If you blinked you might have missed it. One minute, the North Miami Beach city manager said she was bringing the city's tax rate down to near-record levels and implementing a major new strategic plan. The next, the 20-year veteran of public service was saying a rushed goodbye as she was chased out the door.
Both she and the city attorney on Tuesday were negotiating terms of their departures after city commissioners last week tried to push them out, but discussions stalled because of procedural issues.
On Tuesday, Garcia issued a letter saying farewell and that it was her last day as city manager of North Miami Beach after five years in office. She later said the letter was issued early and she would remain city manager until July 10. The details of her departure settlement — if one has been reached — are unknown. She did not respond to the Miami Herald's request for an interview but later submitted the following comment:
"I am still the manager and there will be another meeting next week to address the pending settlement just like the attorney."
The move followed last week's volatile commission meeting during which she barely survived a motion for her removal. Commissioner Phyllis Smith made the motion, saying she felt the manager wasted city money, especially with regards to public utilities and the water plan. It was a potential procedural error involving insufficient public notice that saved Garcia's job that night.
“Ana, you’re not getting fired. You’re not getting terminated,” said an animated Marlen Martell in support of Garcia during public comment. Martell, a former commissioner who left her seat in March to take over as city manager of North Bay Village, remains a resident of North Miami Beach.
“They cannot stand the fact that it’s you, a woman, a Cuban, that went ahead and put this city back the way it belonged.”
Martell finished by blowing Garcia a kiss from the public speaker's podium. "I love you," she said.
A handful of city employees stood up and spoke in support of Garcia, sometimes tearfully. “You’re like my mom but you're like a really tough mom," said the city's 23-year-old graphic designer, Monica Viada, who said Garcia took a chance on her.
“I have given everybody an opportunity to shine,” said Garcia, who is known as a tough-love kind of boss.
Less than a week later she announced her departure.
"It is with a great sense of accomplishment, yet with a bit of melancholy that I convey to you my departure from NMB," Garcia wrote on Tuesday. "The melancholy comes from the fact that I will miss so many of you as well as the amazing men and women of my administration that l affectionately and proudly call Team NMB!"
High-level vacancies are nothing new for this city government. The commission only recently filled the last of the three empty seats on the dais after a series of rapid departures left it without a quorum and unable to take actions in April. Mayor George Vallejo stepped down after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws. Commissioner Frantz Pierre was removed for failing to attend meetings due to a chronic health problem, but has since been reinstated. And the third, Martell, left after being offered the city manager job in North Bay Village.
By July 10, North Miami Beach may find itself without a city attorney as well. “The writing is on the wall,” as Commissioner Smith put it at last week’s meeting at City Hall where the attorney also came under attack.
City attorney Jose Smith confirmed he began settlement negotiations with North Miami Beach Monday morning. He says his removal was prompted not by poor performance but by bad blood between himself and Beth Spiegel, who was appointed interim mayor after the previous mayor left office facing house arrest.
"Since my hiring in 2014, Mayor Spiegel has engaged in a mean-spirited campaign to attack and discredit me," the attorney wrote in a memo to the commission distributed last week. "If resisting her bullying constitutes 'ongoing disrespect,' then I plead guilty."
In 2017, the city renewed Smith's contract and gave him a raise and a bonus for "exemplary performance." Now, Smith said that per the contract, it would cost the city 20 weeks of a $201,000 annual salary to terminate him. He said he intends to hold the city to its contract.
At the June 28 meeting, the city attorney said he had originally planned on presenting a PowerPoint on ethics to the commission, where the previous mayor was arrested for violating campaign finance laws and Commissioner Frantz Pierre was whacked with a $1,500 fine by the county Ethics Commission for an ethics violation last month. (North Miami Beach is one of few cities in Miami-Dade to not have its own ethics code, said Smith.) Instead, Smith found himself facing immediate removal over complaints of bad behavior.
Spiegel asked the commission for Smith's removal, saying that over the years he had "demonstrated contempt" for her and other commissioners, given poor legal advice, and "attacked" her on one occasion, though she didn't elaborate on what that meant.
Smith initially asked in his memo that the mayor wait to propose his removal until after the November election, when new commissioners might be elected. He also agreed to leave if that's what the commission wanted.
But Spiegel asked the commission for Smith's immediate removal. “I just cannot believe that it could be good for the city to leave this issue unresolved,” Spiegel said at the meeting.
The discussion continued until long after midnight as commissioners used the opportunity to opine about civic duty, yell, shush each other, fight over correct procedure for removal — which there was some concern the mayor had violated — and hear comments from residents who packed the room late into the night.
Eventually, the proposal was tabled and set to be reconsidered at an emergency meeting on July 10. Commissioner Smith then moved for attorney Smith to take a paid leave of absence until then.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the city. There would be a tremendous disruption,” Smith argued. The assistant city attorney will also be leaving on maternity leave in the coming weeks.
The motion failed, and Smith continues to hold his job for now.
“You don’t leave somebody sitting in charge who is on the verge of being terminated. It’s bad policy,” Evan Ross, a lobbyist who lives in North Miami Beach but says he has no stake in the local government, cautioned during public comment. “You make a decision and move on.”
An earlier version of this article listed attorney Jose Smith's 2017 salary instead of his current salary. It also reflected comments by the city manager, Ana Garcia, in her farewell letter before she said the letter was issued early and that she would remain in that post for another week.