Even after the national election, many Americans still are debating whether the country is moving in the right direction. Miamians should be asking the same about the Magic City.
They have every right to, when they see headlines detailing the revolving door of administrators at City Hall; hiring based on whom one knows, not the merits; an SEC investigation into the city’s burnishing of it financial picture in advance of a bond sale; declarations of fiscal urgency; and Band-Aid solutions to deeply rooted financial challenges.
Here’s what’s missing: stability — administrative, financial and political. The city is being drained of accomplished administrators with institutional memory at a time when it needs their experience most. The city’s finances continue to be a thing of mystery and surprise — the latest being the unexpected $45 million surplus that the budget director discovered last week.
The tone — and lack of vision — are being set from the top. It’s time for Mayor Tomás Regalado to get to the root of the problems, and then have the political courage to hand the reins to a team of competent staffers to fix the city’s financial challenges. Instead, he has too often insisted that all is well, things are fine and that “it would be unfair to say there is instability,” as he told The Miami Herald recently.
The numbers say otherwise, Mr. Mayor. Since Mr. Regalado assumed the mayor’s office three years ago, there have been four city managers, three police chiefs, three budget directors, three finance directors, three directors of solid-waste — everything but the partridge in a pear tree.
This is not an indication of a smoothly gliding ship of state. It’s a sign that things are not well. The high rate of turnover speaks volumes: competent administrators left to fend for themselves in a highly charged political atmosphere; others are unqualified for the positions they hold. In fact, the most recent finance director, Stephen Petty, resigned because he didn’t meet even the minimum requirements for the job. He didn’t have the bonafides, but his brother, John, is the longtime business partner of the city’s chief financial officer Janice Larned.
Here’s where City Manager Johnny Martinez should be stepping up, shielding his staffers from the political whims of the mayor and commission and focusing like a laser on the city’s financial challenges. That’s what County Mayor Carlos Gimenez did when he was city manager about a decade ago. When he left the city, he also left $140 million in reserves, which have since been raided, starting under the previous mayor, Manny Diaz. Mr. Regalado’s first administrator, Carlos Migoya, too, got tough with the unions to rein in their rich contracts when the good financial times stopped rolling. Instead, Mr. Martinez seems content to do the mayor’s lackluster bidding — and that seems to suit the mayor just fine.
All this is a distraction from the city’s more fundamental challenges: a revenue stream that took a big hit during the recession at the same time that luxuriant union contracts, including pensions, were taking a bigger bite. To be fair, Mayor Regalado inherited some of this fiscal mess, including the contracts and the SEC investigation. But the remedies have been piecemeal. For instance, the city goes back to the unions year after year to extract concessions to fill budget holes. That’s no way to firm up the fiscal ground over the long term.
The mayor is a decent man, great on constituent service, but Miami urgently needs more. It needs vision — and a road map.