The Wimp

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

During the past three decades, Miami International Airport has had three directors: Dick Judy, Rick Elder, and Gary Dellapa.

Judy oversaw MIA during the glory days, from 1971 to 1989, and was responsible for building the airport into one of the nation's largest. Judy ruled the place as if it were his own private fiefdom. No detail escaped his notice, no contract was signed that didn't meet with his approval. County commissioners were irrelevant during his tenure.

That much power concentrated in one man's hands both corrupted Judy and made him a ripe target for the new political opportunists who emerged as county commissioners in the late Eighties. In 1989 Joe Gersten, then a freshman commissioner, led what he described as a reform movement to oust the autocratic Judy and make the airport more responsive to elected officials' concerns.

Rick Elder (1989-1993) hardly was a reformer, though. Installed by Gersten and Commissioner Larry Hawkins, Elder maintained some independence while placating those who helped him rise to power. One of his regular practices was to hold private meetings with individual commissioners. First it was just Gersten and Hawkins. When Alex Penelas and Art Teele arrived on the dais in 1990, they demanded equal time and got it.

Once these politicians began whispering into Elder's ear, along came their lobbyist friends. Elder tried to limit their influence but the attempt was futile. Complicating matters, Elder was a notorious hothead. A former fighter pilot, he screamed at people, creating a climate of fear and intimidation. Employee morale plummeted under Elder, though those loyal to him worked well together as a team and produced results.

Elder resigned in 1989 after a power struggle with American Airlines. The company was pushing for a $500-million airport expansion that would make Miami one of its premier hubs and the centerpiece of its push into Latin America. Elder believed the plans were too costly and made the county overly dependent on one airline. But a host of lobbyists pushed forward American's plan, and the county commission ultimately backed the airline.

Rather than back down, Elder resigned. He had many faults but at least he was willing to stand up for something. (In the seven years since he left, many of Elder's concerns have proven justified. The project's cost skyrocketed and the promised number of new jobs and daily flights into Miami have never been fully realized.)

If Elder allowed a handful of county commissioners to begin playing politics with the airport, then his replacement, Gary Dellapa, will be remembered as the person who opened the floodgates. He became the doormat on which politicians and lobbyists wiped their feet before stampeding onto airport grounds.

In the next few months, Dellapa will retire as Miami-Dade County aviation director, so it is a fitting time to review his tenure. The exercise also is instructive because of the current debate over how the airport should be governed, with competing proposals being offered by Penelas, county commissioners Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Pedro Reboredo, and County Manager Merrett Stierheim.

Simply stated, Gary Dellapa is the worst aviation director in this county's history. It is not so much that Dellapa is incompetent as that he is spineless. He epitomizes everything wrong with bureaucrats in Miami-Dade County. The only thing Gary Dellapa has ever cared about is his own survival. His decisions have been based on reaching retirement rather than the airport's best interests.

“He has no balls,” comments one senior airport official. “Never has and never will.”

When politicians wanted to put family members on the airport payroll, Dellapa let it happen. (Not a big surprise, since he hired lots of his own friends.) When lobbyists began bullying members of his staff, Dellapa found ways to ignore the problem. The aviation director has lost the respect of many who had welcomed him seven years ago. I've spoken to a lot of people and no one is shedding a tear over his departure.

I've also interviewed Dellapa on numerous occasions. Whenever I review my notes, I'm struck by the fact that he has an amazing ability to talk and talk and talk but say nothing. He smiles, he laughs, he shrugs, he waffles. He offers rationalizations and obfuscations. He downplays and minimizes. He ducks responsibility and refuses to hold others accountable for their actions. He is a full-throttled, unadulterated wimp. (Of course Dellapa might prefer to think of himself as a lover, not a fighter.)

His ability to hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil at the airport has been the key to his “success.” As one long-time airport official put it recently: “He's dumb as a fox.”

Take the infamous $8000 toilet seats. They were approved on Dellapa's watch. And for the longest time he defended that idiotic deal because he knew certain commissioners and their lobbyist buddies wanted it defended. Then one day the deal fell out of political favor at county hall and just like that, Dellapa appeared before the commission to say the toilet seats no longer were a good investment. The only thing that changed was the political wind; Dellapa is the type of bureaucrat who always knows which way the wind is blowing.

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.

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.

Appointing Johnson would be contentious. Many people believe that to end the cronyism and corruption at the airport, an outsider needs to be brought in. Ethnicity also may play a role. Johnson, like all his predecessors, is an Anglo. There has been grumbling within the Latin community that a position as powerful as aviation director needs to be filled by a Hispanic, especially given MIA's efforts to develop better relations with nations throughout Latin America.

The real question, however: Is Johnson up to the job? Is he the man to clean up MIA?

I don't know the answer. I've talked to some people who view Johnson as a younger, slightly tougher version of Dellapa. He may not be so quick to accommodate the wishes of politicians and lobbyists, but eventually he will compromise what he believes is right. That's not good enough.

Personally I tend to agree that the best way to clean up MIA is to bring in an outsider, preferably one who is Hispanic or at the very least speaks Spanish. The only real requirement, though, should be anatomical: Whoever is hired needs a backbone.

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