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City of Miami waives job qualifications for high-ranking staffers

Stephen Petty had neither government experience nor a CPA when he applied for the No. 2 job in the city of Miami’s finance department earlier this year.

It didn’t matter. City Manager Johnny Martinez waived both requirements.

Petty is one of at least 17 city officials who have been hired since 2010 without meeting the minimum qualifications for the job, records obtained by The Miami Herald show. The list includes several high-ranking administrators: solid waste director Keith Carswell, procurement director Kenneth Robertson, assistant building director Vanessa Acosta, interim information technology director Cynthia Torres, zoning administrator Barnaby Min and communications director Angel Zayón.

In each case, the city manager or the human resources director signed a waiver casting aside the job’s requirements. The Herald obtained copies of 18 waivers issued between 2010 and 2011, and one issued in 2012. There are likely others which the city could not provide, because it has not been keeping a master list and the manager has ignored a commission directive to keep its members in the loop.

“That’s disturbing,” Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said of the number of waivers issued. “What’s especially disturbing is that so many of the people on the list are upper-echelon members of our city administration and people in the mayor’s office.”

Petty’s case has been particularly controversial because he has a link to the top city staffer who hired him.

Petty’s brother, John, has a Coral Springs consulting firm with the city’s Chief Financial Officer Janice Larned, corporate records show. Larned sat on the selection committee that chose Stephen Petty for the finance director job. She also drafted the waiver that enabled Petty to win the job, despite not meeting requirements listed on the job posting.

Neither she nor Petty returned calls seeking comment.

Martinez, the city manager, said he signed the waiver in March at Larned’s urging.

“She thought he was the best person for the job,” Martinez said.

Petty beat out candidates who had experience in municipal government. Some were certified public accountants. Petty’s experience was entirely in the private sector, most recently as a financial planner at a regional bank in Texas, according to his digital application.

In a scathing email penned this month, the city’s risk management director, Calvin Ellis, who sat on the selection committee, said he felt Larned “was clearly lobbying for Mr. Petty even though he did not meet the prerequisite minimum qualifications for the position.”

The city manager said he didn’t learn about the connection between Larned and Petty until after he had signed the waiver. In an interview this week, Martinez said he would have liked to have known about the relationship earlier. But it wouldn’t have made a difference, he said.

Human Resources Director Beverly Pruitt said issuing qualifications waivers is “an administrative function’’ built into the hiring process. When a position opens, administrators don’t often update the job description, leaving the waivers as a fallback option to hire a certain candidate, she said.

“The descriptions may have been done eight or 10 years ago,” she said, noting that the qualifications for a particular position may have changed over time.

Rather than rewrite the listing, Pruitt said, the city advertises and sees who replies. Then it decides if a waiver needs to be issued.

Martinez said the waivers are “no big deal,” and that he is confident in the abilities of the employees who have been hired.

“Sometimes it is hard to find someone who has the exact qualifications,” he explained.

William Werther, a professor at the University of Miami School of Business, said a city like Miami could have a hard time filling mid-level management jobs, despite the glut of unemployed municipal employees. His reasoning: Most of the unemployed municipal workers nationally held low-level jobs, and those who had mid-level positions might not know about openings in Miami.

Still, Werther said, if city officials are willing to waive the qualifications to hire someone, they should repost the job, giving others the chance to apply.

“It sounds like they are manipulating the hiring decisions,” Werther said. “The person who is responsible for signing these things needs to be called to task. Our corrupt leaders are up to their usual practices.”

One high-level city administrator, Vanessa Acosta, has benefitted from two waivers: one to become interim manager of zoning in August 2010, and one to become assistant building director just three months later.

For the zoning post, Acosta needed a degree in architecture, planning, urban design, engineering or construction management. Former City Manager Carlos Migoya waived the requirements because she held a law degree and had “assisted in activities related to law and zoning issues and the supervision of employees,” according to the waiver.

In the second waiver, Migoya wrote: “Ms. Acosta is not licensed as an architect, professional engineer or general contractor. However, she holds a JD. She has assisted in activities related to law and zoning issues and the supervision of employees.”

Acosta has since been given a new job title. Martinez and the city’s website identify her as special projects director. But Acosta said Tuesday that she is still the assistant building director. She declined further comment.

The city hired Cynthia Torres to oversee the complex software system that links payroll, accounts payable and procurement, even though she lacks a bachelor’s degree, according to her waiver. She is now interim director of the Information Technology Department.

“I was told not to worry about it, a waiver was signed by the city manager at the time because I had a lot of experience,” Torres said, noting that she had worked for more than three decades in information technology.

Waivers were issued for two staffers in the mayor’s office: aide Asber Cruz, who could not provide a copy of his high school diploma from Cuba, and Lourdes Loyal, who did not have a diploma when she was hired as a part-time aide. She was later issued a second waiver when she was hired as a full-time clerk.

City commissioners have expressed concern about the issue before.

At a July 2011 commission meeting, Suarez brought up the educational waivers, saying, “Those are things that we need to know about.”

Martinez agreed. “I think it’s a good idea for the administration to report on the actions that we’ve taken,” he said.

The commission passed a resolution requiring Martinez, who became city manager one month earlier, to report on “any waivers” that he signed.

But Martinez and his staff have not been doing so, he told The Miami Herald.

Martinez blamed a misunderstanding. The human resources officials who prepare the hiring reports thought they were supposed to focus on another kind of waiver, he said.

“We’re going to change that moving forward,” Martinez said.

The Miami Herald was able to obtain copies of qualifications waivers that had been provided to Commissioner Willy Gort in January. But when a reporter asked for copies of the waivers that had been signed this year, Martinez and human resources administrators said they were not readily available.

Martinez said he may have signed as many as five waivers this year, but he wasn’t positive.

Pruitt, the HR director, said her staff will track down copies of the waivers over the next week. The process, she said, will entail fishing through the files of the 130 or so employees hired since January. The city has made the hires despite a hiring freeze imposed in 2009.

Gort said he looks forward to reviewing the records.

“It is very important that we know why waivers are given,” he said. “It should be an open process.”