Coral Gables

City manager used a PR guy hired on taxpayers' dime to deal with her own skeletons

City of Coral Gables city manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark listens to Coral Gables police chief Ed Hudak speak during the commission meeting on April 24, 2018.
City of Coral Gables city manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark listens to Coral Gables police chief Ed Hudak speak during the commission meeting on April 24, 2018.

Managing her public image is a game of constant Whac-a-Mole for the controversial city manager of Coral Gables, Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark. Skeletons continue to crawl out of her closet: a Hollywood sweetheart deal, a citizen's complaint to the ethics commission that she obstructed due process and lied, and violations of numerous ordinances with regard to spending large sums of public funds, to name a few.

But so far, Swanson-Rivenbark's career in public service has survived. And for several years, she's used taxpayer dollars to get help reframing the bad press. In 2015 and then again in 2017, Swanson-Rivenbark used city funds to hire a private public relations consultant, Stan Adkins, who is best known in South Florida political circles for one particular skill set — crisis management through media campaigns.

“Why does the manager need a private entity to represent her?” asked Commissioner Vince Lago at the June commission meeting, shortly after he learned about the contract. Lago said he found it odd that he and the other commissioners didn't have access to the consultant but that the manager could use him for her own career problems. He then faced Swanson-Rivenbark on the dais and said: “You need to stop looking for excuses in reference to errors you make.”

On the surface, it’s not unusual or inappropriate for a city manager to hire a private consultant to assist in city business. In fact, Adkins had occasionally consulted for Coral Gables on a project-by-project basis since at least 2004 when he helped with the annual report. What's different now is Swanson-Rivenbark put him on retainer without consulting elected officials — which is legal if slightly unusual.

And while he did consult on city issues like post-Irma cleanup, emails between the manager and Adkins — obtained by a Miami Herald records request and first reported by the local blog Political Cortadito — suggest that a large part of Adkins' job since 2015 has been managing the professional crises of the city manager. Sometimes she sought his counsel in handling bad news that stemmed from her previous job, city manager of Hollywood.

“There’s a line, and there needs to be a line, between what's best for the city and what’s best for the manager,” said Commissioner Mike Mena during the June meeting. He said he didn't oppose hiring Adkins, only how his services had been used by the manager.

Swanson-Rivenbark first consulted Adkins in August 2015 when a round of negative emails flooded her inbox. She had filled a position that had been vacant for five years — assistant city manager of public safety — with Frank Fernandez, a former employee from the city of Hollywood. Residents complained that her move had effectively diminished the authority of the police chief, Ed Hudak.

She consulted Adkins again after a citizen's records request revealed that she intervened in the independent background check process when Fernandez was hired in 2015 and said not to bother interviewing certain character witnesses as "it would hold no credibility or value" in her decision-making.

Lago condemned the action in a June 1 memo to the commission: "To interfere in hiring processes breaches the public trust and makes citizens doubt our City’s governing practices." And a resident activist, Maria Cruz, said she tried to file a complaint on June 8 with Sylvia Batista of the county ethics commission about the interference.

"So the one about interfering with the background check was too old," she said. There is a three-year statute of limitations for filing ethics complaints.

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Former Chief of Hollywood Police Frank Fernandez took on the role of Assistant City Manager of Public Safety in Coral Gables in 2015. Hector Gabino Miami Herald File

Swanson-Rivenbark also messaged Adkins when a 2016 inspector general report said she and other Hollywood officials had "violated numerous city ordinances, policies and procedures" when they routed nearly $1 million of public funds to pay temporary employees Swanson-Rivenbark hired to work for the city of Hollywood, mostly in the police department.

And in May 2018, after the Sun Sentinel wrote about how Swanson-Rivenbark negotiated what Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez called "a $28 million giveaway" of taxpayer money to a private construction company to build the Margaritaville Hotel, Adkins was brought in again. What had started out as a $10 million grant to the builder became a $28 million grant that one real estate analyst called "a sweetheart deal."

This time, it was Coral Gables' public relations manager Maria Higgins-Fallon who called Adkins.

“I had had a phone conversation with him about some of the trending issues," she said. One of those was the manager's role in the controversial Margaritaville project. "As part of the contract that Stan has with the city, he assists in crisis management.”

Swanson-Rivenbark was the first city manager to write a contract retaining Adkins’ services for an extended period of time that she was aware of, said Higgins-Fallon.

The first contract ran from July 2015 through July 2016, according to documents obtained by the Miami Herald. It seems Adkins was disappointed with the initial figure — nearly $25,000 — when Swanson-Rivenbark presented it to him via email. He responded on June 10, 2015, writing: “Well, I was hoping you had a little higher floor limit, but whatever works for you will be fine for me. You'll always be my favorite client.“

In 2017, Swanson-Rivenbark wrote another contract, this one for $48,000 — just under the $50,000 threshold that would require commission approval. But even when he wasn't on contract, between 2016 and 2017, Swanson-Rivenbark would forward Adkins emails and occasionally ask for advice. Every so often, Adkins would ask for introductions to important people in the community.

Swanson-Rivenbark also forwarded Adkins emails from city commissioners, media requests, and correspondence with private residents. Adkins rarely offered advice in email, which would be a matter of public record. Usually he would suggest lunch meetings in her office at City Hall to discuss them.

Most recently, she forwarded a memo from Lago questioning her interference in the hiring of Fernandez.

"I wanted to talk through to [Adkins] how to best communicate with the commission and with you [Lago] on this matter," said Swanson-Rivenbark. Lago brushed off her attempt at explanation.

“I think you need to understand your place with regard to this dais,” Lago said to the manager at the June meeting. “We don’t work for you. You work at the pleasure of this commission. And we work at the pleasure of the residents.”

coral gables commission
From left: Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago, Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli and Commissioner Michael Mena during the March 20, 2018, meeting of the City Commission. DOUGLAS HANKS

Three of the five voting members on the dais said they had no idea that Adkins was on retainer with the city, including Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, who said the manager’s behavior was “not right” and that the commission should be kept abreast of private contracts. None disparaged Adkins or his work for the city, but rather questioned the use to which the manager put him.

Neither Swanson-Rivenbark nor Adkins responded to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.

The two who were aware of Adkins' work for the city, Commissioner Patricia Keon and Vice Mayor Frank Quesada, had both independently used Adkins’ services in the past. Longtime friends, Adkins managed public relations and branding for Keon’s 2013 campaign as well as her bid for re-election in 2017.

“He has great integrity,” said Keon. “On a campaign this guy will never get you in trouble.”

But even Keon seemed to be unaware of the extent to which Adkins' services were being used by the manager. Keon said she knew he had consulted on the city's push to hire more police officers. Regardless, she maintained that whatever capacity Swanson-Rivenbark had used Adkins in was within her rights as manager.

During Keon’s official campaign, email communication between Adkins and Swanson-Rivenbark slowed, pausing entirely in the two months before the April 2017 election. Higgins-Fallon said that was by design. “We stopped the contract while he was helping Commissioner Keon,” she said. Higgins-Fallon remembers Swanson-Rivenbark saying at the time, “We are not going to be working with him because he is going to be working on a political campaign.”

Immediately after the campaign, however, email dialogue between the manager and Adkins resumed, despite his lack of a formal contract with the city at the time. Keon also continued to consult with Adkins on her own political messaging. She kept him abreast of her own potential crises. They are old friends, she said.

Keon was the only commissioner to speak out in support of the manager during the June commission meeting where Lago sponsored an agenda item to discuss Swanson-Rivenbark's "pattern of exercising poor judgment." Keon maintained Swanson-Rivenbark is the best manager the city has had in recent years.

“I think she’s a good manager. I think she is in a good place. I think this continuous barrage of attacks is not good for the city. I’ll tell you the business community does not like it," Keon said in an interview with the Miami Herald.

Others think the manager's future is less certain.

"I think anybody's job is on thin ice if you are lacking transparency and not putting citizens' needs at the forefront," Lago said.

This article was updated to clarify the nature of the contracts.