Gelber Unbound

He managed to leave office without being indicted, which may explain why Miami Beach's former mayor feels free to unload on development, corruption, and the bad boys across the bay

And I let the word out to the city manager that everybody was at risk here. I had a very good relationship with the state attorney, and I wouldn't hesitate in turning anything over to her office. It would be no problem.

How are Jose Garcia-Pedrosa and [current Miami Beach City Manager] Sergio Rodriguez different, and how have they handled the manager's job in Miami Beach?

Oh, they're completely different. The commissioners like Sergio, but Jose is a force. He comes in and he's a power. I thought the most significant thing he did was restructure all the department heads. He just about cleaned out all the department heads and brought in all new people, and he brought in a better quality department head than had previously existed. When Jose was there, he was all over his staff. And in the communities, Jose, I guess it was a failing maybe, but he didn't go around trying to placate people. He'd just as soon upset people rather than placate them. Sergio, on the other hand, is a go-slow guy. And Sergio used to advise Jose, "You're jumping too fast. This won't work." And Jose would tell me that, and I'd say, "I agree with Sergio. You are." But Sergio is a more contemplative guy who will work slowly, who will be much more available to citizens in a true sense.

How is your relationship with Garcia-Pedrosa these days?
Oh, mine's very good, and close. He calls me asking for advice. Mostly he wants me to tell him he's doing great, I think. I always thought that he was an excellent manager. He made a mistake going over to the City of Miami, but I think he did a good job there.

So you thought going to Miami was the wrong move for him?
I think most people did.

Why did he do it?
He's got a flame inside and he listens to that flame. It was a challenge to him. Don't forget, this isn't a guy who became city manager because he needed a job. He was a highly successful lawyer. So he felt he had received recognition for excellence over at the City of Miami Beach. And I think he had some concerns in the back of his mind about how well he was going to function with Kasdin.

Whatever else he has in mind for his future, it might have been better established by being a success in Miami, which was in chaos. When he came to Miami Beach, we already were out of the morass. [Roger] Carlton had done a lot in terms of budget and turning the city around financially. So Jose did a good job over there in Miami, but he didn't get plaudits for it.

There are still plenty of people on the Beach who grumble about the way he wielded his power.

Oh, I don't think that a manager who is universally admired is much of a manager. I mean, how can you be? You've got to make decisions. It's easy for the mayor to swing with the waves and come out a likable fellow. [He smiles a little.]

Even though you view yourself as having been a strong mayor, you weren't an activist mayor. You weren't pushing a particular agenda.

I was there six years and I never went to a department head and said, "Do this or do that." I gave the city manager complete authority. I would go to the city manager twice a week and sometimes give him hell about a particular department head, but I never directly contacted them. I wrote some very interesting tart notes to the manager about these guys. But a strong mayor doesn't bother with those little niceties of the city manager's authority. Neither Suarez nor Carollo let that bother him. That creates, I think, more problems than solutions.

Today Gelber is dressed somewhere well south of casual. His blue Big Ben jumpsuit and Mickey Mouse slippers indicate he's not going anywhere near FIU today, as he had planned. His shiny aluminum cane suggests the explanation.

"I was gardening yesterday, in my son's garden," he recounts, walking with considerable difficulty to his steel-and-wicker rocking chair, his chair. "And I paid for it. My artificial hip is acting up." He explains that it usually takes a few days for his ersatz joints (he has two of them) to calm down once he's overexerted himself. His visit to FIU will have to wait until later in the week.

As an Executive in Residence, he has a small, concrete-walled space in the offices of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at FIU's North Campus. "It's not a chair," Gelber stresses. "Chairs are endowed, and mean big bucks. Mine is more like a seat." Thus far his duties have included guest-lecturing in government classes, advising the dean of the college, and serving on a few committees at the university. Next year he'll have his own course on government and politics. It's not yet finalized but he's hoping for something at the graduate level so he can deal with "serious students."

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