The Autocrat

Some say Miami Beach's Jose Garca-Pedrosa is a strong city manager. Others tend to employ more colorful language.

The Miami Herald's March 30 Police Report column was a typical hodgepodge. Two Surfside retirees scuffled over a taxicab. Thieves stole $16,000 in jewels from a Bal Harbour apartment. An exotic dancer was robbed at gunpoint at a North Miami motel.

And there, nestled amid the minimalist chronicles of misdeeds and mayhem, was the boldfaced name of Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, who had apparently been accosted in his office by a ticked-off citizen.

According to the blotter, Garcia-Pedrosa called the cops at approximately 11:00 a.m. An "irate woman" had "barged" into his city hall office and "refused to leave." The white female, five foot six with wavy brown hair and brown eyes, stood in front of his fiberboard desk, in front of his picture-window vista of blue skies and Deco hotels, and "entered into a dispute."

Miami Beach Police Department Incident Report 9711171 lists the woman's name as Mera Rubell. It does not list her occupation. No mention is made of her ownership of the landmark Sony Building and the refurbished Albion Hotel on Lincoln Road. There is no indication that she is one of the most influential landlords in Miami Beach, a substantial factor in the city's re-emergence as the cultural and economic centerpiece of all South Florida. The dry narrative reports only that two sergeants escorted her out of the building, and that "the subject of the dispute was unknown." Charges were never filed.

In the same office not long afterward, Garcia-Pedrosa chuckles mildly as he recalls the altercation. Just remarried and back from a honeymoon cruise, he rocks in his desk chair, pausing as if to summon up a distant memory. "I think she said some things that I wouldn't want to repeat to you that I thought were inappropriate," he explains cheerily. "She has got a lot of good things to do in the city and so do I. In some areas we've got to do it together, and I'm sure we can and we will because we both want positive things for Miami Beach. I don't think my relationship with Mera Rubell is much different from my relationship with a number of other people."

A number of other people find that troubling.
In his nearly two years in office, Garcia-Pedrosa has rattled the Beach's established power structure. He boasts of hunting down and killing independent groups that offered visions divergent from his own. He has proudly ignored the recommendations of several citizens' advisory councils on issues ranging from public art to garbage pickup. When Cuban singer Rosita Fornes was booked to perform at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts (TOPA), Garcia-Pedrosa, a former trial attorney, erected legal barriers that blocked her performance -- and raised the ire of civil libertarians. When a lucrative hip-hop music convention got out of hand, Garcia-Pedrosa put the kibosh on any such future gatherings. "As long as I am city manager they are never coming back," he commanded then. He commands it still.

"He is very autocratic," snorts a high-ranking Miami Beach official who asked not to be named, in order to protect his position. "He is on his own program. If he likes a person he's dealing with, he'll treat him very well. If he doesn't like him, he'll go out of his way to hurt him. He doesn't like independent groups of power. He wants everyone beholden to city hall and to the city manager's office."

Adds a Beach businesswoman, afraid to use her name for fear that her business will suffer: "He is paid by the taxpayers to treat people with some sense of dignity. Don't bully and abuse them like they are on the witness stand. He is there to implement policy to make sure the city is well-run. That includes servicing the public. He is a public servant, not a king."

Declares an activist, who also begs for anonymity: "He assassinates the community spirit. The soul of this place absolutely depends on how any citizen feels that their opinions are important here."

Which is hardly to say that Garcia-Pedrosa is a manager teetering on the brink of dismissal. In fact, he has solidified his power as he has consolidated it. Sy Eisenberg, the only one of seven city commissioners who voted against Garcia-Pedrosa's hiring, is now one of his biggest boosters. "I think he's a good hands-on manager who knows the city well, who understands what has to be done, and who gets to what has to be done in a hurry," lauds the veteran commissioner.

During his tenure at city hall, Garcia-Pedrosa has negotiated a $35 million windfall from Dade County, which he's applying to improvements to the convention center and to the creation of a new public library. He played hardball with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau to secure valuable financing for the city's new convention hotel. Taxpayer groups love him. So do many others.

"I think he has absolute job security," opines political consultant Victor Diaz. "As long as he continues to do a good job, I think there is a large segment of the population that would literally turn out in protest if Jose Garcia-Pedrosa was let go. With the job he's doing, there is absolutely no reason for him to have anything but job security."

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