The Wimp

Gary Dellapa's retirement from MIA comes not a moment too soon

And for this Dellapa receives -- I won't say he earns it -- a salary of $182,000 per year.

Those who defend Dellapa say he is a product of Miami-Dade politics. The reason he is gutless and weak is that he never had the support he needed from county managers Joaquin Aviño and Armando Vidal. He merely was being a good soldier.

If that's the case, why hasn't Dellapa been more assertive since his old friend Merrett Stierheim took over as county manager more than two years ago? In all the time Stierheim has been at county hall -- ready and willing to stand behind him -- Dellapa has refused to clean house. As a result we have a deputy aviation director, Amaury Zuriarrain, who rakes in $150,000 per year and, from what I'm told, does absolutely nothing. Everyone at the airport knows that Dellapa and Zuriarrain hate each other and that the two men are barely on speaking terms. Zuriarrain, a mean little man prone to fits of rage, has been courting commissioners for years, scheming to take over when Dellapa retires.

Gary Dellapa deserves to go down as the worst aviation director in the county's history
Gary Dellapa deserves to go down as the worst aviation director in the county's history

And then there is Nelson Oramos, head of security, or as he has come to be known, Inspector Clouseau. Oramos was the fellow who gave his car keys to a complete stranger in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago and lost his gun. (As of press time he still hadn't found it.) Does Dellapa care? No. The day before I wrote about Oramos's misadventures (“Meet MIA's Own Barney Fife,” May 25), Dellapa gave him a minor administrative slap on the wrist. Dellapa simply was covering his ass so he could say he took action.

The Miami Herald has struggled for the past year to try to understand why MIA is so screwed up. It has analyzed the contracts and the bidding processes, looked for payoffs, studied campaign contributions, and scrutinized lobbyist registration. (Through it all the Herald repeatedly has patted itself on the back, as if the fact that the airport is a political cesspool was something unknown prior to the paper's “discovery.” Somebody, quick, give the Herald a prize so that maybe they'll stop crowing.)

The problem with MIA comes down to one simple thing: leadership.

County commissioners are always going to try to meddle; lobbyists are paid to bully and the mayor is always going to have a set of cronies waiting to pounce. But none of them can succeed if the aviation director doesn't allow it. He or she has to be a firewall. Ideally the county manager also should guard against political intrusion, but when that fails, the aviation director has to step in. No matter what type of governing system the county commission eventually creates, this will always be true.

Which is why Dellapa's replacement is so important.

The upcoming county mayoral election has prompted speculation that County Manager Merrett Stierheim will soon resign. When Stierheim took the job two years ago, he pledged to himself that he would stay through the mayor's race. He has survived -- albeit “scarred,” as he likes to say -- through several recent bruising battles, including the one with BellSouth over the county's pay-telephone contract and the debate over a new airport authority.

Stierheim, however, says he is keeping his options open. “I don't have any plans to leave,” he told me Friday. “There is no end date for me. When that time comes, I'll let the world know.”

When he does go, he is expected to reward his senior staff by appointing them to top positions around the county. Sources tell me Stierheim would like to appoint Steve Spratt as director of the parks and recreation department. Spratt, a former budget director and presently senior assistant to the manager, currently oversees the parks department and was in charge of the search committee that reviewed candidates for the director's job. There are three finalists for the position (Spratt is not one of them, since he didn't even apply for the job) and Stierheim has interviewed them all. In recent days the finalists received letters announcing there would be no decision until late September.

By delaying, Stierheim appears to be clearing the way for Spratt, who has been with the county 24 years. “I'd certainly consider it,” Spratt told me. “It would depend on what my boss wants me to do.”

“There is no question in my mind that he would be outstanding,” Stierheim offers. “I think Steve would make an excellent parks director. I haven't made a final decision, though.”

Another of Stierheim's senior assistants, Bill Johnson, is considered the leading candidate to take over as aviation director. Stierheim has a great deal of faith in Johnson's ability and for the past year Johnson has been directly supervising Dellapa while learning about the airport's inner workings. (Johnson could not be reached for comment.)

“Do I think Bill could do the job?” Stierheim asks rhetorically. “Yes I do. He's a kick-ass kind of guy. I trust him implicitly.” Stierheim says he is committed to doing a national search. “There ought to be plenty of good competition,” he notes, but adds, “I think Bill will be a great candidate.” A decision on aviation director, Stierheim says, could come in the next 60 days.

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