Coral Gables

Gables’ new manager: ‘I’m entrenched in this city’

NEW CHALLENGE: Coral Gables’ pick for city manager, Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, outside its City Hall on Tuesday.
NEW CHALLENGE: Coral Gables’ pick for city manager, Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, outside its City Hall on Tuesday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A lot has changed for Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark over the past several years.

After 20 years as the Coral Gables development director, she left in 2009 to become assistant city manager of Hollywood, and rose to that city’s top post in 2012 after two stints as interim manager.

One thing remained the same, however:

“I live in the same house on the same street in Coral Gables,” she told Gables city commissioners, adding that her home is exactly “0.6 miles away [from City Hall], right by the public library, just north of Bird Road. My mom lives next door, and my aunt across the street.”

Commissioners hired Swanson-Rivenbark, 55, as the Gables’ new city manager on Friday after a two-hour special meeting at which they grilled her on the city’s pension, infrastructure and choices she had made in Hollywood. It was her first time in the Gables commission chambers since her departure.

“It’s been five and a half years since I have spoken at this microphone, and a lot has transpired since then,” said Swanson-Rivenbark, who is a graduate of Coral Gables High. “I have changed and the city has changed. But what has not changed is my home.”

Swanson-Rivenbark commuted to Hollywood, a city about three times as large as Coral Gables, every day from her Gables home. The Gables hired her after being without a permanent top administrator for six months; former city manager Pat Salerno resigned in April after five years on the job.

After Salerno’s resignation, the city hired a Daytona Beach Shores firm to conduct a search, paying the firm $30,000 to find a slate of candidates. In September, a day after the city hired Atlanta’s chief financial officer Jim Beard, one of the firm’s recommendations, details about him surfaced in court records, including a bankruptcy, a suspended driver’s license and a paternity suit. Beard withdrew as a candidate.

The firm apologized to the city, saying it forgot to ask applicants to disclose any past lawsuits. It refunded the city two-thirds of its $30,000 fee.

Commissioners then hired local recruiter Bud Park, who was paid $35,000 for his search. Park recommended Swanson-Rivenbark after talking with more than 100 people.

In Hollywood, Swanson-Rivenbark receives a $172,000 base salary, has a $500 monthly car allowance and a $125 monthly cellphone allowance. In the Gables, she will receive a base salary of $205,000 plus a car; the city will pay for its insurance, maintenance, gas and any repairs. The city also will pay her cellphone bill.

Before jumping on board, Swanson-Rivenbark met the mayor and commissioners individually at the Biltmore Hotel.

“You got to make sure that there’s a really good fit with the commission because then amazing things can happen,” she said. “You’ve got to make sure there’s a really good match. I listened to what their concerns were and then considered how I can help with those issues.”

Swanson-Rivenbark’s contract in Hollywood requires her to give 45 days’ notice before leaving. Although she tendered her resignation on Monday, she may leave sooner than the 45 days.

“We're going to work out what is the right time for Hollywood and what is the right time for Coral Gables,” she said. “It’s very unusual that a position like this at Coral Gables becomes available twice.”

Some Hollywood residents called out Hollywood commissioners for not “valuing” Swanson-Rivenbark enough. Other residents gave Gables commissioners “kudos” for bringing “Coral Gables back on track professionally.”

In Hollywood, however, two of the six commissioners in September called for Swanson-Rivenbark to resign, citing how Hollywood administrators spent $935,000 over two years on 35 temp workers without commission approval. The manager can spend up to $50,000 without the commission’s approval.

Swanson-Rivenbark maintains that the spending — primarily in the police department — was necessary.

“It’s sad to see her go. I wish she would stay; it’s a loss,’’ said Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober. “It’s unfortunate because I don’t think she was treated as well as she could have been by some.”

But Swanson-Rivenbark brushed it off, saying that “Hollywood is a great place. It would be even better when the city commission can work together and all be on the same page.”

During his introduction of her to Gables commissioners, Park cited Swanson-Rivenbark’s work on the groundbreaking of Margaritaville, a multimillion-dollar resort and conference center on Hollywood beach, along with the hiring of a new police chief.

The game plan for Swanson-Rivenbark is to “do a lot of listening.” But based on conversations with city commissioners, she’ll immediately look at:

▪ Finding a better approach for dealing with unfunded pension liability.

▪ Managing different construction projects (the Miracle Mile Streetscape, the Andalusia Avenue garages, and a tree reforestation initiative.)

▪ Fixing how the facilities look within the city and historic preservation.

▪ Improving employee morale and customer service.

While in the Gables, Swanson-Rivenbark helped bring about the Coral Gables Farmers Market, one of the area’s first, and the Village of Merrick Park, the tony shopping plaza that Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus anchor.

Even though she worked in Hollywood, she never lost her deep love for her home city. On the weekends, Swanson-Rivenbark enjoys walking and dining at Merrick Park, shopping and dining around Miracle Mile, visiting Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and walking around the Granada Golf Course.

“I’m entrenched in this city,” she said. Swanson-Rivenbark lives with her husband, William Rivenbark, who recently retired from Airbus, the aircraft manufacturer. Her daughter is a sophomore at Harvard University, and her step-daughter studies at Miami Dade College.

Swanson-Rivenbark said the community knows her as “the pencil lady.” On holidays she doesn’t give out candy, but character-themed pencils.

“On Halloween, or if I’m going to a school, or if tours come by my office, they’re getting a cool pencil.”

She also said it’s the “little things that make Coral Gables, Coral Gables.”

She noted that the original Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls —which have red yarn as hair — live in the Coral Gables Library. In 1915, the author, Johnny Gruelle, wrote Raggedy Ann for his daughter, who was sick. His mother lived in Coral Gables and made dolls for the book, she said.

“It's those little bits of treasures that all add up.”

Follow @MoniqueOMadan on Twitter.