Monday will mark a new era of leadership in Miami Beach with the swearing-in of a new mayor, a first-time commissioner and a City Hall veteran.
With big ideas that differ slightly in the details and approach, the new-look commission will tackle ongoing city issues such as flooding made worse by sea level rise. The dynamic among the Beach’s top decision-makers will change, but all seven members of the elected body believe they will keep their work collegial and be driven more by details of public policy instead of friction between personalities.
Mayor-elect Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and state lawmaker, will take office Monday morning along with incoming commissioners Mark Samuelian and Michael Góngora. Samuelian is a first-time elected official, while Góngora will serve on the commission for a third time. They join Micky Steinberg, who won re-election with no challenger this year, and three other commissioners who are two years into their first terms: Rick Arriola, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and John Elizabeth Alemán.
Outgoing Mayor Philip Levine is running for governor, and Joy Malakoff is retiring from the commission. Michael Grieco dropped out of the mayor’s race and resigned when he pleaded no contest to a campaign finance crime.
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One of the commission’s priorities is the ongoing $500 million program to raise streets, install anti-flooding pumps and harden the Beach against the impacts of sea level rise. In the past few years, the commission has pushed an aggressive strategy to quickly complete infrastructure work in flood-prone areas.
But residents clamored this year when they were told the streets of their Mid-Beach neighborhood would be raised. They fear runoff from the higher roadway will swamp their properties. Their worries caused the city to slow down, and over the summer, the city agreed to lengthen the timeline for completion of the program from seven years to 10 years.
All three of the newly-elected officials say they want to take a second look at the city’s plans. They want to bring in outside experts to scrutinize the Beach’s approach, which was championed by Levine. The Beach is considered a leader in South Florida in adapting public infrastructure in the face of sea level rise.
“We need experts to critique what we are doing, identify what’s working well, and tell us where we can improve,” Samuelian said.
Current commissioners support the idea, though some emphasize they don’t want to slow the work down any further and stall the program’s progress.
“I welcome extra scrutiny and more expertise in pretty much any endeavor,” Arriola said. “What I don’t welcome is paralysis by analysis.”
That phrase echoes the “just get it done” mantra espoused by Levine, who along with Arriola often lamented the typically slow pace of government. Rosen Gonzalez, who has long echoed residents’ concerns about the pace of the work, favors having outsiders challenge the Beach’s plans.
“We’re not just getting it done anymore,” she said. “We’re going to get it done right.”
Rosen Gonzalez is known to butt heads with Levine and Arriola on the dais, leading to occasional testy exchanges peppered with political jabs instead of policy discussion. Levine and Arriola would also exchange sharp words with former commissioner Michael Grieco, once Gelber’s leading opponent who eventually resigned when he pleaded no contest to a campaign finance crime.
Gelber, who will lead commission meetings, aims to be a consensus builder.
“Hopefully, I can set the tone of collaborative leadership,” he said.
Góngora said he wants to extend that collaborative spirit to the public. He says constituents have told him they don’t feel like they are always heard by the commission.
“I want to make residents feel welcome at City Hall,” he said.
There appears to be consensus on other macro-level ideas, some of which are already in progress. The implementation of the North Beach master plan — a initiative that scored a victory Tuesday when voters approved an upzoning to allow redevelopment of a “Town Center” — is ongoing.
There might be differing opinions on other issues, such as the always-controversial plan to build a hotel adjacent to the Miami Beach Convention Center. In order to allow the city more land to build a hotel that is smaller than the model that failed to pass a referendum last year, a new proposal calls for tearing down The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater and rebuilding a new state-of-the-art theater of a similar size. The replacement preliminary plan was developed by a committee of citizens led by Arriola and Rosen Gonzalez.
“I’m not sure that’s a great idea,” Gelber said. “I don’t think it would be approved. You’ve got to give residents something they can vote for.”
Alemán cited the hotel as a complicated issue with a detailed history that the new mayor and commissioners will have to catch up on so they can make informed decisions.
“These issues are complex,” she said. “Residents elected intelligent, thoughtful commissioners. So now they have a chance to inform themselves even more because of the access they’ll have to staff.”
The commission serves as a board of directors that makes high-level decisions and provides direction to City Manager Jimmy Morales, the CEO of the city, who runs its day-to-day operations. Across the commission, there’s optimism the new group will have good chemistry.
“We’re going to have some new ideas and perspective that will help keep our city moving in a positive direction,” Steinberg said.