THE ECONOMY

Political scrapes forced Frank Nero’s exit at Beacon Council

 

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

When Beacon Council CEO Frank Nero sat down to meet with Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell in her Palmetto Bay office, the session did not go well.

“He wouldn’t even look at me,’’ Bell said Friday, recounting the meeting where Nero objected to her plan for reworking the tax-funded group’s arrangement with Miami-Dade. She said Nero at one point flung her proposal on her desk. “He was extremely rude. I was a little taken aback.”

The encounter, confirmed by one other participant, helped fuel events that led to Nero’s ouster Friday from his post as head of Miami-Dade’s official economic-development agency. His abrupt exit came after a string of private and public dust-ups with elected leaders throughout the county, from congressional offices in Washington to the mayor’s office in downtown Miami, according to internal emails and interviews with board members and others close to the nonprofit.

Nero was not available for an interview Friday, but issued a statement that read in part: “After close to 17 years at The Beacon Council, clearly it is time to do other things. The growth of Miami-Dade County as an international business center has been gratifying.”

His exit came after a closed-door meeting Friday morning by the business executives who make up the nonprofit’s board. One director said Nero was given a choice of resigning with six months’ severance from his $390,000-a-year position or be dismissed with a three-month severance package. Nero agreed to resign, effective Friday.

Robin Reiter, a former Beacon Council chairwoman and a longtime leader in the city’s philanthropic circles, will take over as part-time CEO at $12,000 a month. The Beacon Council plans a national search for Nero’s replacement, and Reiter said Friday she does not want the job.

“My role will be to be the glue that keeps everyone together. They are a wonderful group of professionals,’’ she said in an interview before her first meeting with Beacon staff. “Frank built a fabulous institution.”

TURNAROUND

Nero’s departure marked a sharp turnaround from a board who in August extended his contract for three years, and brings to an end a role that had Nero as Miami-Dade’s primary economic ambassador since the 1990s.

In the last year, he presided over a year-long study called One Community One Goal, which ended with a lengthy report that seeks to map a blueprint for the county’s economic growth. And in the group’s annual report, the Beacon Council touted a year in which the group said it assisted businesses in adding 2,000 jobs in Miami-Dade, including an incentive package for Univision’s new cable network with ABC in Doral.

“I do believe Frank Nero did a wonderful service for our organization and for the community,’’ said Joe Pallot, the general counsel of Heico and the current volunteer chairman of the Beacon Council.

Pallot presided over months of internal drama as Nero’s critics inside and outside the Beacon Council maneuvered to remove him. Fueling the revolt were signs that elected leaders crucial to the Beacon Council’s public dollars had grown tired of the former New Jersey politician’s hard-charging and sometimes abrasive persona.

In August, an aide to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote county officials that he was “taken aback” by a Nero letter to the Republican congresswoman. The subject was a global aviation show the Beacon Council wanted to hold at the Homestead air base but which the Pentagon had rejected as too cumbersome for the facility.

“It is a shame that, for the most specious of reasons, the Secretary of the Air Force can stand in the way of something that would be some meaningful in the creation of jobs,’’ Nero wrote. “It is also a shame that the Secretary of Defense lacks the interest, and the Congressional Delegation lacks the power, to compel an override of that ill-advised position.”

Eddy Acevedo, a senior staffer for Ros-Lehtinen, wrote to county officials: “It is very disappointing that the Beacon Council would use such disheartening language in a letter” to the congresswoman and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whose offices lobbied the Pentagon for the show. Acevedo called the letter “unwarranted” and “unprofessional,’’ adding that “I hope in the future the Beacon Council will think twice before making such assertions.”

Two weeks later, a Beacon Council lawyer sent a letter to the Pinecrest Tribune demanding a retraction for a harsh editorial the community weekly wrote about Nero and the tax-funded group. “If a full and fair correction, apology, or retraction of the defamatory statements is not published,’’ attorney Alan Rosenthal wrote publisher Grant Miller, “we will take whatever steps may be necessary to protect the interests of The Beacon Council.”

In Friday’s meeting, Nero cited another conflict as the real reason for his forced departure, according to the board member that was there. Nero repeated his assertion that his public stance against bringing casinos to downtown Miami prompted gambling interests in Miami-Dade to engineer his removal, calling the gambling issue the “white elephant in the room” as board members considered his fate. Nero has been a vocal opponent of bringing resort casinos to South Florida.

Pallot declined to discuss the details of the meeting. While the Beacon Council receives about two-thirds of its $6 million budget from Miami-Dade, it does not consider its records public. The nonprofit has declined to release Nero’s contract. The board member said he requested 16 months of severance Friday, but accepted six.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued a statement thanking Nero for his service and stating that he looks “forward to working with the interim leadership to maximize the potential of The Beacon Council and encourage forward-thinking economic growth in Miami-Dade County.”

Gimenez aides have been publicly cool to Nero, and privately pushed for a change, according to people who have spoken to the mayor. Gimenez had been supportive of the Genting Group’s plan to build a massive gambling resort on the Miami Herald headquarters property.

But the most public spat came in October, when Commissioner Bell publicly upbraided Nero over their private meeting. Speaking at a commission meeting, she urged Miami-Dade to renegotiate the Beacon Council’s contract and force more transparency. In January, commissioners unanimously passed a resolution urging the Beacon Council to spend $1 million of its tax dollars on grants for existing small businesses.

The shift would upend the finances at the Beacon Council, which spends about half of its nearly $6 million budget on staff, including $1.5 million in compensation for Nero and his top seven aides, according to tax reports filed by the nonprofit. Nero oversaw a campaign against the proposal, with emails to Beacon Council members urging them to write commissioners in support of the nonprofit.

“We have no reason to be defensive,’’ Nero wrote in a Nov. 6 email to staff and board members, shortly after Bell made her proposal public. “To respond to false accusations and political rhetoric with a defensive posture is in my opinion the wrong path. At some point you need to stand up and not play rope a dope.” On Saturday, The Miami Herald published an essay by Nero in which he warned the proposals would “politicize” economic development in Miami-Dade.

EXIT PLAN

But as Nero pushed for a more forceful response, the Beacon Council’s private-sector leadership was trying to arrange an exit. In early February, about two weeks after the commission’s resolution, a board committee offered Nero a severance package of nine months pay if he would resign, according to the board member who attended Friday’s meeting. Nero declined, and asked for 16 months pay as a consultant while the board brought in a new CEO.

With the Beacon Council set for its first new leader in nearly two decades, the board’s immediate challenge will be to stave off any effort to reduce government funding. On Friday, Bell said she would revisit her proposal for a new Beacon Council contract, but that she wanted a fresh start with the group’s leaders.

“It was never about Frank. And it was never about me,’’ she said. “I’m going to be very optimistic that the Beacon Council will work with us.”

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