Miami-Dade County

Miami city manager Martinez to step down after battling back from a stroke

Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez, a 30-year public servant who joined the city at a tumultuous time even by Miami standards, said Thursday he would resign the first week of March.

Martinez, 62, suffered what was believed to be a minor stroke last July, but extended his hospital stay after doctors discovered heart problems.

Martinez’s recovery was complicated when his body rejected prescribed medications. The city manager, who oversees about 3,000 Miami employees, has also suffered from chronic knee problems.

On Thursday, Martinez made no mention of his health issues, instead offering a brief, two-paragraph statement to the mayor thanking him for the opportunity to lead the city. Martinez said he was leaving for a consulting job with a South Florida engineering firm.

“In reflecting back on my time with Miami it was an amazing experience. It was an honor to work with this mayor and the commission,” said Martinez. On his time in Miami, he said, “We inherited it at an all-time low, but it’s up to respectful now. Overall we’re in better shape.”

Few disagree.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said that he was genuinely surprised by Martinez’s announcement and that he had planned to spend the next four years working alongside the manager on a host of city issues.

“He was the engineer who designed the success of Miami after almost bankruptcy,” Regalado said.

Regalado would not name a possible successor Thursday, saying he would forgo a national search and hire from within the administration. He plans to make a recommendation to the commission by the last meeting in February, before Martinez leaves.

The mayor has been chided for not being able to hang on to top administrators during his first four years in office, leading to shaky financial leadership.

Though there has been improvement in recent years, the next city manager would be Regalado’s fifth since he took office in November 2009. Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo and the city’s chief executive officer, Daniel Alfonso, who took the city’s helm while Martinez was out, are expected to receive strong consideration.

Miami has a strong-manager form of government, meaning the manager oversees all department heads and city employees, and is responsible for implementing policy set by the city’s five commissioners and the mayor. Only the mayor can hire and fire the city manager, though both actions require approval by city commissioners.

Since his return from hospitalization, Martinez has sat quietly at the dais next to City Attorney Victoria Méndez , at times not responding quickly to simple questions such as who runs departments.

Though his stay in Miami was relatively brief — about two-and-a-half years — Martinez is credited with improving the city’s financial picture, mostly through tough union negotiations, and for hiring experienced county administrators to lead Miami in key financial posts.

When Martinez became manager he was faced with a $61 million budget shortfall and a depleted rainy-day fund, and top aides were leaving at an alarming rate. Now Miami is back on track, its reserves have been bolstered, and there is stable leadership in budget and finance.

“He understood about not raising taxes,” said Regalado. “I thought he would be here for the long run.”

Bravo, the assistant city manager Martinez brought in and who worked with him previously at the Florida Departmet of Transportation, called Martinez a pro not afraid to make the tough decisions.

“I think it’s a major loss for the city, but we’re obviously wishing him the very best,” she said, declining to say whether she was interested in the post.

News of Martinez’s planned departure didn’t surprise many at City Hall, who have watched him struggle at the dais since his return.

Commissioner Francis Suarez said Martinez excelled behind the scene, and called him one of the “most decent” people he’s met since he has been in office.

“I’m not entirely surprised. He’s had a lot of health issues, and it’s a very demanding job,” Suarez said.

Commissioner Marc Sarnoff praised Martinez, saying he was disappointed that the manager could not remain in his post longer.

“I thought Johnny was a great city manager,” Sarnoff said. “He was extremely even-handed. He let commissioners be commissioners and allowed mayors to be mayors.”

Martinez moved to Miami from New York City when he was 10. He went to school locally and studied civil engineering at the University of Miami. After a private-sector stint, Martinez spent 22 years with FDOT, rising to district secretary.

He spent two years in charge of capital improvement for Miami-Dade County, before being tapped to assist then-Miami City Manager Carlos Migoya.

Regalado’s decision to name Martinez city manager was approved by the commission in June 2011, at the height of the city’s dysfunction. The new manager took center stage as Regalado and then Police Chief Miguel Exposito squabbled publicly over a series of inner-city police shooting deaths and video gaming machines.

The past three years haven’t been free of problems for Miami, but supporters say Martinez’s able hand has guided the city capably. On Thursday the manager said that he was content with the way things turned out in Miami, but that the city still has a ways to go.

His advice to a successor: “Learning to navigate the politics is something you can't predict. Integrity before everything. I get to my office, I tell the truth, I go home, and try to keep it simple.”