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And what about the Peggi McKinley fiasco? When her comments about Cuba prompted the county commission to remove her from the film advisory board, which then sparked a volatile debate over the First Amendment, Penelas once again vanished. He finally had to be shamed into making a public statement by the Miami Herald, which ran a story about his disappearing act under the headline "Debate Rages Over Cuba Ban, But Penelas Absent From Fray."
Penelas's most telling comment of the past year came just a few weeks ago, in response to the county's being under fire for not doing more to assist a program designed to ease people from welfare to work. Some had argued that the program was doomed to fail, but Penelas disagreed. "I don't feel that way at all," he declared. "I would be distancing myself from it quicker than you can blink if that were the case." Alas, a statement like that is more clear evidence that Penelas isn't guided by principle but by ambition. Perhaps his title should be Miami-Dade County Interim Mayor Alex Penelas -- at least that would accurately reflect his cynical approach to the job. The man will do only those things that make him look good and further his dreams of higher office.
Though Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez has recently been capturing headlines for his headstrong and, as Governor Chiles put it, "bizarre" behavior, I'm not sure which is more dangerous: Suarez's ego or Penelas's ambition. Egomaniacs don't care how others perceive them because they know they are always right. And so they plow ahead doing idiotic things like trying to fire the police chief and playing musical chairs with city managers.
Those blinded by political ambition have only the narrowest of vision; their sole concern is how they are perceived by others. And so every decision is driven by a desire to play well for the cameras.
Suarez can't help being egomaniacal. Penelas's ambition, however, is a cold and calculating thing.
This side of Penelas was evident when in November he publicly called on the county manager to fire Anthony Clemente, director of the county's water and sewer department. Given the scandals arising from his department's paving contracts with Church & Tower, it was obvious to many at county hall that Clemente was going to have to shoulder the blame. County Manager Armando Vidal had ordered an audit of the water and sewer department. Armed with the results, he intended to sit down with Clemente and discuss his future.
But before the audit was completed and before Vidal and Clemente could meet, Penelas decided the best way to advance himself was to embarrass a man who had served the county for 25 years and demand his resignation.
In a memo to commissioners dated November 21, Penelas wrote, "I am also recommending that the county manager immediately take the appropriate disciplinary action with regard to those county employees responsible for the mismanagement of contract W-755. These actions should include seeking the resignation of the department director, Anthony Clemente."
That raised an intriguing question. If the State Attorney's Office was willing to go after Xavier Suarez for demanding the resignations of the police chief and other department heads, why didn't Penelas's directive to Vidal -- fire Clemente -- qualify as a violation of the county charter? Section 3.05 of the charter states, "Neither the mayor nor any commissioner shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his or her removal from, office by the manager or any of the manager's subordinates.... Any willful violation of the provisions of this section by the mayor or any commissioner shall be grounds for his or her removal from office by an action brought in the circuit court by the State Attorney of this county."
Last week the State Attorney's Office determined that Penelas had pulled up just short of a violation -- recommendations, it seems, are not orders. And with that case closed, Paul Philip may have lost an opportunity to investigate his own boss. He might not have gotten very far, but there's little doubt he would have looked good doing it.