Down To Two

Top: Morales. Bottom: Rollaston

Miami Beach Stumbles Ahead Toward City Manager Selection, Maybe

As early as next week, the Miami Beach City Commission could be reviewing additional vetting material on its trio of finalist city manager candidates. Or it could vote on the next manager. Or the entire process might not have formally progressed at all.

The uncertainty only helps solidify the perception that the process to select a new permanent manager has been difficult, despite what would seem to be a plum job for an administrator in one of the nation’s highest profile cities.

Last week, an item briefly was posted to city official calendars setting a Special Commission Meeting for Wednesday, March 6 at 4 p.m. The item subsequently disappeared before some on the commission even knew it had been scheduled.

“Originally it seemed that everyone was available on that day, but it [then appeared not], and that the meeting will be rescheduled,” said City Attorney Jose Smith.

As of SunPost’s deadline, the meeting had apparently not been rescheduled.

Complicating matters is that it was uncertain what the meeting, which was set to address the city manager issue, was intended to accomplish.

“At the last regular meeting, it was decided to do a deep background search on each of the finalists and we’re waiting for this to happen,” said Commissioner Jerry Libbin. “I personally don’t think we should have a meeting and vote until this is complete. I called [Smith] and said that when that information comes in, we shouldn’t just be given the information in a report or pamphlet or something and then asked to vote. I suggested a meeting where we hear this information and discuss it. Then I’d like to have a separate meeting to actually take a vote.”

The research Libbin cited is indeed underway, according to Smith. On Feb. 22, Smith told SunPost that it would take 14-21 days approximately for principals of Moore and Plasencia Investigations LLC to produce their research on the three finalists: former Miami city manager and longtime figure in local government Frank Rollason, former State official Monica Cepero and former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales.

“This is the kind of deep background research that is used in law enforcement,” said Libbin, who, like most commission colleagues, said he has not made a decision between the three finalists.

The current vetting is just the latest step in what appears from the outside to be a disappointing process. Of all the candidates identified in a national search, only one remains in contention – Cepero. Both Rollason and Morales were added into the pool of candidates as a decision by the commission. Furthermore, in addition to not attracting the kind of savvy business experts once idealized as candidates, it’s notable that apparently not one currently employed city manager or assistant city manager from any of the approximately 80 municipalities in the tri-county area applied for the job. Generally speaking, the position in Miami Beach would be considered an upward move for the overwhelming majority of those potential South Florida administrators.

Also complicating matters, according to one source familiar with such recruiting, is a city election later this year that could dramatically alter the face of the legislative body that has the power to fire a manager at will. Given the once-vaunted golden parachutes managers received on termination have now been curbed by the State of Florida, and given the recent slate of scandal and corruption tales emerging from Miami Beach, the position understandably might not be all that appealing to professionals from out of state. A manager hired by the current commission might not be looked on favorably by the next commission just a few months later.

Still, many city leaders support the process to date and are hopeful to seat a top administrator soon.

“The process has been good and I don’t think we need to increase the pool [of potential candidates] anymore,” said Commissioner Michael Gongora. “We need to make a decision. We have three qualified candidates. They’re all qualified individuals and I think it’s time to make a decision. I like all three and have not made up my mind. If the will of the commission is not there to hire someone, we can keep the interim manager.”

Libbin said that the city has done “everything we could do,” in hiring an experienced recruitment firm, but also pointed out that two of the three finalists were commission-appointed candidates.

Well-known civic activist Frank Del Vecchio also feels that there is no reason for further delay.

“The city commission has the opportunity to change the headlines from corruption and negativity to integrity and promise by appointing Jimmy Morales as city manager,” Del Vecchio told SunPost. “The recruitment process produced an outstanding candidate and now is the moment to decide. Equivocation and postponement will not only put the process into question but will also keep the door open for more negative press without a change in the story line.

“Of the three finalists, Morales was the only one confident that he would hit the ground running, saying, ‘The new manager literally won’t have time to play catchup…on day one, if you select me as manager, you send a message that this is our commitment: competence, integrity, ethics and reform,’” Del Vecchio continued. “Contrast this with candidate Frank Rollason, who said ‘it takes a year to get your feet on the ground,’ or Monica Cepero, admitting ‘It would take time. When I first get here I’m hopeful there is a good baseline of performance data I could dive into.’ Morales has the stature and respect necessary for our city to turn the page on a devastating chapter in its history and put the focus on the future, not a past from which our city government has not yet been able to separate itself.”

However, all three candidates have obvious strengths and weaknesses. While all have government experience, only Rollason has sat in the top municipal spot, and only briefly. He’s primarily been considered an efficient government bureaucrat with accolades as a “fix-it” success for senior administrators. Similarly, Cepero listed former Gov. Bush as a reference, but has mostly quietly worn numerous hats in myriad government and private sector positions. Morales has demonstrated political chops and earned wide acclaim for driving ethics home at the County. But in addition to little to no experience in several key areas managers spend most of their time wrapped up in, he had his own ethics questions rise up to bite him – although a settlement agreement related to his 2004 county mayoral campaign expenses led to a complaint being dismissed by the county Ethics Commission in 2007.

However, it’s also clear that commissioners feel the need for a manager to be put in place.

“There are a lot of challenges including a depleted executive staff,” Libbin said. “There are three assistant manager positions that need to be filled; the Public Works director is resigning; and there are other positions that need to be filled.”

Libbin also cited budget season, union negotiations and the convention center project as other chief issues facing the new manager upon arrival.

Gongora cited similar concerns, and in particular the convention center project. “A final decision has to be made in June,” he said.

Both commissioners hope for a resolution that isn’t too contentious.

“I think we’ll all rally,” Libbin said. “I hope it’s close to unanimous.”

Smith pointed out the possibility that none of the finalists could garner the commission vote majority needed for appointment.

“At that point it would be up to the commission what to do,” said the affable Smith. “But I think [Interim City Manager] Kathie Brooks would kill herself.”

Note: Just prior to SunPost’s deadline, Monica Cepero withdrew from consideration, officially notifying the city commission of her decision.

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