Miami-Dade County

Audit: Miami City Hall employee paid two salaries for job that might not be necessary

Miami City Hall is already discussing ways to save more and spend less after agreeing to a $53.5 million legal settlement with its police and fire unions.
Miami City Hall is already discussing ways to save more and spend less after agreeing to a $53.5 million legal settlement with its police and fire unions. jflechas@miamiherald.com

A Miami City Hall employee was paid two salaries for three years while she single-handedly ran an agency that city auditors suggest might be unnecessary, an internal review has found.

Miami’s independent auditor general issued a critical appraisal of the city and its tenuous relationship with the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, a long-standing semi-autonomous government agency with a budget of about $677,000 that no longer serves its original purpose of promoting sports and conventions in the city.

The authority now acts as little more than a landlord for tenants on city-owned Watson Island, which include the Miami Children’s Museum and a few stalled projects — a seaplane base and a heliport.

The audit, requested earlier this year by City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, found that since 2017 the director, Lourdes Blanco, has been paid from two separate pots of public money — the authority itself and the city’s general fund — that combined for a total annual salary of $112,976.

Blanco recently sued the city when she stopped receiving the portion of her salary being paid by the authority. She is still receiving payments from the city budget.

In the 16-page review published Tuesday, city auditor Theodore P. Guba highlighted problems with the agency’s record-keeping, the lack of written policies and procedures for financial controls and the payment of two salaries from different budgets to the executive director. The audit says the director, Blanco, never received approval by the City Commission when she was appointed, and she did not meet minimum educational requirements for the job.

Guba suggests the city take a hard look at whether it makes more sense for the city to abolish the authority and absorb its landlord function. He also recommends the city be more transparent by providing easier access to budgets from 13 other semi-autonomous agencies that are set up similarly — governmental bodies that control about $170.8 million.

Blanco told the Miami Herald that she, the authority’s only employee, is the victim of a “witch hunt” and she is being persecuted for issues that extend beyond her responsibilities.

“I have done everything correct,” she said. “I have done nothing wrong.”

Since she was promoted from interim director to executive director of the authority in 2015, Blanco — who came to the authority after working for the city — drew a salary from the authority’s budget and from the city’s general fund budget. She also received health insurance payments from both budgets, along with car and cellphone allowances.

The salary from the city manager’s office totaled $62,976. The authority’s portion of her earnings started at $14,000 in 2016 and more than doubled to $50,000 in 2017 — a raise that the auditor noted was approved without discussion by the authority’s board.

“Our discussion with a ... board member indicated that he was aware of her city salary in addition to her approved salary in the [authority] budgets,” Guba wrote.

This board member is not named in Guba’s audit, but the statement was refuted by two other former board members — including Mayor Francis Suarez.

“I was not aware,” Suarez said Friday. The mayor, then a commissioner who questioned whether the authority should exist, resigned from the board in 2016 when its composition was restructured.

Another former member who served on the board for 11 years said on Friday that he only knew of Blanco’s salary from the authority.

“I had no idea she was also getting a check from the city manager,” said Nathan Kurland, a Coconut Grove activist.

Blanco maintains she was operating under an arrangement that is long-established and well-known.

“That policy was founded long ago and has been followed consistently to date,” Blanco wrote in her May 30 response to the audit, which she forwarded to each commissioner this week. “All city commissioners and board members of [the authority] have been aware of this historically and no eyebrows or questions have ever been raised. “

The auditor recommended the city review Blanco’s salary and benefits package “for appropriateness in light of the issues outlined in the findings” and write a policy for how Blanco should be paid.

Kurland said he questioned aspects of the authority’s management even before Blanco became director. He said that for about a year during his tenure under a previous director, no one kept legally required minutes of the authority’s board meetings, leaving a hole in the record of the board’s actions. Kurland said because of this, there’s no record of board members questioning the lack of basic documentation of their work.

“There’s no minutes to reflect why we’re wondering why there were no minutes being taken,” he said.

Kurland said Blanco began keeping a record of meetings when she took over.

Even though now there are records of the board’s actions, the agency’s days may be numbered.

Suarez, who as mayor is the de-facto chairman of the authority’s board, said he plans to recommend the city abolish the agency when the commission meets again in September.

“I don’t see the need anymore for MSEA. It’s outlived its usefulness,” he said. “I think the findings of the audit just support that in a multitude of different ways.”

Meanwhile, Blanco said she’s suffering because of the mistakes of other government bureaucrats and lack of guidance from her board. No one questioned her appointment, she said, and any discrepancies should have been handled by the city attorney’s office to make sure the commission voted on her appointment.

Similarly, she said the city administration should have cleared up any questions about her compensation.

In her letter, she blasted Guba’s conclusions and challenged him to incorporate her responses in his audit.

Read the full audit below.

This article has been clarified to reflect the correct time period when minutes of the authority’s meetings were not recorded, according to a former board member. A previous version of this article mischaracterized that time period.
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