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.

Staff members objected to McGuffin's hiring of consultants and their impossible workload. Although McGuffin dismisses the complaints as sour grapes, several MBHA commissioners, led by Pasarell, complain the executive director had little ability to effectively motivate his staff toward change.

"To me, he was destroying the agency," Bower says. "When you only point out the negative without offering solutions, that ruins things. I thought his heart was in the right place, but his people skills were lacking. You need to handle [your employees] so they are receptive and not inflammatory."

Turkell disagrees. "I think Neil was very good at making recommendations to bring in experts, to bring to the attention of the leaders the status of the authority," she says. "He brought a great deal of information about housing and was a good organizer and a very compassionate man."

Rolando Barrios, the MBHA's interim executive director and formerly Neil McGuffin's right-hand man, must manage the embattled agency until a new leader is appointed
Steve Satterwhite
Rolando Barrios, the MBHA's interim executive director and formerly Neil McGuffin's right-hand man, must manage the embattled agency until a new leader is appointed

At the March 14 hearing only one commissioner, Turkell, voted against McGuffin's firing. The other four -- Burkett, Beloff, Pasarell, and Gutierrez -- agreed to strip him of his $97,500-per-year post and institute a nationwide search for a replacement. Few people were surprised. Even McGuffin's speech seemed no more than an attempt to recite his side of the story for the record.

Although the MBHA commissioners proposed hiring McGuffin as a consultant, he declined the offer. All except Pasarell couched their comments on McGuffin's dismissal in favorable-to-neutral terms. "You have become a lightning rod," Burkett said. "We have become deadlocked, gridlocked, and it's come to a point where we need to make a change."

"Change?" McGuffin recalls thinking. "I'm the first significant force of change in the past seventeen years!" McGuffin maintains he was fired for delivering bad news. "I have been the unfortunate messenger to the board, and they have shot that messenger," he says. McGuffin alleges the MBHA board "is opposed to public housing [although it] is legally mandated to support it.... They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table to bring about change!"

Rolando Barrios, interim director of the MBHA and formerly McGuffin's right-hand man, sits at the same desk McGuffin once used. Barrios wears a purple tie with his gray dress shirt. He is bald and has a thick black mustache. He exudes a wily charm when New Times inquires about the agency's future, parrying questions with other questions in a bantering style. His desk is covered with mounds of documents that rise six inches high. Amazingly Barrios seems to know exactly where to locate a sought-after report amid all of the paper.

He acknowledges Casterline's reasonable-rent survey raises questions about corruption then shrugs, palms up, and offers a pained smile. "I can't get it back," he says of the thousands lost in overpayments. "I'd need an army of workers to solve this problem." Then Barrios shoots a glance at the paper on his desk, indicating the multitude of other problems he has to deal with, including restructuring of the authority, which may mean heads will roll.

Barrios says Maria Martinez, the staffer in charge of establishing reasonable rents, has been stripped of much of her former responsibility. The agency now has a consolidated budget and, surprise, it is even up to date. Barrios offers New Times a copy.

What are Barrios's plans for the agency? "Right now I am in the process of making organizational changes," he says, refusing to be more specific. "I am taking advantage of the staff that wants to work.... I have seen a very positive change.... Staff are coming from all over the place, offering to help."

In a few weeks HUD will release a comprehensive review of the MBHA's Section 8 program. Barrios's refusal to elaborate on changes suggests that nothing will be done until that report is released. Barrios also declines to reveal when the new executive director will be hired, although last week the MBHA began interviewing the first of more than two dozen applicants.

What will the next executive director face? Bower believes the agency is in good shape, despite the consultants' reports. "The MBHA has had good ratings from HUD; it was considered a good housing agency for years," she says. "Things changed at HUD, not at our housing authority." Indeed HUD enacted some new rules in 1998 that require greater accountability and are more rigid than ever. The MBHA is only now experiencing the demands of those changes.

Even Turkell is guardedly optimistic. "Overall the focus in the future needs to be to enhance the philosophy of the MBHA and to increase compliance, " she says. "It was unfortunate the way McGuffin was terminated, and I hope that decision will prove to be a good one and will create the kind of change to make the MBHA a productive, compassionate, and effective organization."

Adds Burkett: "The authority embarked upon a self-examination, a long overdue examination, that revealed a number of deficiencies.... The first step is to take what we have and make it the best it can be."

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