A Prayer for Natacha

"Let me ask you something," the man on the other end of the telephone line says. "Where are the commission-sponsored initiatives? Where are the ordinances and resolutions designed to make this a better place to live? There aren't any anymore. They don't have any. They've run out of ideas."

The man on the phone has been a county employee for more than two decades and has watched a score of commissioners come and go, but this current crop of thirteen baffles him. "There are some real characters up there," he says in a disapproving tone. The man's name is unimportant. Suffice it to say he's a senior county official with a lot to lose should his identity be revealed. Yet his words are on target.

I had called this fellow to talk about Merrett Stierheim and what I have perceived in recent months to be Stierheim's growing frustration with the job of county manager. Stierheim stepped into this position twenty months ago, at a time when the county was being rocked by one scandal after another. Today the scandals keep on coming, and Stierheim is looking more and more like the little Dutch boy who is running out of fingers.

Eleven months and counting until the day of reckoning for Commissioner Natacha Millan
Steve Satterwhite
Eleven months and counting until the day of reckoning for Commissioner Natacha Millan

According to several sources, Stierheim would like to quit but has promised Mayor Alex Penelas he would stay on at least through next year's mayoral election. The main problem for Stierheim, according to sources, is that he is dumbfounded by the constant political meddling of commissioners on behalf of lobbyists and other special interests. This intrusion goes beyond the normal political wrangling in which a commissioner might fight for a program in his or her district, or be a sincere advocate for increased minority representation in a contract. Commissioners today seem more venal, their motives more sinister.

There has always been some of that on the commission, even during Stierheim's first tenure as county manager from 1976 to 1986. But it was never so pervasive.

When I asked him about this the other day, Stierheim chose to sidestep the issue rather than air his grievances publicly. "I think my frustration might be better left unsaid," he shrugged. "I think I knew what I was getting into reasonably well when I took this job. It's a tough job. It's a tough job."

Another reason Stierheim stays, those close to him say, is his deep sense of loyalty to the county's 27,000 employees. "I think that's what is keeping him there more than anything else," says my telephone companion. "He feels an obligation to his people." Under Stierheim the morale of county employees has improved dramatically, a stark change from the tenures of the previous two county managers, Armando Vidal and Joaquin Aviño.

Under Aviño and Vidal, department heads and senior staffers often complained that they didn't know if the manager would back them in a political fight with commissioners or the mayor's office. Stierheim has worked to alter that, which has given rise to the one significant criticism directed at him: He doesn't always chose his battles carefully. There have been times Stierheim has fought for his staff's recommendations when it was clear to almost everyone else that the staff had made a mistake. A dispute over who to hire to operate the seaport's gantry cranes early in Stierheim tenure was a classic example.

The issue of the county commission being not only intellectually bankrupt but also out of touch with reality is a far more serious problem than any shortcoming of Stierheim. A person only had to watch last week's commission meeting to understand that. Among the items on the agenda was a surreal workshop in which commissioners complimented one another on being good and honest elected officials. Specifically this new-age encounter session was designed to dispute an overwhelming mountain of evidence that their political shenanigans have helped create one of the worst airports in the nation.

I kept wondering if Johnnie Cochran was sitting in the county attorney's chair. ("If the baggage wrap don't fit, you must acquit.") Perhaps the county could hire O.J. to do a few commercials for the airport. "Miami International Airport and I have gotten a bad rap in recent years. But hey, we're both survivors," O.J. would say before sprinting through the terminal and leaping over a luggage cart.

The county commission workshop followed the Miami Herald's series on the airport, which was a comprehensive compendium of problems at MIA, the basic themes of which were already well-known. I've touched on many of them myself over the past eight years in stories such as "Is This Any Way to Run an Airport?" (1993); "First Class All the Way" (1995);"Very Big Bucks" (1995); "The Dumping Ground" (1997); "The Airport Flush Fund" (1997); "Don't Call Me a Lobbyist" (1998); "Airport Sleaze Aplenty" (1998); and "High Noon at MIA" (1999).

I point out that New Times has published these stories not to deflate the pomposity of the Herald series (well, maybe just a little), but to argue that our beloved, ever-shrinking daily offered us no surprises. Everything "exposed" in the series was already common knowledge among the politicians and bureaucrats at county hall. And so for commissioners to express indignation was just plain silly.

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