The Biscayne Times

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Nov 20th
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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
November 2018

Aventura gets a new city manager

BManager_1ay Harbor Islands’ top administrator has been hired as Aventura’s new city manager.

Ron Wasson will start his new job November 14. He’ll be only the third city manager Aventura has had in its 23-year history, and starts work less than four months after the city parted ways with Susan Grant, its second city manager, who resigned soon after elected officials expressed dissatisfaction with her budget and management style during a June 25 special meeting. Grant had been Aventura’s city manager for less than six months. (See “She’s No He,” September 2018.)

Enid Weisman, Aventura’s mayor, says she’s confident Wasson will be a good fit. Last year, when Aventura’s longtime city manager, Eric Soroka, announced his intent to retire, Wasson was among eight finalists, she says. But he backed out of the running after South Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma.

“His reasons for withdrawing [at the time] were particularly important -- he just couldn’t leave his city,” Weisman says. That sense of loyalty impressed Weisman. “As luck would have it, he applied again this time,” she adds.

Aventura Commissioner Denise Landman likes Wasson’s familiarity with the “local players in the area.” Most of the applicants were from out of state, she notes. And Howard Weinberg, another commissioner, says Wasson came highly recommended from Bay Harbor Islands. “They said, ‘We don’t want to lose him, but you’d be crazy not to take him.’”

“Remember,” he adds later, “we have the biggest shoes of any city to fill. We had Eric Soroka.”

Manager_2Hired back in April 1996, Soroka was Aventura’s first manager and stuck around for 21 years until he retired in January 2018 -- sort of. He still receives $6000 a month for consulting on a high school construction project, as well as city finances.

During his time in office, Soroka forged an efficient government while charging homeowners and landowners $1.73 for every $1000 of assessed property value, the lowest municipal property tax rate in Miami-Dade County.

Wasson says his desire to follow in Soroka’s footsteps was part of the reason he wanted to become Aventura’s city manager.

“Just the reputation of Aventura is very special,” Wasson tells the BT. “It’s not wasted on me that it’s the City of Excellence and very well regarded. Being its manager is something to aspire to.”

Wasson will receive $205,000 a year plus a $500 monthly car allowance, a $70 monthly cell phone allowance, and health benefits. That’s not quite as high as the $220,000 that Grant made during her brief time as city manager or what Soroka received prior to his retirement: $250,000 per year.

Still, it’s more than what Wasson earned at Bay Harbor Islands, where he received $172,579 annually and a $470 monthly car allowance.

Less than a square mile in size, BHI consists of two islands in Biscayne Bay located between North Miami and the Bal Harbour-Surfside area. About 6000 people live on the islands, a community of mainly houses and low-rise multifamily buildings that’s in the midst of a development boom. According to the latest census figures, BHI’s median annual household income is $61,225.

In contrast, Aventura is a 3.5-square-mile mainland city, home to 38,000 people, most of whom live in high-rise condominiums. While BHI’s retail is limited to Kane Concourse, Aventura teems with retail and offices, including Aventura Mall. Aventura’s median annual household income is $55,891 (the median for Miami-Dade County is $44,224).

Wasson spent a large part of his life in New York City. A member of the NYPD for 21 years, he was a captain in the Emergency Services Unit during 9/11. ESU members escorted firefighters into the burning towers and assisted in the rescue and recovery efforts.

In August 2002, Wasson retired and accepted a job as village administrator of Rockville Centre, a Long Island village of 25,000 people. Five years later, he became town manager of Bay Harbor Islands. “I was looking for a community that was by the water, and my parents at the time were alive and lived in Vero,” he explains.

BHI councilman Isaac Salver says he’s sad to see Wasson go. “I understand, from a professional standpoint, he still has more growth in him,” Salver says. “I think being the manager of a city the size of Aventura will be a capstone of his career.”

Salver credits Wasson with transforming the town’s police department into a “top-ranked” agency accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. More recently, Salver says, Wasson was phenomenal cleaning up Bay Harbor Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. “Within 36 hours of the eye of the storm leaving South Florida, you could drive through Bay Harbor Islands and not know a storm hit it,” he says.

Salver says Wasson also showed leadership in the aftermath of the financial crisis. By 2010, property values plummeted and BHI was forced to raise its property tax rate from $4.41 to $5.29 for every $1000 of assessed value. No one was laid off, Salver says, but Wasson told department heads to slash ten percent of their budget every year.

Today, the Bay Harbor Islands tax rate is only $3.72 per $1000, thanks to the wave of development hitting the east island. Dozens of older buildings have been torn down for more than 25 luxury condo projects, with units priced up to $3.5 million.

Most of these projects are under the town’s 75-foot height limit. However, developers Ugo Colombo and Valerio Morabito want to build a 120-foot-tall condominium at 1135 103rd St., where the Bay Harbor Continental once stood. Voters will decide if they can receive such a massive variance on the November 6 referendum, which would also allow the owners of four buildings exceeding the 75-foot height limit to rebuild should they be damaged or destroyed. All four were built prior to the 2002 enactment of the height limit restrictions.

The development wave has divided BHI residents. Among its opponents is Victor Joseph Maya, a preservation activist and resident of BHI for the past five years. He lives in the three-story Bay Harbor Club, built in 1956 and one of the four older buildings exceeding the 75-foot height limit. The proposed charter amendment would enable Colombo and Morabito to build their condo tower right next to his building.

“The island is undergoing a lot of change,” Maya says. “It was growing too fast, when the citizens stepped in and put a limit on the heights of buildings. And ever since then, the town council has gone out of the way to make development really easy on the island.”

A critic of Wasson, Maya argues that he’s hardly a fiscal hawk. Instead, Maya claims, he regularly gives town employees raises and is reluctant to review performances. “They don’t believe in efficiency studies,” he asserts.

Maya also disparages Wasson’s handling of the 67-year-old Broad Causeway renovation. The project started soon after half the causeway’s raised drawbridge slipped and smashed the top decks of a passing mega-yacht in December 2014. Originally budgeted for $11.5 million, costs eventually ballooned to more than $18 million.

Councilmember Salver says he wasn’t pleased with the cost of the renovation either. “That was definitely a low point in the relationship between the town and the manager,” he acknowledges. However, he points out: “We were replacing and repairing elements for the bridge that have not been touched since 1952.”

Maya also accuses Wasson of engaging in “dirty small-town politics,” adding that his co-op has been cited by the town’s building department twice for the rusted appearance of its historic “Bird’s Cage” spiral staircase. In both instances, the citations came almost immediately after Maya confronted councilmembers.

The first citation occurred in May 2016, one day after Maya had a heated argument with Wasson and then mayor (now councilman) Jordan Leonard over various town issues, including Maya’s objections to Wasson participating in the town’s employee pension plan. At the end of the meeting, Maya threatened to run for office against Leonard.

A report from the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission states that “circumstantial evidence” indicates that Leonard “exploited his official position by using an agency of the town he leads to retaliate against, or ‘send a message’ to a critic of town management who threatened to run against him in the next election cycle.”

Unfortunately, the report noted, the town had no written records on why the citation was issued, so the complaint couldn’t be substantiated.

The second time occurred again just one day after the April 10, 2018, town election, in which Maya failed to win a council seat. This time the town red-tagged the spiral case as “an unsafe structure.”

In April, the Miami Herald reported that Wasson issued a 39-page report rebutting claims that the citations were politically motivated as “false and without merit.”

Leonard couldn’t be reached for comment.

Salver didn’t want to comment, except to say that Wasson hasn’t been charged by the ethics commission for any missteps. He did say that Wasson tried to fulfill the wishes of the council, and without being political. “He was very, very good at putting into practice the wishes of the council,” Salver says, “and he stayed very neutral.”

 

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