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The World According To Merrett PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Dorschner, BT Contributor; Cover and spread photos by Silvia Ros   
February 2018

Insights from a legendary civic leader: Merrett Stierheim

After a half-century as our most respected, no-nonsense civic leader, Merrett Stierheim has a thing or two on his mind

WCoverShot_1hat’s wrong with this place we call home? After five decades managing local governments, Merrett Stierheim, age 84, has plenty of thoughts.

Soaring influence of lobbyists, self-serving politicians in single-member districts, a “corrupt” state apparatus in Tallahassee led by “worthless” Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican conspiracy against inner-city public schools -- and “very weak” oversight from an ever-shrinking news media.

That’s for starters.

“There’s no question that over the course of my professional career, the politics got a lot tougher,” he says. “And ethics has suffered.”

In his first stint as county manager, from 1976 to 1986, he built Metrorail, the Metromover, the 29-story County Hall, Zoo Miami, the downtown library, and many regional parks, often battling reporters (including this one) who sometimes wrote critically of his actions.

At the age of 52, he went off to head the Women’s Tennis Association, but civil leaders kept calling him back to public service.

“He was solid, ethical and trustworthy,” says Katy Sorenson, a widely respected county commissioner from 1994 to 2010 who went on to run the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, educating politicians in ethics.

He headed the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau to rein in its high-spending ways, parachuted in as interim manager of the City of Miami as it struggled to stave off bankruptcy, served a second stint as county manager when the mayor asked him to eradicate a “scandal of the month” atmosphere, and became superintendent of Miami-Dade schools after the system’s ruinous spending led to the governor appoint an oversight board.

He has been a short-term problem-fixer so often that one year the satirical King Mango Strut Parade named him Interim Parade Marshall.

His career -- and his thoughts about it -- serve as a unique window into what’s happened to government here in the last half-century, a trend that has been at best bumpy and at worst a slide downhill.

Even in his 80s, he’s kept at it. Last year the state asked him to be an adviser to fix the financial disasters in Opa-locka. He finally resigned from that post after concluding the city couldn’t be saved.

“Blow it up!” he says now, meaning unincorporate the city. “Make it part of the county. But the governor doesn’t want that. I was working for the inspector general of the State of Florida. The governor is worthless. He didn’t give her a nickel. He didn’t give any troops on the ground. I mean, it’s a mess. They’re paying the highest taxes and they get the worst service.” He has called city leaders “ethically challenged.”

CoverStory_1_1In recent years, he’s been working on a book on his life. He’s talked with several journalists about helping him with it (including me as I started this story; I respectfully declined). He’s saved huge stacks of documents, and he struggles with what to include and what to leave out. When we talked, he decried at length a Herald story decades ago concerning an alleged $43 million shortfall in Metrorail construction, and when I tried to ease him toward a different subject, he said: “Wait! This is important!”

When I suggested he’d have trouble fitting everything he wanted in a book, he responded, “Hell! It might be three or four books.”

Several months ago, Biscayne Times editor Jim Mullin heard Stierheim interviewed on WLRN-FM, and was frustrated because so much was left unsaid. When asked about the causes of Miami-Dade’s frequent bouts of corruption, Stierheim had replied, “One word is greed. Greed can take many forms.” And then the hosts moved on to other subjects.

When I listened to a recording of the show, I heard him praise several former journalists. He criticized only one reporter by name, me. In other forums, he has disparaged my highly critical 1984 story on Metrorail, but on WLRN he lambasted me for “The Marshmallow Mayor,” a derisive portrait of county Mayor Steve Clark, one of Stierheim’s heroes.

So Stierheim was suspicious when I called him shortly after the radio show and said Biscayne Times had asked me to do a story on him: “You’re not going to do a number on me, are you?”

After considerable back-and-forths, including sending him a list of areas for questioning, we met at his Pinecrest home.

As soon as he showed me into his cluttered office, he picked up a legal pad with a long list. “I’m going to rattle off a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I sat here and tried to think of some of the major frustrations” with specific Herald reporters, which continue to haunt him even decades later.

At one point, he pulled out a 20-page memo he’d written in the 1980s, denouncing a Miami Herald story by Susan Sachs, who went on to the New York Times and Toronto Globe and Mail.

Originally I told him I planned to do a virtually unabridged story for the Biscayne Times website, with a shorter version for print. But over a three-hour in-person interview and five follow-ups by phone, it became evident that, for clarity and readability, I needed to pare down even the online version. (Available at www.biscaynetimes.com.)

What follows includes quotations lightly edited, tightened, and rearranged for clarity and brevity. For the full unexpurgated version, readers will have to wait for his book(s).

 

Power to Disembowel

Quick takes on present-day leaders:

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez: “I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but he’s doing a good job. He’s surrounded himself with good professionals.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle: “I’m not a fan. She’s no Janet Reno.”

State government: “I hate to say it, but it’s corrupt. If you look at Florida Power & Light, it has largely controlled the Public Utility Commission. If there was somebody on the commission who challenged FPL, they were excommunicated -- and they have a governor who will support that. State legislatures have the power to disembowel, disenfranchise local government, including school boards. They claim they’re having a tax decrease, but they’re forcing the school board to have public hearings to raise the millage. It’s a sick joke, and it’s harmful to this country.”

On Carlos Migoya, chief executive of Jackson Health System: “He’s done a great job.”

 

Blood Bath” in Transit

CoverStory_2_1Biscayne Times: Politicians have been talking for years about expanding mass transit. Their latest plan is to build at least six lines simultaneously. Can that work?

Merrett Stierheim: I just don’t see the money. It’s going to be a blood bath on which route gets the money first. Where it should go is west. That’s because we’ve built all the way to Krome Avenue, and now we’re going beyond. The county keeps extending it.

Urban planners suggest focusing development around rail stations. One idea is to fund lines by putting the areas around stations into special taxing districts.

You’re right about having density centers. Look at Toronto. That’s the way they built it, and it was very successful. I have to be a realist. If there is a way to fund it [with taxing districts], that’d be great. But would that generate enough money to help us build the line? I don’t know.

But we need to do something?

Yes. U.S. 1, it’s Useless One. Even with Metrorail, it’s jammed [in South Dade]. If I have a meeting in Fort Lauderdale or Hollywood -- I’ve been stuck on I-95 for two hours, trying to figure out what exit I get out to turn around and come home, because it’s impossible. One fender bender is all it takes.

Looking back, transit has always been underfunded in this town. Metrorail was built with federal dollars.

We wouldn’t have survived without Bill [U.S. Rep. William Lehman]. Eighty percent of Metrorail came from federal funds. Ten percent state. Ten percent local. It took nine years to build. It was battle and a media circus from beginning to end.

When I wrote about Metrorail in 1984, shortly after it started, one big criticism was many pols claimed it would have at least 200,000 riders a day by the mid-1980s. Even today, it’s still less than 70,000 daily.

John Dyer [the county’s transportation chief] was saying 200,000. He got all excited. I chastised him for it. I just thought it wasn’t provable. But once he got out there, I couldn’t very well [walk it back].

Thank God we built it. Even if there were mistakes -- and it probably shouldn’t have gone to Hialeah in hindsight, but with the referendum we had to make some tradeoffs [to get voters]. That’s why the Lehman maintenance yard is in Hialeah.

My preference was to go right up I-95. And it wouldn’t cost anything for right-of-way. Right-of-way is expensive. Ridership would be higher if it’d gone up I-95. And if there were more parking garages at the stations [in South Dade], that’d boost ridership too.

Right now there’s no federal money. So I think expansion has to be buses and busways. If I had unlimited sources of money, it’d be light rail all over the place.

 

Deplorable” Housing

Many studies show we have a huge shortage of affordable housing. County Commissioner Barbara Jordan wants to require major developments to include a certain percentage of affordable rental units. Nationally, 5000 local governments have done this, but Jordan has gotten nowhere. What do you think?

That’s an outstanding solution. The situation in Miami-Dade County is deplorable. For people of lower income, those high rents are coming out of food, out of education. It’s coming out of someplace. And you have a president and Congress that support farther space between the haves and the have-nots. Those multimillionaires, how much do they need? But they want more and more. I know what the solution is -- get the goddamn Republicans out of there. Not that the Democrats have all the answers, but at least they have heart.

 

They’re Bringing Those Cultures”

CoverStory_3_1Is Miami-Dade more corrupt than other places? Are certain groups more corrupt than others?

I wouldn’t single out any ethnic group, but there’s no question that with 65 percent of the population coming from foreign lands, they’re bringing those cultures. I don’t mean to take a broad brush to anyone here, but the culture of many of our South American and Central American -- not all but some, maybe the majority.... Not having lived there, I can’t say it’s accepted as a way of life.

But does that mean that people of Hispanic origin are necessarily corrupt? No! My experience is that they’re tremendous assets, builders, very talented, successful people, God fearing.

It’s a shame that you have some African-American leaders who have been corrupted, but it’s the same thing for whites. Some of your greediest people are white. We’ve got our share.

I don’t think we’re any worse [in Miami-Dade]. I think we’re a lot better than many areas. You know, there’s a temptation for a fast buck. It used to be people were scared to death to read in the morning paper how they were crooked or how they went to sleep with a prostitute, and that would put the fear of God into them. But the Herald is maybe, what, 78,000 daily circulation? It used to be the Sunday paper was 560,000. I called the Herald the mother church, the gospel. I didn’t say it disrespectfully. Today it’s a fragment of what it was, and that deterrent is gone.

 

The Big Hulk Attack

If Donald Trump is a TV junkie for Fox News, Stierheim remains a fierce (albeit critical) devotee of the Miami Herald.

He still criticizes at great length how, in the 1980s Rick Hirsch (now the Herald’s managing editor), wrote about a negative draft report of Metrorail construction before Stierheim had a chance to digest it.

His biggest battles were with John McMullan, executive editor during Stierheim’s first period as county manager: “The first time I went into his office, to pay my respects, I’d been on the job a month or so. He growled at me, ‘Stierheim, you can’t build a zoo, how are you going to build a goddamned railroad.’ He punched me right in the nose. I thought, what the fuck is going on here with this guy?

“I picked myself up, and I went right back at him -- and, you know, I later learned it was the right thing to do, because if you didn’t brace him, right off the bat, he didn’t respect you.

“He was a bully. And I think he was a great newspaperman. I wish the hell we had him today.”

Still: “I think that newspaper people ought to be held to the same ethical standard that they would expect in public [officials]. I want to be held to that same standard, and I have been -- and they haven’t. And every time I see that kind of abuse, it just curdles my milk. And I’ve never been shy. I didn’t give a shit if it was McMullan. I had the reputation of the Big Hulk Attack at the city desk because when they’d write a story that wasn’t true, or slanted, I’d get on the phone start chewing them.”

He defends Dick Judy, director of Miami International Airport from 1971 to 1989: “The Herald was convinced he was a crook. I answered every charge. I think there are things he did that I wouldn’t have done -- and I criticized him for -- but enough to fire him? Judy was a builder.”

However, he acknowledges the Herald was right on another county official, Carmen Lunetta, port director, whom the Herald accused of shady dealings for a long time. Some years after Stierheim left the county the first time, Lunetta was forced to resign in the midst of a kickback scandal. “I don’t speak to Carmen anymore. I defended him all over this town. I believed in him. I made a mistake.”

In recent years Stierheim has been increasingly critical of the newspaper’s decline. He believes the Herald’s investigative efforts shrank after reporters Mike Sallah and Ronnie Greene left. He’s still angry that reporters didn’t pick up on his suggestions in recent years to delve more into malfeasance in Doral and Opa-locka.


S
CoverStory_4_1o the media may be failing to stop corruption?

The newspaper is very weak. You need to understand something. This is very important. I’m a champion for journalism. I’ve been raising money for the Florida Bulldog [a nonprofit news website]. Joe Oglesby [former Herald editorial page editor] is a dear friend. We go fishing together. I love David Lawrence [former publisher] like a brother.

People don’t realize how important independent journalism is in our democracy. Look at this idiot who’s our president and his party, which is cowardly as hell. He’s totally unqualified and he’s destroying so much. People have been dumbed down in America. I mean it’s tragic, and why? Because they don’t read. They don’t read the newspaper. I get the New York Times. Outstanding newspaper. One of the last of the Mohicans. How long it will last I don’t know. It’s frightening.”

In 2005, Stierheim wrote an op-ed piece published by the St. Petersburg Times (after, he says, the Herald rejected it), blasting Naples investor Bruce Sherman, who was forcing Knight Ridder Newspapers to sell to the McClatchy Co., a deal that caused McClatchy to take on a huge debt it has been struggling to pay off ever since.

“Over the past 20 years, I’ve watched, with growing dismay,” Stierheim wrote, “the gradual disintegration of what was once a strong and vibrant electronic and printed news industry. When I was Miami-Dade County manager in the ’70s and ’80s, the county and I were covered by two daily newspapers (often with several reporters), three television stations (each with field investigative reporters), and three radio stations with field reporters. Today, in Miami-Dade, there are no field reporters, television has been largely reduced to a ratings game for advertising dollars, and we have one major newspaper, a very lean Miami Herald.”

He blasted Tony Ridder, then Knight Ridder chairman, for “not being satisfied with 15 or 18 percent profit,” a quest that shrank “quality news coverage.” Sherman threatened to make it even worse.

“Mr. Sherman,” Stierheim wrote, “an independent, vigorous press is an absolute necessity in a democracy.... That safeguard, however, has been undermined by inadequately staffed newsrooms and editorial boards. I am deeply troubled by the relentless squeezing and cost-cutting and insufficient concern for the fundamental responsibilities that go hand in hand with the sacred guarantee of ‘freedom of the press.’”

That was 12 years ago: Since then the Herald and TV stations have continued shrinking staff, though WLRN-FM has picked up some of the slack. Sherman, meanwhile, went on to become the lead investor of the group that bought the Miami Marlins last year and immediately dumped star players in pursuit of profits.

 

I’m a Champion of Steve Clark

Building Metrorail involved lengthy battles, including a federal report citing 247 problems with construction, an early draft of which was leaked to the Herald, which ran it on the front page. Stierheim organized a rebuttal team that spent 6000 man-hours at a cost of $500,000 to produce a ten-volume retort, according to a later Herald article.

With the exception of Metrorail, Stierheim’s first stint as county manager generally ran quite smoothly. During one budget season, he blithely announced the county needed a 6.8 percent increase in taxes to meet necessary services -- a suggestion that might today get someone fired -- and the commission set about working on it.

He inherited a taxpayer-approved $560 million bond issue that he leveraged into a $2 billion pot that funded the zoo, the main library, parks, and much more.

In the early 1980s, county offices were spread throughout downtown at a cost of at least $2 million annually in rent.

“Hell, we can build a county administration building for $25 million and stop paying rent,” he recalls saying. The result was the edifice formally called the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. He commissioned a study that showed the new building would save taxpayers $400 million over 50 years. “Did the Herald report that? Hell no.”

The county commission at the time consisted of eight members plus a mayor, who cast the ninth vote. Each commissioner represented a district but was elected by voters countywide. Before 1981, there were eight white non-Hispanics and one black. Many of them were thoughtful progressives, like Harvey Ruvin and Ruth Shack, dedicated to improving the lives of the whole community.

“We had a great commission,” he says. “The only flake was Barry Schreiber. They were dedicated to a county working together. And I’m a champion of Steve Clark. I want to stick the harpoon in you -- contrary to John Dorschner and the Miami Herald, the fact that Steve Clark was not as aggressive a mayor as you wanted him to be -- he was more of a team player. And as a result, he let me be more of a leader. So I was a leader maybe more than most county managers. When the riots came, I was there. I can’t apologize for that. I’d get Steve on the phone, I’d say, ‘Steve, come on down. Television is all here.’ And he’d say, ‘Merrett, you’re doing a great job. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

 

Marshmallow Mayor

You’re criticizing my story with a cartoon cover showing his face embedded on a marshmallow?

That’s right.

Executive editor Janet Chusmir, was upset with that story. She was convinced that Steve was dirty. I spent a lot of time and didn’t uncover any corruption.

There was something where a judge tipped him about a wiretap and he supposedly warned a friend. I never knew the truth of that. It wouldn’t surprise me if he knew somebody was wired and he might tell a friend. I don’t know. I never asked him.


ICoverStory_5_1n 1986, a few days after he moved into the top floor of brand-new County Hall, he mentioned to a head hunter he’d consider a new job.

“I was feeling the burn,” he says today. “It had been a long haul. That was at ten in the morning. About three in the afternoon, he called and said, how’d you like to be commissioner of women’s tennis?” That included a healthy pay increase. He held the tennis job for about five years, then, in 1990, became CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 1998, after Mayor Alex Penelas fired county manager Armando Vidal, he asked Stierheim to come back on an interim basis to end what the Herald termed “a swamp of corruption.”

At age 64, Stierheim was happy as head of the tourism bureau. But government service was “in my DNA,” and he agreed to come back briefly, on a leave of absence from the bureau.

The Herald applauded the “wise choice in tapping the veteran government professional.”

“I couldn’t walk into Publix without people coming up to me -- I mean the departments and staff were so hungry for professional leadership. They were demoralized.”

He decided to take the job permanently. “The pressure from the public and all over was just too much.” He put at least a half-dozen departments on executive watch, meaning their heads had to clean up their acts or be canned.

 

The Worst Thing That Ever Happened

Was the second go-around with the county easier?

No. Part of the problem today is single-member districts. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to the county. Now people go crazy if you say that, you know? But it’s true. You don’t have the global perspective coming from individual commissioners. Some of them have it. But others don’t.


In between Stierheim’s county stints, a federal judge decreed that selecting commissioners countywide violated constitutional guarantees of equality. At the time of that 1992 ruling, non-Hispanic whites made up only 30 percent of Dade residents but controlled seven of the nine commission votes. There was one black, one Hispanic.

The new plan: 13 commissioners, each elected only by voters in their districts.

Stierheim: “The votes [on the commission] were there to challenge it legally, but the commission decided not to appeal. Don’t misquote me here, because there’s no question blacks were under-represented. Twenty-two percent of the community was black, and they had one commissioner.”

The first Hispanic commissioner, George Valdez, was selected in 1981, halfway through Stierheim’s time with the county. Stierheim believes that over time Hispanics and blacks would have taken over more of the commission, even without the judge’s ruling.

“Blacks will scream and holler at me, but I’m not coming from any prejudicial standpoint,” he says. “I think everybody should be represented fairly, whether they’re Hispanic, black, Haitian, or whatever. And it can be done.”

He supported a system in which “at least half would be elected at-large, so they have a global perspective on what’s best for the county. And a countywide official can’t ignore any group. He comes from Aventura? He can’t ignore the black community because they’re going to vote for or against him.”

As it is, “the public is disenfranchised. Let’s say they want to put a 7-Eleven next door to me and I live in unincorporated Miami-Dade. You see 13 people sitting up there [on the dais]. How many did you vote for? One, and maybe you didn’t even vote for him. So you’re not represented by anybody.”

Sorenson, the former commissioner who ran the Good Government Initiative, disagrees: “The black community is a small part of the population, easily ignored then and now. I don’t think single-member districts are so terrible. I wouldn’t have run if not for single-member districts, and I always considered myself to be responsible to the county as a whole, in addition to my district [in South Dade], which had very diverse needs. I also think that with a combination system, you’d have greater and lesser commissioners, which would be an ongoing source of conflict.

“What would change the dynamic,” Sorenson adds, “is having livable wages for commissioners, which would greatly increase the pool of talent willing to run for a job that easily takes 60 or more hours a week to do it right. That would require a charter change, and voters have voted against it six or seven times. And campaign finance reform! Which will take a new Supreme Court.”

Today the county commission has seven Hispanics, four blacks, and two non-Hispanic whites. But on the toughest tasks, it’s sometimes hard to get them to work together.

One example: In 2016, with each commissioner clamoring in favor of his/her local rail line, they approved a new transportation plan with the financially impossible proviso that all six lines be given top priority.

 

Stuff Is Falling Apart

CoverStory_6_1Several years ago, I was doing research for Channel 2 on the county’s decaying water and sewer infrastructure. The feds had gone to court to force county to upgrade the system because it was damaging the environment. I asked a midlevel county employee: “Do the county’s leaders find it easier for the system to deteriorate and wait for the feds to interfere, rather than make the hard decisions to raise fees or taxes?” After that question, there was a long silence. Finally, his assistant said, “I think you answered your own question.” Is this an example of non-action that could be blamed on single-member districts?

Well, you should have asked the mayor. That’s his decision. But if I were there, we would have raised the rates before [the feds] came in and told us to do it. I don’t want someone else telling us what our duty is. Goddamn it, do it. We need to have the strength to do it.

Whether it’s cutting the grass, whether it’s replacing light bulbs, or maintaining it, like the zoo. Right now I have concerns about deferred maintenance at the zoo -- it’s millions of dollars. Stuff is falling apart. Look at all the needs of Parks and Recreation, libraries, other services. I don’t know what the answer is. They don’t want to raise taxes.

Because voters don’t like to pay more?

There are two sides to that. Voters have approved [bond issues]. The City of Miami just voted favorably on a bond issue. But there has always been an antipathy to taxes. That’s just the American way. Commissioners are just not into it [trying to raise taxes]. The mayor [Gimenez] is very conservative. Everybody says you’ve got to do it. It takes political courage. It takes leadership. You’ve got to convince people. But you just can’t throw something at a wall and see if it sticks. I think we should make a case for parks and rec, and the zoo.

Several times voters turned down a penny sales tax to fund transit operations and expansion. And when in 2002 they finally approved a half penny for Metrorail expansion, it was loaded with many non-rail add-ons and has been used mostly for operations and maintenance. Why won’t voters fund transit?

That wasn’t done on my watch. I have to be careful answering that question [because he doesn’t want to criticize politicians when he might not have all the information]. But part of it is leadership. It takes leadership. And part of it is having confidence in the government. Nothing gets accomplished without leadership. Very often they don’t do their homework. Because when you build it, you have to maintain it. As part of any sound capital improvement program, you need to know the cost effect, the residual cost, on an annual recurring basis.

That’s a wonkish concept to sell to voters.

I would say -- and I could repeat this three times for emphasis -- that there’s no political substitute for professional administration and management. None.

A politician has political agendas. I have a healthy respect for the democratic process. I’ve always respected the elected officials I’ve served, even if I didn’t agree with them and in some cases didn’t trust them.

I give [county Mayor] Carlos Gimenez some credit because, one, he was a fire chief, and two, he became a city manager. So he knows professional management. And he has surrounded himself with, by and large, very competent staff. But the problem is, if you get a mayor in there who doesn’t have his standards, it’s going to be the same old game -- everything recommended to the county commission will be politically tainted. You have a very parochial county commission, with single-member districts. The Sunshine Law, with all the wonderful objectives, has turned out to be the bread and butter of lobbyists.

Because elected officials can’t talk to each other one-on-one?

That’s right. The lobbyists are specialists in carrying messages. And they’re not subject to the Sunshine Law.

Right before a county commission meeting [during his second tenure], I would get a list of lobbyists who had signed up and what issue they signed up for. And I knew which lobbyist was connected to which commissioner, so it wasn’t hard for me to connect the dots, and I would look for items on the agenda. For example, if you had gantry cranes at the port, which was a big-money item, you would see 17 lobbyists signed up.

Sometimes, if I had enough time. I would leave the dais and go back and visit with a commissioner, trying to find out ahead of time and maybe solve a problem before we dealt with it in public, trying to avoid a confrontation. Sometimes that was inescapable because I wasn’t going to roll over. Call it ethics or integrity, I was there to do the right thing.

So you were a professional manager, but you had your eye on potential political land mines with elected officials?

Yes, I think so. I kind of resented people who say, well, you’re a good politician. I was a professional manager, working with elected officials. I have a healthy respect for the democratic electoral process.

But you didn’t operate in a vacuum. You were aware of land mines -- Commissioner X being close to Lobbyist Y.

The first time around I didn’t have a problem with lobbyists. I mean, there was Steve Ross and Dick Knight. There were big lobbyists, but nothing like it was the second time, when I was dealing with a lot of lobbyists. Not directly. But their effect, their influence on elected officials. It was five times what it was during the first tour. You show me the money and I’ll show you a string of lobbyists.

CoverStory_7_1The airport seemed to be a festering problem during your second time with the county.

It was. Every contract at the airport was heavily contested by lobbyists. It was just a constant battle. It didn’t make any difference if it was Smarte Carte, pay phones, or food concessions, it was always a battle. But I was tough. I would hang in there for the best proposal.

It’s harder to get things done these days?

I always think of Alvah Chapman [former head of the Herald and Knight Ridder who, during the 1970s and 1980s, led the so-called Non-Group, consisting mostly of Anglo business leaders who met behind closed doors but had a way of getting things done]. I thought he was a giant. The Non-Group was 10 or 12 people. Each would host a dinner. Sometimes I’d say, I need to talk to the Non-Group. I had that privilege. Alvah was a great man. I miss that. Now power has dissipated.

Sorenson of the Good Government Initiative: “The Non-Group was a paternalistic and patronizing group of white men who thought they knew what was best for all communities. Thank goodness the times have changed.”

Why did you leave the county the second time, after three years?

Several weeks after Penelas was re-elected [in November 2000], he came into the office. “Merrett, you know I can’t thank you enough.” It went on for a while, and I was quite flattered, but then he said, “I’d like you to leave at the end of your contract [the following year].”

It just stunned me. I didn’t really respond. My first instinct was to do battle and resist, and I thought to myself, here I changed my whole life to come back, and we’ve got it humming now and it’s professional and it’s running right, but the reason he did it -- and he was honest about it -- “I want to change the charter to a strong mayor [which would eliminate the position of county manager], and I can’t do it with you sitting in the chair.”

Obviously I was pretty well known and respected. People might say, why do we want to go to a strong mayor when we have a good county manager in there? So that’s why he wanted to make the change.

And of course I wasn’t happy about changing the form of government, either. That was a big part of the problem. There is no political substitute for the professional administration or management of public affairs. Okay? That doesn’t mean you can’t have an executive mayor. I’m talking about administration and management as opposed to the political policymaking role of a mayor or elected commissioner. There’s no substitute. None whatsoever.

That was an agonizing time for me. I went to my friends, four or five I trusted implicitly. I wanted to battle, but every one of them said, “You’re highly respected. You’ve done everything people would want, so leave with your head up.”

That was the worst holiday season [wife] Judy and I ever had. That’s the only year in our lives when we didn’t have a Christmas tree. We were in mourning.


ICoverStory_8_1n late 2000, in the commission chambers, flanked by his wife, the mayor, and eight commissioners, Stierheim, then age 67, said it was the “right time” to leave at the end of his contract. Penelas told the assembled crowd: “I am very, very sorry to see him retire.’’

Katy Sorenson: “Merrett was also a good leader during Alex Penelas’s term as mayor, although it was difficult for him to get out of the limelight so Alex could have it for himself. That was Merrett’s undoing, I think.”

His second go-around had been a bit bumpy. In the following weeks, before he left office, a grand jury came in with a scathing report about mismanagement at the airport, condemning ridiculous contracts like $8000 toilet seats, a deal signed before Stierheim had returned to the county. The report recommended keeping the mayor and commissioners out of airport contracts and blocking lobbyists from raising campaign funds for the mayor and politicians.

Stierheim told the Herald that stopping the lobbyists’ money train would be a wise step. The idea went nowhere.

When he left, a Herald editorial praised him for “having fully lived up to his reputation for professionalism.”

Stierheim had recommended five people he thought were qualified to replace him. Penelas’ choice, however, was 34-year-old Steve Shiver, mayor of Homestead and a real estate broker without professional government experience.

Was Shiver on Steirheim’s list of candidates? “Hell no. Jesus Christ! Are you crazy?”

Shiver lasted two years as county manager, forced to resign after being caught in repeated lies and bungled management decisions. Penelas replaced him with George Burgess, one of Stierheim’s recommendations. Burgess lasted until 2011, shortly before the position of county manager was abolished.

 

I Did Something I Promised I’d Never Do

Stierheim could have retired after leaving the county. But he was soon approached by a school board member. The schools were a mess. A state oversight board had been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to oversee construction expenditures, and the school board fired Superintendent Roger Cuevas.

What happened in the next three years is a prime example of the complexities that beset modern-day Miami-Dade politics, complicated by anti-public-school right-wing ideologues in Tallahassee.

Stierheim: “I did something I promised I never would do. I took the appointment on a split vote.” It happened during a raucous meeting in which the mayor of Hialeah (pro-Stierheim) engaged in a heated shouting match with a black bishop (anti-Stierheim). The final vote was 5-3.

At age 68, Stierheim was once again an interim, this time overseeing an annual budget of $4 billion and 360,000 students, the fourth-largest school district in the nation.

He found himself mired in a swamp of special interests, with insider dealing and board members ruling local fiefdoms. One example: Of the 79 principals selected by Cuevas, 70 had been direct appointments, rather than going through a customary competitive interview process.

“It was corrupt -- who was sleeping with whom, who was related to whom,” Stierheim recalls. “I talked about cronyism and nepotism, and I had nothing to lose. I was there to clean that place up.”

Stierheim abolished 173 management positions and reassigned 60 high-level managers. He demanded that many give up their school-paid cars and cell phones.

After the Herald revealed that a lobbyist had earned $4 million from a single insurance contract, Stierheim proposed requiring lobbyists to reveal their fees and prohibiting retired administrators from becoming lobbyists for two years. That proposal went nowhere.

The oversight board was a constant thorn. Its chair, developer Ed Easton, said that Stierheim was “in over his head to handle a ship this big.” The board refused to release $85 million in Dade taxpayer funds for school construction.

Meanwhile, Debbie Cenziper, a Herald investigative reporter, launched a series titled “Crumbling Schools.” The stories made clear the construction scandals had started before Stierheim’s arrival, but that legislators used them to show how an oversight board was necessary to control the dysfunctional system.

To Stierhiem, the Herald’s timing was all wrong, playing into Bush’s hands: “Where the hell was the Herald when all this was going on? Asleep! Not covering it! Not on their radar. And corruption, I mean crumbling schools -- yes! Why? Because of politics and payoffs. I have no doubt that people were being paid off, none whatsoever. And here comes Stierheim, the reform guy, the non-educator. But this lady trying to get a Pultizer wrote about crumbling schools, and the schools she talked about happened five to ten years before I became superintendent. And I am the superintendent now trying to reform a sick organization.”

Stierheim kept battling -- including with the unions -- to reduce budget woes. “Interim” was removed from his title, but his moves ruffled some board members. In July 2003, after a year and a half in the job, the Herald ran a front-page story by Matt Pinzur: The board was close to ousting him.

CoverStory_9_1Stierheim’s contract ran to July 2004. The Herald published an editorial suggesting the board find some kind of “compromise...based on how much more time is needed for a successful transition.”

At the next school board meeting, a dozen civic leaders praised Stierheim. The proposal to launch a national search for a successor failed 5-3.

Still, Stierheim had had enough of precarious support. In November 2003, he announced he planned to leave when his contract ended in June 2004. “Shocked the hell out of everybody,” he says.

The attacks kept coming. In April 2004, the oversight board released a report saying schools construction was still beset by “misfeasance and potential fraud [that] continues largely unabated.”

The audit report was from Lewis B. Freeman. The Herald’s front-page story by Matt Pinzur noted that the report “included no evidence to support its findings, prompting district leaders to dismiss it as shoddy and politically motivated.”

Stierheim was livid: “What we got were assumptions, generalities, opinions, and accusations with no documentation at all.”

From my interview: “Freeman went to jail [later, for defrauding clients], a crook, hand-picked by Ed Easton to do the study.... The oversight board didn’t even tell me they were going to have a press conference. I found out about an hour before they were going to have it. Big headline in the Herald about all the corruption and the people, crooks. Nobody named. It was McCarthyism, and Pinzur just played along with them. He took quotes from this oversight board.”

The upshot: The oversight board refused to release $50 million in construction money.

In June 2004, at age 70, Stierheim left. A Herald editorial praised him for beginning “the process of transforming a system...crippled by scandals.”

Pinzur’s final story on Stierheim’s tenure: “In dozens of interviews with district power brokers, teachers, parents, and analysts, Stierheim’s success is overwhelmingly seen as limited: reversing the free fall but not creating the model government many expected.”

Stierheim in a recent interview was bitter about what he viewed as the Herald’s lack of support. “I always felt, if it ever got to a crunch, I had the Herald’s support -- until I went to the school system.”

 

A Cabal of Republicans”

Was that your hardest job?

Well, the most frustrating, no question. There was a lot of opposition. Jeb Bush was pro charter and anti-public school, no matter what he says. “The right to choice,” the hell with inner-city kids, the hell with public education. He will never admit that, but at the end of the day, that’s where his priorities are: privatization.

I can just see a cabal of Republican leaders looking at school unions in the inner city and strong -- they’re controlling and influencing a lot of votes in the inner city -- power bases for the Democratic Party. So to minimize the influence of those unions, you institute the concept of choice, parents have a choice, it’s almost like a religion, it bleeds the best students -- their parents are the ones who can pay -- and what’s left? Get the picture? Now, is that Bush’s motivation? It’s just a theory on my part, but it makes a lot of sense.

How do you think the schools are doing now under Superintendent Alberto Carvalho?

He’s a one-man PR machine, which is all right. I think by and large he’s done all right. I publicly endorsed extending his contract. But I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.

You mean whether cronyism still exists?

Yeah. And the Herald doesn’t know. They don’t know shit from Shinola. They don’t know anything that’s going on in the school system.


OCoverStory_10_1ne lasting legacy of his schools gig: He registered as a Democrat. “I think initially I was a Republican, and then when I went into public life, and so early on I registered as an independent.” But he was so angry at Bush’s push toward charter schools that he registered as a Democrat. “It’s embarrassing,” he says about the Republicans today. “They’re not holding the president accountable.”

During his first stint with the county, he selected as assistant managers Sergio Pereira, a Cuban-American, and Dewey Knight, an African-American. “I needed an experienced administrator of Cuban heritage. I needed a black.”

Knight had a stellar career. Pereira did too, at first. He spearheaded the massive county response to the Mariel boatlift -- in which local government employees processed tens of thousands of new arrivals, a job that should have been done by the feds. Pereira went on to serve as a Hispanic advisor in Jimmy Carter’s White House, then came back to the county.

First problem: The Herald reported that when Stierheim issued a memo in 1981 announcing Pereira’s promotion to assistant county manager, he’d said Pereira had bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 1985, a search firm seeking candidates for Miami city manager said it could find no evidence of those degrees.

“I was on my first trip to Israel, with the Jewish Federation. It was four o’clock in the morning when a Herald reporter called me: ‘I’m terribly sorry. Did you know that Sergio Pereira didn’t have a college degree?’

“It came as a shock. Nobody had a bigger ego than Sergio. When he was named assistant manager, there was an article in the Herald, an article in the Miami News, and a big handsome picture in the employee newsletter.

“My policy was, when I made an appointment, I asked the person to write a memo in draft form, listing education and so on, and then I’d edit it.

“It took him three or four days for him to get back to me,” with a story about how he didn’t know how those degrees had ended up in the memo.

The City of Miami Commission blithely shrugged off the education controversy and named Pereira city manager. [Note: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that the city dropped him from consideration after his problems surfaced.]

The next year, when Stierheim left for women's tennis, Pereira's name instantly popped up to be the new county manager.

“He was very political,” says Stierheim. “My good friend Steve Clark picked him. Teresa Zorrilla [a Cuban-American who was Clark’s longtime companion and ran one of his businesses] was whispering to Steve: ‘You ought to appoint a Cuban. That’s enough Anglos.’

“Steve loved to play golf, and Sergio was a great golfer. I never talked to Steve about it, but I figured that’s exactly what happened.”

Pereira lasted two years. He was accused of buying stolen designer suits (the charges were later thrown out) and making a $119,000 profit from a hidden partnership in a land deal that benefited from a zoning change when he was assistant county manager.

Stierheim: “I would have fired his ass if I’d known of the land deal. He shit in his mess kit, and he was gone. But you couldn’t help but like him.”

 

Getting Norman Braman Out of the Shower

When billionaire car dealer Norman Braman led the 2011 effort to recall county Mayor Carlos Alvarez: “I tried to tell Norman Braman -- he’s a bull in a china shop -- I got him out of the shower on a Sunday. I said, ‘You know you’re doing the wrong thing. Alvarez was my police chief. He may not be the smartest guy on the block, but he’s honest. Honesty is the No. 1 virtue for an elected official. And what you need to do, Norman, I’d like to sit down and explain it to you. You need to get statesmen -- statespeople -- on the county commission.”

Braman ignored the advice. Alvarez was recalled.

 

State Attorney “Whitewash”

CoverStory_11_1In one of his shortest and most tumultuous gigs, Stierheim was appointed interim city manager of Doral in December 2012.

“I didn’t want to go to Doral. [Former Miami Mayor] Joe Carollo and the mayor [Luigi Boria] sat in my living room and asked me to serve,” Stierheim recounts. “Carollo was an ‘adviser’ to the mayor, supposedly unpaid. And they were inseparable -- at lunch, at dinner, every time I would go into the mayor’s office. They were joined at the hip.”

Within a week, Stierheim read reports by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and others about alleged misdeeds by Police Chief Ricardo Gomez: “I wrote two memos, one accepting his resignation, the other firing him. I told him, ‘You’re leaving today. Take your pick. Which memo do you want?’ He took the memo firing him, which surprised me.”

The office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle did an investigation on the chief. “It was a whitewash. There was all kinds of evidence that wasn’t in that close-out memo. It was outrageous. So I called the Herald. I got Scott Hiaasen, who at that point was a young investigative reporter. I gave him book and verse. He said, ‘Well, Mr. Stierheim, you fired the police chief. If he turns around and sues you or something, we will resurrect it. But I have so many things on my plate.’”

Stierheim’s main task was to search for a full-time manager. Suddenly, less than a month after he was appointed, the mayor named Carollo as the permanent manager.

Stierheim was stunned: “A terrible decision.”

This past November, Carollo was elected to the Miami City Commission. “I stayed out of that election,” Stierheim says. “I was tempted. I suspect we will be reading a lot about the city in the months and years to come.”

 

Almost CEO of Jackson

About 2001, when he was interim city manager of Miami Lakes, several community leaders involved with Jackson Health System asked Stierheim to consider taking over from the hospital’s longtime chief executive, Ira Clark, who was showing increasing signs of erratic behavior.

Stierheim said he’d consider taking the post, but only when it became vacant.

Clark was in the beginning stages of dementia, but the board didn’t have the fortitude to oust him. “They weren’t ready to bite the bullet,” Stierheim says. “It was sad.”

When the board finally acted two years later, Stierheim was running the schools, and Jackson board picked Eneida Roldan, a medical doctor, who continued the system’s downward spiral until it finally imploded with a sudden, calamitous loss of $244 million in fiscal 2009 that was hidden from the public until the last moment.

Stierheim: “Well, I can guarantee that they would have known about it if I’d been there. I can’t tell you now that I could have solved all these problems, but I can tell you I would have been committed to do it, and it would have been public. There wouldn’t have been any secrets.”

 

All Substance and No Flash

A possible title for his book comes from one of Stierheim’s favorite anecdotes, a conversation he had with Barry Schreiber, a commissioner representing northeast Dade in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I was having lunch with Barry Schreiber at a North Dade deli,” he says. “He’d just read [California Gov.] Jerry Brown’s book, and Brown talked about an issue he called flash -- an issue that has legs and publicity value. Milk it for political gain. I’m not saying he [Brown] didn’t care about [an issue]. Maybe he did, and it was going to further his political career.

“And Barry was thrilled with this. He was going to model his whole future political career after Jerry’s Brown’s philosophy. And he wanted to try it on me. He said, ‘You know, Stierheim, there’s fat in the county budget. You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. If you want to do something like Jerry Brown would do, you hold a press conference, you announce a ten-percent cut across the budget uniformly and you’ll be a hero in this town, and I’ll sing your praises and support you all the way.’

“So I thought about that. I said, ‘Well, let’s see if I understand this. Take away ten percent of bus benches and bus shelters. Would you support that? And beach lifeguards and beach maintenance?’

“Because I knew both of those things were very important to his district with the older people living in the condos and the condo queens who largely controlled a lot of the elections that happened.

“And then the coup de grace: Cutting fire rescue ten percent. That was probably the most vital service that the county provided to those older retired people in the northeast area. I said, ‘You’ll support these things, right? You’re telling me you will.’ With that, he exploded. He said, ‘That’s the trouble with you, Stierheim. You’re all substance and no flash!’

“I thought to myself, he’s just made one of the finest compliments I ever received.”

 

MellowMerrettpixforonlineonly_1Mellow Merrett

When Stierheim left the county the second time, his staff had a Herald photo blown up and framed, with the caption “Mellow Merrett.”

“Look at this picture,”he says, gesturing to the photo. “It ran on the front page of the Miami Herald. The Herald was doing a story about how corporate executives weren’t promoting women, not giving them a fair shake. Somebody from the Herald called and said, ‘Merrett, we want to update our pictures of you.’

“So the guy came -- I was on the 29th floor in County Hall -- and then at the end he said, ‘Now I’d like to get one more when you’re really stern or angry,’ and I said, ‘What the hell do you want that one for?’

“‘Well, I don’t know. Just so we have it on file.’

“So that’s the photo on the front page of the Sunday Herald for an article talking about corporate leaders not promoting women! They used me as their guinea pig! Totally unfair! If anything, I was a champion of appointing women! Talk about misuse of journalism.”

 

Foolishness and Climate Change

Final question: If you were a government leader now, how would you deal with sea level rise -- a big expense, but hard for voters to see?

Well, frontally, with facts, with evidence, and with courage. It’s an issue that’s going to be upon us not just for decades, but maybe centuries. I think Miami Beach has been doing a good job.

The president -- I don’t know what kind of smoky glasses he has -- and the governor, they want to ignore it. They don’t even want to mention the name -- such foolishness.

 

If Nothing Else, Passion

As I was finishing this story, Stierheim called me, concerned that I hadn’t read Part II of his speech in November to the 11th Annual Ethics Conference in Boca Raton.

After talking about several areas we’d already discussed at length, he concluded, “If nothing else I have passion. I believe in what I’m doing.”

 

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