River Cities Gazette

Miami Springs council votes for Special Election, selects new city clerk

NEW CLERK: Erika Gonzalez-Santamaria was one of four potential candidates interviewed by the council for the open Miami Springs City Clerk job on Jan. 8 and five days later, the council voted to offer her the position.
NEW CLERK: Erika Gonzalez-Santamaria was one of four potential candidates interviewed by the council for the open Miami Springs City Clerk job on Jan. 8 and five days later, the council voted to offer her the position.
Gazette Photo/BILL DALEY

River Cities Gazette

The first regular Miami Springs council meeting of 2014 took place on Monday night, Jan. 13 and some very important decisions were made. A Special Election for the sale of a piece of the golf course property was set and the person who will be directing that election was selected, as the city clerk position was filled.

A sliver of land on the old James Medical Clinic property on Eldron Drive is the reason for the Special Election. Manny Perez-Vichot’s company, Southeast Design, purchased the property from the heirs of Dr. Charles James and the parking lot includes one quarter of an acre of golf course property.

The new owners want to develop the Eldron Drive area and build a 110-room hotel on it. But they cannot do anything unless the voters agree to sell the 10,299 square feet of golf course property to the city. 

The purchase price of $115,000 already has been negotiated between the two parties and Southeast Design has agreed to pay all expenses related to the Special Election. No further action can be taken until the vote is taken.

At Monday’s meeting, the council unanimously approved the date of Tuesday, April 8, 2014 as Special Election Day in Miami Springs and approved the wording of the ballot question, as required by the City Charter.

The wording for the question that will be on the ballot, authorizing the sale of a portion of the golf course property is as follows: “Shall the City Council be authorized to sell and rezone to the Airport/Golf District the 10,299 square feet (less than 1/4 acre) of Golf Course property adjacent to the former James Medical Clinic currently under License Agreement as a parking area to the contract purchasers for $115,000.”

The city clerk in Miami Springs is the Elections Supervisor and it became clearer on Monday who would be in charge on Special Election Day, when voters say “yes” or “no” to the lone question that is expected to be on the ballot when April 8 arrives.

At a Special Meeting on January 8 (see Bill Daley’s article on page 7), the candidates for the city clerk position were reduced to three: Acting City Clerk Suzanne Hitaffer, who has worked for the city for 20 years; Southwest Ranches Clerk Erika Gonzalez-Santamaria; and Coral Gables Deputy Clerk Billy Urquia.

The fact that Hitaffer is in the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program) and will be retiring in May of 2016 was an important component in the decision the council made on Monday night. 

As Councilman George Lob said, “We would not even be having this conversation and are considering someone else because Suzie is in the DROP program.”

Vice Mayor Billy Bain apparently did not put much weight on Hitaffer being in the DROP because he immediately made a motion to elevate her to city clerk, promote assistant city clerk Elora Sakal to deputy clerk, and hire a third person for the department from the outside.

Bain’s motion, which he called “the cheapest way to go,” was seconded and there was a lengthy discussion before the vote was taken. The vote was 4-1 against the motion and Mayor Zavier Garcia immediately asked for another motion. 

Not getting a quick response, Garcia passed the gavel to Vice Mayor Bain and made the motion himself. He moved that the City of Miami Springs offer the city clerk’s position, at the low end of the salary range ($71,800), to Gonzalez-Santamaria.

“We have the opportunity to bring more talent to the room right now and to plan for the future,” Councilman Michael Windrem said. “If we wait until Suzie DROPs, we don’t know what we will get.”

The motion passed by a 4-1 vote (Bain dissenting) and the council instructed HR Director Loretta Boucher to offer the city clerk position to Gonzalez-Santamaria on Tuesday and begin the negotiation process on salary and benefits.

The council and staff seemed very confident that Gonzalez-Santamaria ultimately would accept the position and be in charge on Special Election Day April 8, but as of noon Tuesday there was no confirmation that she had been hired as the new Miami Springs City Clerk.

In other news, the council:

• Approved unanimously a reduction in the variance and appeals fees for residents of Miami Springs, to $350 for a variance and $100 for an appeal.

• Approved unanimously a new 10-year lease agreement with the School Board of Miami-Dade County for the East Drive/Stafford Park site, including a proposed sublease for the Miami Springs Historical Society.

• Approved by consensus the concept and recommendation for the Wall of Fame Plaque/Award banners and plaques to be placed on the second floor of the Community Center.   




Gazette Editor

Before any decision was made with regards to the city clerk position in Miami Springs, at the Jan. 13 meeting, the council met on Jan. 8 in a special meeting — that drew zero citizens — to conduct open interview sessions with each potential candidate for the position.

Before the holidays, a total of six candidates were on the agenda to appear, but two of those, Sandra Novoa and Jacquie Vieira, withdrew their names from the candidates list, leaving just four to appear at the meeting.

The four were Erika Gonzalez-Santamaria, the town clerk for Southwest Ranches; Suzanne Hitaffer, the acting city clerk for Miami Springs and longtime assistant under Magali Valls, who retired last summer; Yamileth Pereyra, former executive assistant to the Doral city manager; and Billy Urquia, the current deputy city clerk for the City of Coral Gables. All were invited to sit in on the proceedings of the others if they wished but all four chose to wait outside the chamber and then simply leave when they were done.

Council members asked a wide variety of questions and listened during each candidate’s 20-to-30-minute interview session.

Each was asked their motivation for why they wanted the city clerk’s position in Miami Springs and what kind of commitment they would be willing to make.

Santamaria, currently employed at Southwest Ranches, indicated that geography was an issue with her as she lives in Southwest Miami-Dade County and the trek to Southwest Ranches (located between Weston and Davie in western Broward) had become a burden. She also indicated that she had read the history of Miami Springs and was attracted to the small hometown reputation the city enjoys.

Hitaffer, who had been considered the favorite during this process, then took her place at the desk placed directly at the front of the council chambers and fielded questions.

The first question, from Mayor Zavier Garcia, was a one that was expected. 

Garcia wanted to know why they should hire Hitaffer knowing full well they might have to go through this process all over again when she retires in May 2016, at the end of the DROP program.

“I thought about that,” said Hitaffer, who started with the city 20 years ago and was promised her same position back as deputy city clerk should she not get the position. “Whoever does get this position could leave in those two years as well and you would still be in the same position. I have stuck with this city for the last 20 years and feel I’m qualified and ready to take over this position.”

Pereyra then came out and pitched her case, but it was evident from the start that her young age and lack of appropriate experience (she actually left Doral nine months ago and is currently employed by the Latin Builders Association) that it would be an uphill climb for her.

Urquia was last and his impressive resume and willingness to do whatever it took to get the job seemed to impress the council. However, he is already making a salary of $71,000 in Coral Gables and might not be willing to accept the bottom of the pay range in Miami Springs ($71,800) that the council wants to offer.

Garcia at one point asked City Attorney Jan Seiden if the salary numbers could be adjusted either up or down. Seiden said anything could be done in the form of a budget amendment.

After just over an hour of discussion following the four interviews, the council decided to vote on whether to eliminate any of the candidates. A motion was made and passed by a 4-1 vote (Jaime Petralanda dissenting) to eliminate Pereyra and talk to the others individually before addressing the subject at Monday’s regular council meeting.

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Miami Herald

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