The Real McGuffin

Neil McGuffin was supposed to guide the Miami Beach Housing Authority into the new millennium. Instead he exposed an agency in disarray. And he lost his job.

A handful of people waited quietly in the sparse community room on the ground floor of the northern building of Rebecca Towers this past March 14. Neil McGuffin, the Miami Beach Housing Authority's (MBHA) executive director, sat on the far right of a dais, seemingly not sensing his job was on the line. Dressed in a light-brown jacket and no tie, his thinning golden locks were streaked with gray and his pale, doughy, cherubic Irish face was stoic.

The five members of the MBHA board sat nearby. At the head of the table was Charles Burkett IV, the board's chairman, slender, deeply tanned, his receding hairline contrasting his youthful and casual air. To Burkett's left was McGuffin's only ally, Amy Turkell, a 39-year-old dark-haired businesswoman and community activist prone to speaking in a thoughtful, measured, diplomatic style. To Burkett's right sat Ruth Pasarell, McGuffin's unabashed enemy. The afternoon light washed through the windows and half-open vertical blinds behind the dais, casting Pasarell in a menacing silhouette. Large-boned, big-haired, dramatic, divaesque, and Cuban, she was the antithesis of McGuffin's humble-pie reserve. The billowing shoulders of her blue dress made her substantial girth appear even larger. Also at the table were the board's two other members: John Beloff, bearded and bald, wearing a pensive look, and Betty Gutierrez, bent over slightly, hands clasped in front of her on the tabletop, and looking like a bookend to McGuffin. A handful of visitors and staff watched from maroon, cushioned chairs set up in the room.

After dealing with several less urgent agenda items, the board turned to the pressing matter of McGuffin's firing, which Pasarell had proposed. Burkett called on the executive director. Eerily, like a man giving his last will and testament, McGuffin began reading from a sixteen-page prepared speech summarizing the disastrous circumstances of his tenure. Hunched low over his presentation notes, with methodical determination, McGuffin began his litany. He spoke in a voice that exuded a choirboy's earnestness. "It is no secret that we have come here today with a resolution made by Commissioner Pasarell to terminate my contract ... and a suggestion that I tender you my resignation. Before you take action, I urge you, once again, to consider the problems facing this organization.... When I stepped into the job I had no idea that the impairment and dysfunction reached to the depths of the organization....When I recognized the depth and expanse of problems I hired nationally recognized consultants who have, to a person, noted that the authority is troubled and that the problems are systemic, deeply entrenched, and of long standing ... problems commenced long before my tenure."

McGuffin went on and on. He chronicled bungling in the MBHA's Section 8 department, which provides rent aid to thousands of Beach residents. He mentioned overpayments to more than 100 landlords that totaled a whopping $22,176 per month because the inspections department was incompetent, negligent, or just plain corrupt; he reminded the five commissioners and the visitors seated before the boardroom table of the outdated computer system the authority was in the process of replacing. Then he shifted to a delicate subject: the employees he was charged with directing, many of whom had come to despise him. "Staff has bad habits, inadequate supervision, and no quality-control measures in place," he said of the Section 8 department. He also encouraged the board to begin "the immediate dismissal of ... incompetent and contumacious staff persons."

After the presentation Burkett leaned back in his seat, placed a finger over his lip, and opened the floor to discussion of Pasarell's resolution. After a brief pause, Turkell spoke on behalf of McGuffin. "We have the information before us and a chance to be proactive and support our executive director ... or we can close our eyes to the reality of what is going on here," she said. But her approval was dampened by Pasarell, who expressed a strident righteousness regarding her attack on McGuffin: "When you make a decision, think about what your children would think if they saw it in the newspaper.... Everything that I have done, I don't mind my children seeing it on the front page." When Beloff chimed in moments later, he complimented McGuffin for bringing the agency a long way. He cited his technical expertise, but his conclusion left little doubt as to the vote: "[McGuffin's] people skills have gotten in the way," he said.

Indeed the MBHA is in crisis. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the government benefactor that doles out millions in rent aid through the MBHA to tenants annually, has put the organization on probation. HUD's Inspector General is also reviewing MBHA activities. And the State Attorney's Office (SAO) is reviewing allegations of corruption in the authority's Section 8 department, which among its other tasks is supposed to monitor whether landlords are charging reasonable rents. In the wake of the controversy, Turkell resigned two weeks ago. Worst of all, as the internal upheaval continues, the MBHA, a key player in providing inexpensive shelter to the area's elderly and low-income tenants, is unable to help many of the people it is supposed to serve.

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