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May 27th
A Hunt for City Manager PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
February 2020

North Miami City Council asked to serve the people, not themselves

TPix_MarkSell_2-20o North Miami’s next city manager: Welcome to the carnival. Bring armor and a thick hide. Read people and budgets. Keep your wits and humor. Maintain your integrity. Stay close to your friends in the profession. Expect to roll some heads. Keep your options open. Don’t take it personally.

Kansas this isn’t. It’s more like Oz. The pay’s good; you will earn it. Larry Spring, the manager just fired without cause at the January 14 city council meeting, made a base salary of $240,000. After three years and nine months, he was given a parachute of 32 weeks’ pay, a city 2020 GMC Yukon SUV worth at least $45,000, and an iPad.

Effective February 1, Deputy City Manager Arthur “Duke” Sorey III is interim city manager for the second time in four years.

To North Miami’s residents: Keep pressing for a professional search for a new manager -- not a pantomime to cover up a fix behind closed doors.

Let’s hope that the council majority -- Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime, District 4 Councilman and new Vice Mayor (it’s a one-year rotation) Alex Desulme, and District 3 Councilwoman Mary Estime Irvin -- haven’t greased the skids already. District 1 Councilman Scott Galvin and District 2 Councilwoman Carol Keys plainly wanted Spring to stay, joining residents in calling him the best city manager in years, even decades. But they could count the votes, and Desulme voted no, objecting to the car.

At the council meeting, things started looking odd right after Keys called for a national search for a new city manager, saying they did so last time in 2016, when they found a “qualified person” (i.e., Spring) from inside.

It sounded sensible enough, but for some reason Mayor Bien-Aime promptly jumped down her throat.

“We always hire qualified people,” Bien-Aime said: “I am mayor of the city. I can hire or fire the city manager.”

Desulme and Estime-Irvin piled on. Desulme called it “very sad” that council members weren’t given the benefit of the doubt. Estime-Irvin asked why posting the opening on the city website wasn’t search enough.

In the end, the council agreed to order up a national search.

For an outside opinion, the BT called on a venerated public servant and well-known parachute jumper into municipal basket cases: former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett R. Stierheim.

“I will tell you the biggest mistake that has been made in local government,” Stierheim says. “It is the failure of elected officials to search for the best, most professional city manager with proven integrity and professional competence. That’s the most important decision. When you see failure, that’s because they didn’t vet, appointed a friend of a friend, or had someone do it for them.

“I think it’s more important than approving a budget or adopting an ordinance,” he continues. “That person will have a background of integrity if he or she is qualified and has the courage, the ethical commitment.”

Stierheim gets irked when people describe the city manager’s position as the most powerful in local government. “That is absolutely untrue,” he explains. “The city manager can be hired or fired in about two minutes. All it takes is a motion, a second, and a majority.”

Indeed.

Stierheim recommends advertising the position through the International City Managers Association, or hiring a search firm.

Says Stierheim: “I’d bring on a city manager first on an interim basis who is a professional to look over any financial quagmire and do an assessment to know the challenges the city faces financially.”

How important is it to ensure that the next city manager is Haitian-American in a Haitian-American plurality, majority-minority city such as this?

“Unless they find one who has been a city manager, they are just kidding themselves,” Stierheim says. “As long as they have city management experience and financial acumen, what difference does it make what color they are or their ethnicity?”

True perhaps, but it is tough to make headway in North Miami without making a real effort to understand the Haitian-American experience.

While we have taken a dim view of some decisions by the North Miami Police Department and Spring after the July 18, 2016, shooting of behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey, the new city manager could learn something from the city’s most successful politician and survivor: Police Chief Larry Juriga, an Anglo master of community outreach and an effective police ambassador, whatever issues persist within the department.

There’s good stuff in the city: solid professionals sprinkled among city departments, a growing tax base powered by the market and Solé Mia, with inevitable development and improvement around downtown and near the FEC tracks, NW 7th Avenue, and West Dixie Highway.

There is also a prospective new community center at Solé Mia, an expanded Griffing Center, and, most of all, a revived Cagni Park with an Olympic pool, a potential gathering place for the city’s disparate, even splintered, neighborhoods.

At the same time, there are plenty of challenges: four years of deficit spending (now around minus $6 million); ballooning personnel costs under Spring and Sorey; the egos and whims of council members; financial reserves worn to the nub; an aging water system requiring an ever-more-expensive game of whack-a-mole; and a stormwater and sewer system in desperate need of the same. The Miami-Dade \sewer main in August leaked 1.6 million gallons of sewage into the Oleta River in North Miami city limits, underscoring infrastructure’s vulnerability. Add in 70 or more repetitive flood zone properties in the environs, only a few thus far publicly identified, awaiting money from heaven; sea level rise; and the global and local climate emergency. Please, have a cookie.

We’ll leave the last word to 67-year North miami resident and retired fire lieutenant Bill Simpson, who told the council this: “You the council were elected by the public, your citizens. You have a fiduciary responsibility to the public, which means you will act in the best interest of the citizens, not yourselves. You are stewards of the public’s money and their trust, all to be done with impartiality and honesty, with complete financial disclosure.

“Honest public service,” he continued, “is performed free of deceit, undue influence, conflict of interest, self-enrichment, self-dealing, concealment, bribery, fraud, and corruption. Management is about doing this right. Leadership is doing the right thing. The next city manager ... should be from the outside, with no allegiance to any of you. This will hopefully put an end to the quid pro quo family and friends and contract employees, which are unnecessary. Anything less is a harm to the people who elected you. Remember, you are public servants, not self-servants.”

 

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