Miami-Dade County

Scott taps former Dade ports chief for economic post

Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks with Port Director Bill Johnson at a January meeting of the County Commission.
Carlos Gimenez, mayor of Miami-Dade County, talks with Port Director Bill Johnson at a January meeting of the County Commission. Miami

Gov. Rick Scott tapped Miami-Dade’s longtime port chief to run Florida’s economic-development arm on Thursday, making a prominent local administrator the state’s top corporate recruiter.

Bill Johnson succeeds Gray Swoope as CEO of Enterprise Florida, a post that also comes with the title of commerce secretary. The tax-funded nonprofit under Scott’s control negotiates state relocation packages and hiring incentives to recruit or retain large employers, an effort central to Scott’s agenda as he begins his second term with a promise to poach companies from other states.

“Bill has a clear record of creating opportunities in our state and is laser-focused on our goal to make Florida the global destination for jobs,” Scott said in a statement released Thursday. “I am confident he will help us on our mission to beat Texas to become the No. 1 state for job creation.”

The hire gives Johnson, the county’s current water-and-sewer chief, a high-profile landing spot as the lifelong county administrator nears mandatory retirement from Miami-Dade. Often tapped to lead troubled projects and departments, he took over the ports job in 2006 and traveled the world promoting the county’s cargo business. He also presided over record debt loads at Port Miami, which saw its credit rating downgraded last year as borrowing topped the $1 billion mark.

Well known in Florida but new to the economic-development field, Johnson, 60, takes over for a veteran of the incentive business whom Scott recruited from Mississippi’s economic-development agency when his first term began. Johnson, a Republican, lives in South Beach and first joined the Miami-Dade payroll as a management intern in July 1980.

“You’ll see me in the Panhandle. You’ll see me in the Keys. You’ll see me in Jacksonville,” Johnson told the Enterprise Florida board at Thursday’s meeting. “You’ll see me around the state. You’ll see me listening.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez moved Johnson to the Water and Sewer department in March, and Johnson is credited with reviving a stalled contracting process for an upcoming $1 billion upgrade. Hours after the official word that Johnson would leave the $275,000-a-year post for Tallahassee, Gimenez named a veteran Miami-Dade administrator to take his place. Lester Sola, current head of the county agency that handles contracting, comes into the Water and Sewer post as the department prepares to implement the $1 billion upgrade, a small step toward the $12 billion in work the county estimates is needed to upgrade the entire system.

Gimenez usually resists looking beyond the county bureaucracy to fill vacancies, and was most recently under pressure from the Knight Foundation to conduct a national search to find a replacement for retired library director Raymond Santiago, who retired last summer. Gia Arbogast, a Santiago deputy, holds the position on an interim basis.

The former head of Miami-Dade’s Elections Department, Sola now runs Internal Services, a sprawling agency that manages both county facilities and its labyrinth procurement process — a key source of business for lobbyists. Gimenez cited Sola’s expertise in county contracts as a key asset for Water and Sewer, which has a lengthy list of projects to to begin as part of a federally mandated sewer-system upgrade.

“I want Lester to make sure that the procurement process is followed,” Gimenez said.

A draft contract Enterprise Florida released Thursday afternoon shows Johnson will earn $265,000 a year at the tax-funded non-profit, with the possibility of a $100,000 annual bonus. Swoope drew controversy last year when he received a $120,000 bonus on top of his $275,000 base salary, despite a similar $100,000 target amount in his contract.

Insiders said Johnson and Scott formed a close relationship during the push to build the recently opened Port Miami tunnel, which was funded with a mix of local and state dollars. The hire comes about 18 months after Johnson lost his bid to run Miami-Dade’s own economic-development agency, the Beacon Council. The tax-funded group hired Larry Williams, an economic-development veteran from Atlanta.

The hire makes Johnson the top economic ambassador for Scott. It also elevates to the conservative governor’s inner circle a person the Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce described as the highest-ranking openly gay official in Miami-Dade government. Featured in January 2014 cover story for the group’s newsletter, Johnson said he’s never faced a “glass ceiling” in his career. “I think my perspective has been greatly appreciated in terms of diversity in the workforce,” he told the newsletter.

In his remarks to the Enterprise board, Johnson played down partisanship as he prepared to join Scott’s Republican administration.

“I don’t consider this governor a politician,” Johnson said. “I consider this governor a leader.”

Johnson opted to enter a state-run municipal retirement system five years ago that lets government employees accumulate pension payments early if they agree to retire by a certain date. Johnnson was required to leave Miami-Dade by June 2015, and in 2013 the state agency that runs the pension system projected he would be entitled to a one-time payment of $915,000 and a monthly retirement benefit of $14,254. Johnson did not respond to interview requests Thursday.

Mayor Gimenez praised Johnson’s appointment, saying it will help Miami-Dade to have a local charged with bringing more business to Florida.

“We win all around,” Gimenez said.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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