Miami Commission: Some city execs can retire, come back, collect both pension and salary

Miami commissioners voted Thursday to allow some of the city’s senior-most executives to return to work after retirement and collect a pension on top of their salaries.

Before the 3-2 vote, Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff denied accusations that the change was crafted for two top assistant attorneys who are set for retirement in September — the same time City Attorney Julie Bru leaves the city — and who might want to apply for her job.

Sarnoff, Gort and Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones voted for the item, and Commissioners Francis Suarez and Frank Carollo voted against it.

The new ordinance means that city retirees can be rehired for one of the city’s four constitutional positions — city manager, clerk, city attorney and auditor — and earn a salary while also collecting their pensions.

If longtime assistant city attorney Warren Bittner became city attorney at his current salary of $210,000, he would earn $368,000 a year with the addition of his pension. Another veteran assistant city attorney, Maria Chiaro would earn $381,000 through salary and pension if she became city attorney.

Both are currently in an early retirement program called DROP, or Deferred Retirement Option Program, which allows employees to “retire” but continue working at full pay for a specific length of time while accruing their pension, which they collect in a lump sum when they finally retire for good.

Sarnoff sponsored the change, arguing the four positions require experienced hands. He said it could result in savings since commissioners set the salaries of the four constitutional officers, and those salaries could be negotiated downward.

“The gatekeeper is here, we decided what that person earns,” Sarnoff said, responding to residents worried about bloated salaries.

But Suarez, who is running for mayor, said the change is unfair to rank-and-file workers who won’t have the same opportunity.

Salaries of the city’s four constitutional positions have dropped significantly in recent years as commissioners negotiated new terms. City Manager Johnny Martinez makes $195,000. City Clerk Todd Hannon makes $125,000. City Auditor Ted Guba makes $145,000, and City Attorney Julie Bru makes $228,000.

Grace Solares, a representative of Miami Neighborhoods United, an umbrella group for homeowner groups mostly on the city’s east side, charged that the new ordinance was created to woo Bittner for the city attorney job, and said she “vigorously” opposes the ordinance.

Solares said she doubts Sarnoff’s comments that the new ordinance could result in lower salaries for the four slots. She noted that Bittner makes more than $200,000 a year now, and said she’d be surprised if was chosen as city attorney and earned less than that.

“I understand it’s your mistake [if it’s a mistake], but it will be my money,” she said.

Sarnoff denied he was sponsoring the ordinance for any one person.

“It isn’t because I support Mr. Bittner for city attorney, I simply don’t want to cut my nose off,” he said.

The city says it is conducting a national search for a new city attorney. Gort announced that a committee will whittle down the candidates and the commission will make the final choice.

Also against the legislation were leaders of the city’s police and fire unions, whose personnel have taken tremendous pay and benefit cuts the past five years as the city struggled to plug budget shortfalls.

Also Thursday, after months of testy negotiations, commissioners finally agreed 4-1 on a redistricting plan that levels the population in the city’s five districts. Carollo was the only “no’’ vote.

To get there, though, Sarnoff had to give up a large chunk of the city’s Upper Eastside to Spence-Jones. She ended up inheriting the neighborhoods of Palm Grove, Shorecrest, Belle Meade and Bayview.

The issue was contentious to the end, with Upper Eastside residents upset that part of their neighborhood — from Northeast 54th to 61st streets — was broken off. They had demanded the area stay within one district, whether it was Spence-Jones’s or Sarnoff’s.

In other business, commissioners gave unanimous, final support to a large mixed-use development along the Miami River, just west of the county criminal courthouse.

River Landing Development intends to spend more than $200 million at 1480 NW North River Dr., where the Mahi Shrine now stands, to build stacked big-box retailers, and a pair of towering buildings that would be divided by a 90-foot promenade down the middle.

The nine-acre setting along the north side of the Miami River, which would offer a wide boardwalk, also will have 444 residences, 1.6 million square feet of commercial space and 2,418 parking spaces.

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