Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: For Joe Carollo, an erratic career, an erratic return

In 1996, Miami was broke. Worse than broke. The city was $68 million in the hole. Mayor Joe Carollo pulled off the one great lucid accomplishment of an otherwise turbulent, paranoid, erratic, vindictive political career. He hired Merrett Stierheim to fix the mess.

Hired might be a bit of a misnomer. Stierheim, who had been happily ensconced as CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, worked pro bono. He brought in 43 local business leaders and they reeled the town back from fiscal ruin. He saved the city from bankruptcy. Which enabled Carollo to claim that, having been smart enough to bring in the most renowned fixer of civic institutions in South Florida, it was he who had saved the city.

Joe, being Joe, which is to say, delusional, now remembers 1996 differently. Differently than, say, actual history. It has become Carollo who plucked poor Stierheim out of oblivion. “He worked with me and I uplifted his career in the city of Miami,” Carollo told Paradise Afshar, the Herald reporter tasked with sorting out the latest Carollo connivance.

Carollo delivered his altered history lesson after he and Stierheim had a dust-up at another city hall. Carollo, working as a political consultant for newly elected Doral Mayor Luigi Boria, persuaded Stierheim to come to Doral last month to work his civic magic.

Stierheim was the perfect choice. His résumé reaches back 45 years, leading local governments through all sorts of crises and performing heroic repair jobs. He was Miami-Dade County’s manager during the most turbulent period in county history — 1976 to 1986 — a time of race riots and boat lifts and drug wars and police scandals and waves of refugees and massive infrastructure projects. He left government to run the Women’s Tennis Association, then the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Then came the SOS from Carollo. And then he was summoned back as county manager in 1998, to fix an utterly dysfunctional, scandal-laden, demoralized government.

The next cry for help came from the newly incorporated Miami Lakes, in 2001. Stierheim was the first interim town manager. Then he was asked to repair yet another mess by the Miami-Dade School Board. He served as superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2004. Last year, he was hired to solve the financial problems of the Collins Center, the state’s most prestigious government policy think tank.

In December, Mayor Boria, at Joe’s suggestion, hired Stierheim. Once again, his job was to fix what was broken. And Stierheim promptly got rid of the town’s controversial police chief. But his most important role, as he noted in his letter of resignation last week, was supposed to have been assisting “the Mayor of the city in identifying candidates for the position of city manager as my successor.” Stierheim called this “ the most important decision the Mayor and Council Members make.” He had figured on finding “four or five highly qualified candidates, with background and references fully checked.”

What he got, instead, was by-passed. The mayor, without consulting Stierheim, without any semblance of a search for qualified candidates, hired a novice city manager. He picked Joe. Or, more accurately, Joe picked Joe and the mayor went along with the bizarre choice. So did the city commission. Stierheim resigned, noting, “The wisdom and reasons for that decision are certainly questionable.”

The always vengeful Carollo countered. He invoked race. As if Stierheim was a roiling racist. “Apparently, what he thought is that Hispanics can’t govern themselves and that we need someone like him, that he considers himself the ‘great white hope.’ He is very mistaken,” Carollo charged.

Herald reporter Afshar noticed, however, that the new city manager made these racially tinged charges Thursday only during his interview with Spanish-language media.

One might have thought that somewhere along those 45 years of public service, as Stierheim led the county and the city and the school district and the county again through one racially divisive crisis after another, someone might have noticed disparaging racial attitudes.

Or, if Carollo had some private insight about these great white hope pretensions, why on earth would he have persuaded Stierheim to take the Doral job last month?

Carollo has his own rather divisive history. A 1983 Miami Herald profile of Carollo noted his support for George Wallace’s 1976 presidential bid. In 1979, the then-cop said he had been reprimanded by a superior for placing a cartoon depicting Ku Klux Klan figures into the mailbox of a black fellow officer. (He called it a prank.)

Mostly, Carollo’s years as a gun-toting city commissioner and mayor in Miami were marked by wild accusations. He claimed 10,000 communist agents had infiltrated Miami, many of them landing jobs in the city police department. Commies were everywhere. They were certainly behind the FBI and state attorney investigations into his questionable business practices. A 1984 grand jury, looking into the public dollars bleeding into his private security firm, didn’t indict him, but noted practices “which certainly suggest the appearance of impropriety.”

In 1983, Carollo pulled off a stunningly vicious political double-cross, after Mayor Maurice Ferre called a press conference to highlight Commissioner Carollo’s expected endorsement. Instead, as the cameras rolled, he denounced Ferre’s “racist campaign of hate.”

On Thursday, he was at it again. A double cross, laced with racial accusations.

“I knew he was paranoid. But I didn’t think he’d turn on me,” Stierheim told me Friday.

The question looming over Doral is how long it will be before those same regrets come spilling from the lips of Mayor Luigi Boria.