The Autocrat

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

Mera Rubell declined to speak about Garcia-Pedrosa for this article, except for a brief statement. "I would like to say that I am waiting for an apology from the city manager," she stammers. "I would like to attribute his behavior to a very nervous man before his marriage, but his behavior was so outrageous. We are talking about the elimination of community here. This is a very serious thing, the silencing of citizens. The whole world wants citizen involvement, except, it seems, him."

"This has been the case for at least 40-some-odd years," explains Gerald Schwartz, a Beach public relations executive and a political player for decades. He's referring to the way people in Miami Beach embrace their local government. "Certainly in the period since senior citizens became a major element of the community, which I guess started in the Fifties when retirees started coming here."

Those early Jewish elders coalesced into good-government groups that held political rallies in Lummus Park. As they aged, though, their population grew poorer. Miami Beach aged with them, turning from a resort paradise into a rundown retirement slum.

It wasn't the government that sparked the renaissance: City officials proposed knocking down the weathered hotels and apartments along Ocean Drive and replacing them with stark condos and skyscrapers. Designers Barbara Baer Capitman and Leonard Horowitz countered with a proposal to secure historic designation for the Art Deco District. In 1979, when Capitman and Horowitz approached a state preservation board with their plans, the city sent three officials to lobby for demolition.

Luckily for the city, the preservation board voted unanimously in favor of Capitman and Horowitz, the newly restored hotels and homes attracted the modeling and film industries, new tourists, developers, and diverse new businesses, and the neon on Ocean Drive glows today as the international symbol for all South Florida. "This is the best tourist season we've ever had," Garcia-Pedrosa boasts. The citizens who fueled the revival -- the hotel owners, the landlords, the club proprietors -- share his pride. And in Miami Beach tradition, they personally and vigorously prod the city government to nurture their successful community.

"We have here the closest thing I have ever seen to an Athenian democracy," says the city manager. "In order to achieve anything, you have to provide a great deal of process, a great deal of input. Everyone has to have their say, often two or three times. Committees have to review the proposals, and so forth and so on. It is an administrative nightmare as a city manager -- you learn to hate it sometimes. But from a civic standpoint, I think it is wonderful. The end result often achieves consensus. But even if it doesn't, there's something very salutary about people saying: 'Well, this is not something that just happened.'"

As Garcia-Pedrosa speaks, he punctuates his sentences with vivid hand gestures. A crimson gemstone on his Harvard class ring -- B.A. economics, 1968; J.D. 1972 -- catches the sun. His two diplomas levitate on a wall behind him. A white Harvard tankard rests on his credenza, filled with pens and highlighters.

The sheepskins -- and more-than-occasional spoken references to his Cambridge-born credentials -- remind visitors that Jose Garcia-Pedrosa does not need this job. He abandoned a lucrative, high-profile legal practice to become city manager, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in income for his present salary of $140,000. He prefers public service, he says. The 50-year-old son of a Cuban lawyer arrived in Miami in 1960 with his younger sister, $50 between them. He so excelled at academics and debate at Coral Gables High that he won a scholarship to Harvard, where he supported himself by delivering newspapers and tutoring Spanish. After returning to Miami, he rose to partner at the prominent local law firm Smathers & Thompson.

While he thrived in private practice, he kept his eye on politics. In 1982, pleading boredom, he sought and won a post as Miami's city attorney. After only one year of restructuring the city attorney's office, he resigned to challenge Janet Reno for state attorney. Although he won the endorsement of both the Herald and the Miami News, he lost the election by a wide margin, running as an independent.

Reluctantly, he returned to private practice, regularly winning million-dollar verdicts. Still, he scouted for political opportunities. He let it be known that he wanted to be named U.S. attorney. Twice he was a finalist for county manager. "When you've practiced the kind of work that I've practiced, with some salient exceptions you kind of get the feeling that you're distributing wealth among the rich," he explains. "The opportunity to come to a place where you can touch some people's lives, hopefully for the better, is much more meaningful for me at this stage in my life."

He got his chance in Miami Beach, a city with a history of dynamic managers.
"We had two veteran city managers in Miami Beach for quite a while," instructs PR vet Gerald Schwartz, "Claude Renshaw and Morris Lipp. Those two really carried us to the Sixties. They were career managers. They didn't get involved in any way, shape, or form in politics; there was not much controversy. After that, in the Sixties, you had different managers who, without exception, got involved in political turmoil." The last three city managers have been, in Schwartz's estimation, "interesting."

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