LONGTIME COMMISSIONER SENSES NEW ATMOSPHERE IN CITY HALL.
Over the past few years, during which many saw the Miami Beach City Commission as a contentious collection of individuals with individual fiefdoms and often-conflicting interests, quietly Commissioner Ed Tobin has built a reputation for level-headedness, probing questions and an open mind in terms of considering options and decisions coming before the commission. While some political observers were able to often easily point out commission alliances, Tobin’s reputation was being above the fray and more interested in each individual issue. Ask political insiders today and few have serious criticisms; ask others and you might hear that predicting his position on any issue is an impossibility. Bright and witty, professional and affable, his position on the fiery previous commission might have appeared an anomaly, but one that earned him the respect and trust of many. When he spoke up loudly, he usually had reason to – and not political ones.
Tobin is a third-generation Miami Beach resident, the son of Beverly and Leonard Tobin. The elder Tobin was many years ago, a Miami Beach constable. This set an early example for Ed in terms of ethics and community involvement, and was a powerful influence on the course of his career.
The attorney, family man and former prosecutor was first elected to the city commission in 2007 and his current term runs through 2015. He is the longest-serving current commissioner, along with colleagues Jonah Wolfson, himself a maverick and populist, and Deede Weithorn, the commission’s fiscal hawk. This past election saw turnover of the commission majority with four new figures swept into office. Following an election that many feel demonstrated a public outcry for change, SunPost sat down with elder statesman Tobin to discuss the changes around city hall, his thoughts on the election results and what may be a new atmosphere around the city’s chambers of power.
Michael W. Sasser: What are you doing on the Miami Beach City Commission?
Commissioner Ed Tobin: My grandfather came to Miami Beach in 1917. He raised a large family here. We have questions about his Jewish lineage. He may have been Irish Catholic.
Being born and raised here in Miami Beach is the backdrop for almost every significant story, life lesson or experience in my life. My children were born here. Jacob’s 9 and Julia is 8. They will be raised on Miami Beach and I’m going to spoil my grandchildren here someday. I know saying you love Miami Beach sounds trite – but I really feel that way.
How do you feel about being called the elder statesman?
My mom is proud!
Is an elder statesman passive? If so, I don’t deserve the elder statesman title. I have lost my cool on commission TV a time or two in my six years in office.
In my defense, I exposed corruption in the procurement department month after month starting four years before the scandal and arrests. I exposed shenanigans in the affordable housing department month after month three years before the scandal hit the papers. I pointed out tens of millions in construction related overspending, month after month, for years. Employees using city credit cards for personal business like vacations, etc. I got bewildered looks from my colleagues month after month, year after year. I tried nice, but sometimes you have to not be nice. Did I just quote Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse?
You have appeared frustrated on the dais. Are you?
I caught a lot of heat from “elder statesman and stateswomen” and the old city manager, who counseled that I was eroding public confidence by exposing corruption and mismanagement on camera. It’s like if the public doesn’t know, then it didn’t happen. I always tried for months off camera, but there was no effort to correct problems. It was always about appearances. That was frustrating!
What are your thoughts on last year’s commission election results?
I’m optimistic. I think we may have picked up some great leaders. Great transformative leaders need to possess certain core qualities knowledge, honesty, integrity, fairness and charisma. Even with these five qualities, you won’t be a great transformative leader if you are conflict averse. The new group does not seem conflict averse.
Did the election results surprise you? Why or why not?
A little. Commissioner Grieco and Malakoff were the solid underdogs.
How can Miami Beach be the best city in the world?
Let’s keep it simple. Let’s have the best public schools in the world; let’s have the safest community in the world; and let’s have the cleanest city in the world.
What’s stopping us from being the best?
Leadership! The general public is not privy to the day-to-day workings of their government. That makes it easy to be average. A great transformative leader won’t take the easy way out. A great leader knows that getting optimal performance in a large organization is hard work. A great leader knows the motivation and skill of your employees directly impacts upon performance. In the private sector, a business will fail if the motivation and skill of the employees is low.
In the private sector the market will reveal motivation and skill issues. Government needs to figure out how to monitor and enhance motivation and skill in the absence of hard market consequences. A great leader will not settle. A great leader will strive for excellence.
Has the atmosphere around city hall changed in the aftermath of the election?
A lot of positive energy.
Do you find city hall and the commission in general to be less contentious than the previous commission?
Yes. The first couple of dates have been great. We are going to discuss religion and politics soon. Stay tuned.
Whatever your opinion on the new commission, do you think there are things they could learn from previous city commissions?
Sure. Working collaboratively as a group is challenging.
The new commission’s first major action was re-visiting the convention center redevelopment issue. What are your thoughts on the new approach?
The public got hit with $500,000 of mostly propaganda about the convention center project during the election cycle. I’m sure you heard anyone for the convention center project was a communist sympathizer.
The new mayor and commissioners are open to studying the project so that they can decide for themselves what’s best for our community. So far, I think the mayor and commission are on the right track. They have changed the approach.
The Plan: The original plan consisted of a significant renovation, a park spanning almost half the entire site, a hotel and some high-end retail within the old 17th street garage. The plan was designed to bring tourists via rapid transit to the site from the airport. The plan allowed us to limit the local events that bring commuters and replace that segment of business with conventioneers dropped off by rapid transit.
The Approach: The entire project was to be built by the one vendor. The hotel would be built within the old convention center. The end result had the convention center, the hotel and the retail built and then controlled by the one bidder for 99 years.
The new approach has us engaging a contractor for the rehabilitation of the center, a separate engagement where we lease city property for the construction of a hotel and a separate engagement for construction of the 17th street garage, which will include some retail to activate the first floor.
The new approach insures we don’t bite off more than we can chew. It also breaks up the enormous power that would have been given to one bidder. The city will have a lot more control over quality of construction, timing and cost with this more bite-size approach. Any change in the plan will only come after careful and thoughtful analysis and that’s fine by me.
This commission seems to move much quicker on items than previous commissions. Whether you agree or disagree with specific actions, do you think there are benefits to this quick approach? Any drawbacks?
Benefits: Our job is to drive and guide staff to improve the quality of life for our residents. The quicker we can improve your life, the better. We are moving quickly by government standards.
Drawback: Staff is not used to the pace.
Do the new colleagues inspire or energize you?
I’m inspired and energized.
As one of the few veteran statesmen on the commission, anything you would like to share with the new members?
I had hair when I started!