The Autocrat

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

Rob Parkins made the job a four-day-a-week proposition. The former City of Miami police officer maintained his law enforcement certification by riding in a patrol car once a week. During the rest of the work week, he saw the city through a $200 million building boom. He also engineered the Leonard Haber incident, whereby he helped a former mayor collect thousands of extra pension dollars before departing for Palm Springs's city managership in the early aftermath of the corruption scandal that brought down former Beach mayor Alex Daoud.

Roger Carlton was a detail man who micromanaged almost every issue. The former director of Miami's Off-Street Parking Authority replaced Parkins with a mandate to address the Beach's chronic parking problem. He failed. He also never lived on the Beach, which alienated him from several citizens' groups. He was pushed out by the commission in early 1995.

When Garcia-Pedrosa was selected as Carlton's successor, he became the first Hispanic city manager in a town that had come to have a majority Hispanic population. "I think we hit the lottery," Mayor Seymour Gelber boasted at the time.

The lottery image was more apt than Gelber could have expected. Garcia-Pedrosa used his negotiating acumen to secure better service from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. The city's contribution to the countywide agency, drawn from bed taxes, was expected to rise to as high as $12.5 million per year as the Beach grows ever more popular. By threatening to cap the city's contribution at $3.5 million per year, Garcia-Pedrosa forced the bureau to better address the city's needs. Besides deciding to move its offices to the Beach from downtown Miami, the bureau agreed to underwrite nearly a million dollars of debt service on the Beach's new convention hotel.

Garcia-Pedrosa hit pure pay dirt when he negotiated with the county. In a complex series of deals that hinged on whether the city would help fund the county's planned performing arts center, Garcia-Pedrosa secured from County Manager Armando Vidal a $35 million cash windfall. Although the county money is earmarked for improvements to TOPA and the convention center, there are enough dollars left over to establish a cultural endowment and build a regional library.

"That was a masterpiece on his part," fawns City Commissioner Nancy Liebman. "If we had not had somebody so impressive to go out and fight for us and maneuver a wonderful deal for the city, we would have been stuck covering a deficit on the convention center. Mr. Pedrosa is a fantastic negotiator. He is very hard-nosed on things that he fights for. And when he's on the side of something that you really want to happen, he's excellent in how he pulls forward and makes it happen. He drives a hard bargain."

Inevitably, the negotiating skills he exercised so well with other governments were applied to the citizens' groups that dominate Beach politics. His first target was his greatest challenge. "When it came to the management districts, it was again having the city taking on the establishment in many respects. That was taking on the elephant," Garcia-Pedrosa boasts. "You know what they say, you shoot at the elephant. Well, I wound up killing the elephant. Obviously the commission did it at my request with a proper audit and all the groundwork and so on, but that was a very difficult project. It took me seven months!"

In 1993 South Beach merchants and property owners along Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue, and Lincoln Road formed individual districts to protect and promote their investments. Each district funded its own augmented security, landscaping, and marketing, operating on fees collected from affected business, as well as on tax money collected from the city commission. "The form of government that was set up there was ideal, I thought," recalls Mayor Gelber. "What it did was actually fill a gap -- which didn't occur because there was this great civic movement to go back to the pioneer days of America; it happened because the city was not providing adequate services. We endorsed these groups coming up."

But Garcia-Pedrosa felt the districts were too small and too dependent on public money compared to other so-called business improvement districts around the nation. Like a lawyer preparing for trial, he made the case to the city commission that the districts were inefficient and unnecessary. Central to his argument was an audit he commissioned, which revealed that district leaders were charging lavish meals and exorbitant cellular phone bills to their budgets.

"The audit showed they weren't doing things in the best fashion," says Gelber. "They were doing things as if it were a private cigar club. What happened here is the manager challenged us. He said, 'I can get the city departments to do it cheaper and better.' In the past we didn't think city departments could do it. From the reports I've seen, they're doing a good-enough job, or perhaps a better job than the districts did."

When the Ocean Drive Special Services District dissolved, its former head, Don Meginley, moved from his $75,000-per-year-post to a new job at a nonprofit in the Northeast. In his opinion, Garcia-Pedrosa is working in good faith to improve both Ocean Drive and Miami Beach. But, adds Meginley, people who disagree with the manager may have a difficult time working with him.

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