have the lowest property tax rates in Miami-Dade County, just $1.73 for every $1000 of assessed property value.

In her capital budget, Grant proposed allocating more than $3.3 million from the city’s reserve fund over the course of two years in order to pay for items like new computers, a new roof for city hall, safety enhancements at community centers, new vehicles, new sidewalks, restroom improvements in city parks, city hall, and Aventura’s K-8 charter school, and various other improvements. In her budget, Grant reasoned that the city could reimburse the reserve fund later, since Aventura was projected to see a seven percent increase in property values in the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

That optimistic way of thinking made Commissioner Marc Narotsky nervous. “My main concern is the long-term fiscal health of the city,” Narotsky told his colleagues. “And when you come in and, in the first two years, two million and change comes from the reserves and we are banking on a seven percent increase in revenue, to me that’s already a red flag. Red flag!”

Commissioner Robert Shelley noted that Aventura’s property values haven’t increased all that much this year. “The county went up five percent,” said Shelley, a real estate developer. “We went up just 1.5 percent.”

Weisman said the only time in her four years as mayor that money was taken from the reserves was to help pay for the development of the $15.5 million charter high school. In the mayor’s opinion, with future revenue uncertain, Grant should have asked her department heads for proposed cuts, not a wish list of new expenditures.

“She has never done a budget for a city, by my estimation,” Weisman declared at the workshop, later adding, “I don’t think Susan was confident enough to say no. Being new and seeing $30 million in budget reserves, you think, all right, take a couple million out of the reserves. But it’s not the right answer.”

Added Shelley: “We don’t have the confidence of her going through a storm, and not even an actual storm, a financial storm.”

It wasn’t just Grant’s approach to budgeting that received criticism. Commissioner Mezrahi didn’t like Grant’s tendency to reply to multiple people on an e-mail inquiry, thereby allowing confidential e-mails to become public record. Mezrahi also disliked her tendency to send agendas before they were complete.

“It’s very unprofessional that we get an agenda before it’s [finalized], and immediately, the next day, there’s the revised agenda,” Mezrahi complained.

During the workshop, Weisman observed that Grant wasn’t quite on top of things the way Soroka had been, either. Grant, Weisman recalled, failed to warn elected officials when the county shut off water in parts of Aventura a few months ago. Grant also tended to delegate, while Soroka took a more hands-on approach.

“You can call Eric at 4:00 a.m. [about something], and for some reason, he’d be able to give you information,” Weisman said.

Not that Soroka was perfect. Commissioner Weinberg pointed out that Soroka didn’t have assistant city managers under him, just department heads, and thus no clear second-in-command who could have taken over when he retired.

“If there’s a failure of Eric, it’s that he’s too good and there was no succession plan, no one in-house that was brought along,” Weinberg said. For that reason, Weinberg added, Soroka “owes us,” and should step in and help out whoever is appointed interim city manager.

Weisman said she was sure that Soroka would step in to help until a new city manager can be found. “This is his baby,” she said at the meeting.

And Soroka did agree. Question is, will Aventura’s elected officials ever find a new Soroka?

Stephen Helfman doubts it. His law firm, Weiss Serota & Helfman, provides legal services for several South Florida cities, including Aventura. According to Helfman, the Soroka standard will be hard to beat.

“It’s a difficult show to follow,” Helfman says. “Soroka was one of the finest city managers in South Florida. Just outstanding. It’s not easy to replace someone like that.”

 

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