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."

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."

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.

"I'm in Philadelphia now. Does that tell you anything?" Meginley laughs. "If one recognizes that he is an administrator who seeks centralized control of all matters of the city, and if one works in that direction, one will find he is very cooperative."

Garcia-Pedrosa is active in the American Bar Association, specifically with the accreditation of law schools. One of the standards for accreditation is the ability of a school to attract and retain top faculty. "The wording has always stuck with me," the city manager says. "I think the only way to manage the city -- or really any enterprise -- successfully is 'to attract and retain top talent.'"

He likes to say he hires people who are better than he is. Those he doesn't like he expeditiously removes. Former city clerk Richard Brown lost his job last fall despite public pressure to retain him. Peter Liu, executive assistant to the city manager and a thirteen-year Beach veteran, was asked to resign in December without notice.

Garcia-Pedrosa hired away the City of Miami's computer expert to serve as the new city clerk. And Sergio Rodriguez, who worked as former Miami city manager Cesar Odio's chief of staff, is Garcia-Pedrosa's new deputy. "He has improved the staff dramatically," Mayor Gelber declares.

But some disgruntled city employees argue that, like Cesar Odio in Miami, Garcia-Pedrosa has begun hiring some people for their connections rather than for their merits. Odalys Mon was the chief of staff of former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, a close friend and former law partner of Garcia-Pedrosa. When Suarez left Miami government in 1988, Mon bounced from one City of Miami department to another. Soon after starting at Miami Beach, Garcia-Pedrosa hired her to work on "special projects" for the Department of Public Works. She earns $52,000.

When there was an opening for a director of planning for the Miami Beach Historic District, the city's human resources department received 66 resumes from across the United States. Most of the applicants held advanced degrees in architecture or urban development. One even had a master's degree from Harvard and experience as the director of historic districts in Boston and in Pasadena. He was not interviewed. Nor was anyone else except Janet Gavarrete, who was given the job. Gavarrete was unemployed at the time, had worked exclusively in public relations for the past five years, and holds only a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture. She once was also Cesar Odio's chief of staff.

Garcia-Pedrosa says Gavarrete was hired on the recommendation of Sergio Rodriguez, whom he calls "one of the top urban planners in the country." The manager denies that he hires for reasons other than merit. Dragging a forefinger down a list of his top appointments, he notes that he didn't know many of them before he took office. Of Odalys Mon's hiring he says, "If you can't get recommendations from the former mayor of Miami, who can you get them from?"

Apparently he feels differently about recommendations regarding other matters. Miami Beach commissioners have appointed volunteer citizens' advisory committees to help their city manager manage. Garcia-Pedrosa habitually ignores these groups. In March, for instance, he overruled a selection committee's recommendation that the city award its garbage contract to industry giant Waste Management and instead advised the commissioners to renew the contract with the current hauler BFI, despite BFI's having bid nearly $85,000 more for the contract than Waste Management. He said he wanted to avoid a decline in service. The commission renewed BFI's contract.

Jane Goodman, the head of the Miami Beach Art in Public Places Committee, a panel of art professionals formed to select artworks for display on city property, quit in disgust after alleging that Garcia-Pedrosa consistently refused to meet with her. More than once the manager spent committee money on art that the committee did not approve. "Art in Public Places is an advisory group," he told New Times last month ("Everybody's a Critic," April 3). "They don't make decisions."

The citizens' groups, he allows, can be troublesome.
"A characteristic of the city that makes it very difficult to manage," he explains, "is that we have a very, very well-informed and opinionated group of citizens who are very active and who demand -- as they should -- participation in their local government. I sit at commission meetings sometimes marveling at these citizens who come up and discuss setbacks and stuff like that. One guy got up one day and talked about a deal being 'a Faustian deal.' My God! If he said that word anyplace else, people run to the dictionary. We have that kind of civic participation, which means that in order to manage successfully one has to take all those factors into account. The notion of trying to create consensus, calling meetings together, getting people together and so forth, is very much congruent with that.

"But once in a while," he adds, "you have to take a position that sends a clear message."

Garcia-Pedrosa is referring to How Can I Be Down?, the nation's largest hip-hop music convention. Last October the locally organized event returned to South Beach for the fourth straight year. Thousands of people descended on Collins Avenue, inundating the strip with bass music, concert flyers, and garbage. Assessing the aftermath (which included a report of a shooting), Garcia-Pedrosa decried the destruction inflicted upon his town, saying it resembled "a bad -- not a good -- Third World city." Although the comment opened him up to charges of racism -- the crowds were primarily young blacks -- and despite protests from business owners who enjoyed hefty profits during the weekend-long convention, Garcia-Pedrosa declared unequivocally that there would never be a similar undertaking in Miami Beach as long as he remains city manager.

"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."

Micky Wolfson was out of town and could not be reached for comment about the matter. Wolfsonian interim director Cathy Leff declined to comment.

Sighs the city manager: "This city is very tough to manage. I've learned that sometimes people say or write one thing and then say something else to a commissioner. And you have two commissioners [Liebman and Susan Gottlieb] who ran on platforms that they would be commissioners full-time, so they are always here micromanaging the city. It's difficult to manage successfully."

The mayor, who insists that he is no Garcia-Pedrosa acolyte, says he's certain his city manager wasn't employing any strong-arm tactics regarding the Wolfsonian. "It almost borders on criminal to make that accusation," Gelber bristles. "I think it is outrageous. This guy does his job. I think he's honest and honorable."

The mayor is not alone in his support. As Garcia-Pedrosa nears his second anniversary of service with the city, he has begun to pick up endorsements from people who initially were critical of his style. On Ocean Drive some influential proprietors admit the manager is growing more flexible. "I think he has been moving in a different direction," offers Mark Soyka, owner of the popular News Cafe. "[At first] he bombarded the public with a lot of changes that generated a lot of resistance. He did come on strong and with kind of an agenda. I sense some changes in the last few months. I feel that he's reaching out to listen. We all share the same vision. I feel that this period is definitely a beginning and we're working on it. Let's see if we can get together and work out our differences."

Adds Gerald Schwartz: "Garcia-Pedrosa may rankle a couple of people because he is strong. When you have a strong-manager form of city government, you can't cry foul whenever somebody acts like a strong city manager. And he is a strong city manager. He can stand the heat, so he doesn't have to get out of the kitchen.

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