The Autocrat

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

"I thought it was important in that particular situation to say this kind of conduct is not permitted," he says today. "You can't go around and place thousands of stickers and trash all over the place and trash hotel rooms and engage in fight after fight. There were 101 calls to the fire department -- not the police department, the fire department -- during that convention. So you know you have to take a position once in a while that says: 'Listen, this is unacceptable.'"

Just two months earlier, the city manager had weathered a dispute with Rosita Fornes, a singer and dancer who lives in Cuba. Although Fornes has long maintained that she is apolitical, she drew fire locally for not repudiating Castro or communism. After she tried to play Miami's Centro Vasco (now defunct) last July, the restaurant was firebombed. She encountered more hostility when she was booked at TOPA.

Garcia-Pedrosa, in an extraordinary move, demanded that the show's promoters cover the deductible on a $100,000 insurance policy. He argued that the promoters had no track record in the city, and that the possibility of violence was not the city's fault or responsibility. He also fanned some of the flames when he vowed to New Times that he would join protesters in front of the theater to "repudiate this woman coming here and placing American dollars in the bloody hands of Fidel Castro" ("We Dare You to Sing," September 11, 1996). Fornes canceled her concert.

"Ultimately the tactics of the city were successful in squelching her speech," complains Benjamin S. Waxman, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I do not see him as being a tremendous champion of civil liberties or free speech."

Beach political consultant Victor Diaz sides with the manager, especially concerning Fornes. "He never questioned the woman's right to perform. He only said, 'Your promoter does not have a track record, and this is a security issue; we expect them to protest on both sides. I can't let you go without the bond.' Not only do I think that Jose Garcia-Pedrosa handled the situation brilliantly, I think he became a hero to a large segment of the 57 percent Hispanic majority of the residents of the city."

The caller, remembers Mayor Gelber, was "almost tearful in his criticism of the manager." On the line was Micky Wolfson, the namesake of the nationally recognized but financially troubled Wolfsonian museum. Wometco theaters heir Micky Wolfson spent 30 years circling the globe assembling an odd array of Machine Age kitsch, which he stored in a Washington Avenue warehouse. He opened the warehouse to the public in November 1995, calling it the Wolfsonian. Although he provided all the museum's start-up capital, he did not establish an endowment to ensure long-term success, and the money quickly ran out. Within months half the staff had been laid off. Then in July of last year the museum shut down for a month. Only a $500,000 loan from the City of Miami Beach allowed the Wolfsonian to survive long enough to find a reliable benefactor. According to the terms of the loan, the money was to be repaid in six months -- or on March 1.

On March 22 Garcia-Pedrosa sent a letter to Wolfsonian interim director Cathy Leff. He made no mention of the overdue money. Instead he alerted her to the need to uphold the city's "commitment to maintaining its attractiveness in a quality state." Unfortunately, the letter stated, "the City has received numerous complaints regarding the physical condition" of Wolfsonian property. Garcia-Pedrosa instructed Leff to "please have these concerns remedied."

The letter could not have come at a worse time. While Garcia-Pedrosa was not calling in the loan, his actions did threaten to disrupt crucial negotiations between the museum and Florida International University. Wolfson had agreed to donate his collection to the school in exchange for a commitment to maintain it as a public museum. The Board of Regents agreed to the deal, contingent upon the state legislature's approval of a $2.5 million annual budget. Wolfsonian advocates fear that any controversy -- such as a letter warning of costly code violations -- might derail the process.

Garcia-Pedrosa's letter found its way to Miami Beach Commissioner Nancy Liebman, who wrote what she describes as a "tongue-in-cheek" memo to Garcia-Pedrosa, sarcastically chiding him for singling out the Wolfsonian -- "I hope you will consider writing this type of letter to the many other violators of property maintenance standards in our City" -- and also sent an aide to the code compliance department to look into the manager's assertion.

That inquiry prompted Department of Code Compliance Director Al Childress to dispatch an inspector, who promptly documented ten violations at the Wolfsonian's various properties. When the museum was notified of the violations and Micky Wolfson called Gelber to complain, Garcia-Pedrosa was quick to note that the complaint originated with Liebman's aide and not with him.

Liebman, of course, made it clear that the whole conflict began with Garcia-Pedrosa's initial letter.

When asked the unstated question embedded in the flurry of memos -- did he intentionally attempt to sabotage the Wolfsonian at a crucial time? -- Garcia-Pedrosa shakes his head wearily and blows out a mouthful of air. He produces another letter, from Micky Wolfson, dated March 28. "This is the one I like to focus on," he says, sliding the missive across his desk. "Dear Mr. Pedrosa," it reads. "Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you in order to turn the page on an unfortunate lapse of communication. I am most appreciative of all your initiatives in favor of The Wolfsonian. They will not be forgotten."

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