Miami-Dade County

Delayed arrival: Miami finally names former airport chief as its new city manager

Emilio Gonzalez
Emilio Gonzalez MIAMI HERALD

His arrival delayed by nearly a month, former Miami International Airport director Emilio Gonzalez was finally confirmed Thursday by city commissioners as Miami’s new city manager.

Tapped by newly elected Mayor Francis Suarez to oversee the city’s billion-dollar bureaucracy, Gonzalez can now get down to the business of establishing his administration. As Miami’s top administrator, he’ll need to juggle the needs of five commissioners and a mayor while addressing some of the city’s massive challenges, like moving on a $400 million general obligation bond, grappling with a housing crisis and settling a $200 million debt owed the city’s police and fire pension fund.

He said after the 4-to-1 vote that he’ll also move quickly to vet police chief candidates following a spike in gun violence around the new year.

“There’s a lot to do. I agree with the mayor on the issues of global warming, flooding, affordable housing and crime. All of those are very strategic issues we need to take care of because that’s what the voters expect of us,” said Gonzalez, who quickly left City Hall after the vote in order to be with his wife, who was admitted to Mount Sinai hospital with a severe sinus problem. “I want to be able to clean up some things that have been left over: The issues with the firefighters and police officers with their benefits is something I’m going to tackle very, very early.”

Gonzalez, who listened to his ratification hearing from the city manager’s second floor office, had little to sweat. Most of the drama surrounding his appointment had been settled in December when commissioners decided against a national search for the next top administrator.

Even if there were a question about his appointment receiving the blessing of city commissioners, it would be small stakes for a retired U.S. Army colonel ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2005 as a Homeland Security undersecretary in charge of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services under George W. Bush.

As manager, Gonzalez will earn a $265,000 salary, which is more than his predecessor but equal to the pay he received as director of Miami International Airport before stepping down in November. He’ll also receive monthly stipends of $800 for his car and $200 for his cell phone, city-paid health, dental, vision and life insurance, 31 days of vacation and holiday and a retirement account to which the city will contribute $53,000 annually.

Suarez, who was elected in November, moved quickly to nab Gonzalez after he left the airport following a four-year tenure in which he dramatically expanded the number of international destinations, elevated passenger traffic to record highs and sparred with lobbyists. The new mayor has called Gonzalez a “dream candidate.” He will likely be assisted by his D.C. contacts as the city sets out to tackle problems that will almost certainly need federal funds.

But Suarez, who was forced to navigate the first two months of his tenure as a mostly ceremonial mayor without a hand-picked administrator, said Thursday that he wants to move quickly on some minor issues that will be noticeable to the people who live and work in the city.

“We’re just trying to do things that are low-dollar investments with a high return that give pride in our city to our residents and sort of turn the page,” he said.

Suarez had hoped to begin working with Gonzalez in mid-December, but delayed a City Commission vote on his ratification after Gonzalez was unable to meet with commissioners Joe Carollo and Keon Hardemon ahead of time.

Carollo, who met with Gonzalez briefly Wednesday, asked to delay the appointment again in order to have more time to consider the nomination. The city’s newest commissioner said he’d been unable to dedicate the proper time to Gonzalez while dealing with a lawsuit and trial that sought to invalidate his election victory.

But Suarez and the city’s other four commissioners turned him down.

“We need to get started immediately,” Suarez said.

Senior city officials were in the dark Thursday about whether Gonzalez, who was born in Cuba and is a longtime resident of The Roads, would bring in his own lieutenants to help with real estate transactions, personnel decisions, union negotiations and the litany of other responsibilities he’ll be tasked with under Miami’s city charter.

But it’s possible that things will largely remain status quo given that Suarez intends to push a “strong mayor” referendum in November that would empower the mayor’s office with administrative duties — drastically changing the structure of the city and rendering the city manager’s position far less consequential.