It was a short meeting. They came, got rid of the top two city officials, temporarily replaced them and left.
The city of North Miami Beach held a special meeting Tuesday evening to finalize its separation from City Manager Ana M. Garcia and City Attorney Jose Smith. Weeks earlier, attempts to push out the pair were held back because of procedural issues.
The meeting lasted under an hour. The commission passed separation agreements between itself and the two elected officials without much internal drama outside of a few eye rolls.
Commissioner Phyllis Smith made the motion to dismiss Garcia at the previous commission meeting. She said she felt the manager wasted city money, especially regarding the city’s utilities.
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Garcia, who had been manager for five years, contended she brought the city’s tax rate down to near-record levels and was implementing a new strategic plan. She is a 20-year veteran of public service.
City Attorney Smith, meanwhile, said his dismissal was caused by disagreements between him and interim Mayor Beth Spiegel, who was named interim mayor in May when the previous mayor left office facing house arrest in April.
“Since my hiring in 2014, Mayor Spiegel has engaged in a mean-spirited campaign to attack and discredit me,” the attorney wrote in a recent memo to the commission. “If resisting her bullying constitutes ‘ongoing disrespect,’ then I plead guilty.”
Last year, the city renewed Smith’s contract and gave him a raise and a bonus for “exemplary performance.”
Smith’s annual salary was $201,000. In 2016, Garcia signed a $200,000 annual contract with a possible $10,000 bonus.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman supported the decision to get rid of the city attorney, citing a past dispute with the city attorney’s office about an insurance claim.
Resident Mubarak Kazan said they needed a new city manager to “steer the ship,” which he said was “bigger than the Titanic or a jumbo jet.”
Two other residents spoke out in favor of the two departing officials.
“I feel that we have lost two very fine people and I’m very sorry to see that they’re leaving,” said North Miami Beach resident Marilyn Baumoehl. “I hope we give them nice letters for their résumés, because they certainly deserve it.”
The two received severance packages of just under $150,000 each. The total included 26 weeks of pay and hundreds of accrued days of leave for each.
The commission also approved cooperation agreements that would pay the two if they helped out in future decision making. The commissioners provided a letter thanking the two for their service and signed off on a mutual non-disparagement agreement. Both the commissioners and departing officials could not comment about the dismissals.
Marlene Quintana, the lawyer who helped negotiate the separation agreements, reminded the commissioners that per the city charter, they had to pick interim replacements.
For city attorney, that was Sarah Johnston, the deputy city attorney. For interim city manager, that was Esmond Scott, the assistant city manager. Both received praise for the job they had done during the past two hectic weeks.
Commissioner Smith, who wasn’t completely sold on the selections, slightly delayed the process, at one point suggesting a law firm collectively act as the interim city attorney.
With Garcia and Smith sitting in the room, the other commissioners wanted to end the process as soon as possible.
“This is not a very comfortable situation that we’re in,” said Commissioner Barbara Kramer. “I think right now, with five months to go, Sarah can handle this.”
Next week, they will decide whether Johnston and Scott will continue in their interim roles for the months leading up to elections, which take place on Nov. 6.
As the meeting ended, residents, lawyers, and other members of the community gathered to speak with and embrace the departing officials.
This is not the first time there has been turnover within the city. The commission was left with three empty seats after the departures of Mayor George Vallejo, who pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws and abruptly resigned in April; Commissioner Frantz Pierre, who lost his seat in January after failing to attend meetings because of health problems; and Commissioner Marlen Martell, who became city manager of North Bay Village in March. Pierre was later reinstated.
“It’s sad it had to come to this,” said resident Saundra Douglas. “It’s too bad it ended the way it did.”