Miami’s newest city commissioner is flexing his muscle as the chairman of an anti-blight district by moving to replace the agency’s head with the top administrator at the Village of El Portal.
Commissioner Ken Russell recommended in a memorandum last week that his colleagues support him in removing Pieter Bockweg as the $150,000-a-year executive director of the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency. Bockweg has run the agency since 2010, a six-year period in which the CRA built a $14.5 million film studio, renovated a historic firehouse and provided financial assistance to both the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the construction of the PortMiami Tunnel.
Russell, however, says the tax-funded agency failed in one crucial area: affordable housing.
A dollar hasn't been spent on [affordable housing] in all the years of this CRA. That's a major shortfall.
Commissioner Ken Russell
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“A dollar hasn't been spent on it in all the years of this CRA, and that's one of the intentions of CRAs. For me that's a major shortfall,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I want to kind of walk the time line of where that got off track.”
Russell, who was elected in November and subsequently named chairman of the Omni CRA, will lead his first meeting of the agency’s leaders Thursday afternoon at Miami City Hall. He is asking commissioners to support the removal of Bockweg — who has been on the outs for weeks — and replace him with Jason Walker, the 40-year-old village manager of El Portal, a small enclave of roughly 2,400 residents.
Russell recommended that commissioners give Bockweg, an at-will employee, a one-week transition period, one month’s pay and a portion of his unused time off as severance on the condition that he “waive any and all claims” against the city or CRA. He also wants to slash “executive salaries” by 20 percent at the agency, which has a staff of four.
“At the end of the day I can just see the vision I'm trying to create goes a different direction from what this CRA has stood for in the past,” Russell said. “It's my recommendation that this start fresh.”
I’m very proud of what the CRA has accomplished over the last six years.
Pieter Bockweg, Omni CRA executive director
Bockweg declined an interview but issued a statement Tuesday saying that right now his primary concern is providing for his 9-year-old son.
“I’m very proud of what the CRA has accomplished over the last six years,” he said.
Walker declined to comment.
Under state law, community redevelopment agencies are created by a municipality and financed by property taxes that would otherwise fill city and county coffers in order to eradicate slum and blight, incent economic development and create housing for residents of low and moderate income. In 2016, the Omni CRA had a $27.5 million spending plan to facilitate improvements in a district with boundaries that include Museum Park and the area generally between Interstate 395 and Northwest 19th Terrace, and Northwest Second Avenue and Biscayne Bay.
As director, Bockweg was tasked with carrying out a redevelopment plan set by commissioners, who sit as the agency’s board of directors.
The agency, while not mentioned by name, was among those criticized last month by a scathing Miami-Dade grand jury report that ripped the county’s various community redevelopment agencies for doing much to support private development and pet political projects but too little to address affordable housing. In a coincidence, the report, which alluded to a pricey dog park created by the Omni CRA last year, was issued in early February just hours after Russell had a fateful sitdown with Bockweg about his job.
Today, their memory of that meeting differs. Russell says Bockweg offered to resign, which Bockweg denies. Either way, Russell now wants to work with Walker, who before becoming El Portal’s manager worked for years as a policy aide to former Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton.
Winton supported Russell’s campaign, but Russell said that has nothing to do with his desire to work with Walker. He also said his move to appoint a new executive director shouldn’t be taken as sign he intends to run the Omni CRA as his own personal agency — a frequent criticism of redevelopment agencies.
“My goal is to really put something before the board that they can consider,” he said. “I'm sincerely very open to their recommendations and suggestions.”