Bal Harbour picks Stierheim to search for new manager

Merrett Stierheim, the administrator-for-hire who has helped a number of governments navigate through managerial crises — including, most recently, Doral — has just been handed another fire to put out.

Stierheim’s firm was selected Tuesday night to find a new village manager for Bal Harbour, which has been under the cloud of a U.S. Justice Department investigation and a series of Herald stories about alleged misspending of money seized from drug dealers and money launderers.

Stierheim’s firm will be paid $20,000 to find a replacement for Al Treppeda, who was scheduled to retire in April but informed the town council on Tuesday by email that he would not be returning from vacation.

The village is also operating with an acting police chief. Chief Thomas Hunker was put on paid leave last month until the completion of an investigation into the department’s practices and allegations of professional misconduct.

“We are going in a new direction,’’ said Bal Harbour Mayor Jean Rosenfield.

Several residents at Tuesday’s council meeting urged that Stierheim be asked to step into the job on an interim basis following the abrupt departure of Treppeda. The manager gave no reason for his early departure, but he thanked the village and its council for 32 years of employment.

Stierheim said Wednesday he was delighted to be chosen to lead the search for a new village manager, but declined to commit to taking on the job in the interim.

“I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about it,’’ he said.

Stierheim added that Bal Harbour council member Martin Packer called him, and “kind of talked around that.’’ But his response to Packer was equally noncommittal.

“I said I’d have to give that a lot of thought,’’ he said.

Stierheim also will be asked to help Bal Harbour find a new finance director after council members expressed displeasure with the current one, Christopher Wallace, on whom they placed much of the blame for the Justice Department’s findings that the village misspent confiscated dollars on police officer salaries and benefits.

Stierheim managed Miami-Dade County through the turbulent period after the Mariel boatlift and the McDuffie riots, and has since served stints leading the city of Miami, Miami-Dade School Board and other government institutions.

He and his wife, Judy Cannon, will work together on the management search. The $20,000 they are charging Bal Harbour was the lowest of the three firms that bid for the job.

Dr. Michael Krop, a Bal Harbour resident and former member of the Miami-Dade school board, said he has worked with Stierheim in the past and found him to be an effective leader.

“He’s a tough cookie,’’ Krop said of Stierheim, who was superintendent of Miami-Dade schools from 2001-2004, “but he has one thing this council needs badly: credibility. ... We’ve got a problem.’’

Krop and others at Tuesday’s meeting urged the council to ask Stierheim to step in and become interim village manager.

The village has been under intense scrutiny from the Justice Department, which found that Bal Harbour police laundered more money for criminals than it seized, and made no significant arrests or prosecutions — but spent the cash it did seize lavishly on salaries and benefits for officers, and exceeded government spending guidelines with first-class flights, luxury car rentals and posh lodgings during undercover operations.

As a result of the year-long investigation, the Justice Department suspended Bal Harbour from the federal program that allows police to seize cash, cars, boats and other assets from criminals — and then keep a cut of the proceeds.

The Justice Department also demanded the village return $4.1 million received through the program.

The village has since returned $1.3 million to the Justice Department, but is negotiating a settlement for the rest.

Stierheim’s most recent interim assignment, in Doral, came to a bizarre, abrupt end less than a month into his tenure when the Doral mayor chose former Miami mayor Joe Carollo to take the administrative reins of the city. Stierheim, who was supposed to be helping screen candidates for the job, said he was not consulted and disagreed with the choice.