The Manager's Many Friends

One thing about Steve Shiver's future as the county's chief executive: It'll never be lonely at the top

While introducing Steve Shiver as his choice for county manager, Mayor Alex Penelas repeatedly referred to the 34-year-old Homestead mayor's business experience as proof he is qualified to run Miami-Dade County. The sum of that experience? Shiver owns a franchised real estate office, a construction company, and a security-equipment firm. Of the 50 people in his employ, 40 work in real estate, most of them as agents. (Last week Shiver promised to divest himself of his businesses when, and if, he becomes manager.)

Perhaps not the most impressive credentials when considering the county manager has responsibility for overseeing 28,000 employees and an annual budget of $4.6 billion. But given the limitations of Shiver's administrative experience, Penelas had little choice in what he could tout about his new manager. He may be energetic, he may be smart, and he may be very likable, but Steve Shiver still is only a modest businessman and part-time mayor of a small town. He wasn't even Penelas's first choice; a number of senior county officials turned him down. None of which prevented Penelas from describing him as the ideal candidate for the job.

Plenty of other people, however, are deeply concerned about the choice, and not just because of Shiver's limited experience as an executive. Skeptics also point to his tenure in public office, his business practices, and the way he's mixed the two over the years.

For example as mayor Shiver voted to award a city contract to a firm whose owner later became his business partner. He voted to swap city-owned property for land belonging to a businessman who used Shiver's real estate firm to purchase it. And in a notorious bit of political chutzpah, Shiver held a high-octane election fundraiser at the home of a prominent and politically connected businessman whose company at that very moment was angling for a lucrative city contract.

When the land deal and the fundraiser's contract came before the city council, Shiver asked for a legal opinion from the city attorney regarding his possible conflicts of interest. He got a green light and cast his vote in favor of both. The law may have bolstered him but the perception of conflict persisted in the minds of some Homestead City Hall observers. (Joseph Serota, a partner in the Miami law firm that acts as Homestead's city attorney, defends the mayor's record and notes that state statutes compel a politician to vote once a legal opinion of no conflict is issued. "The opinion means he had an obligation to vote," Serota says. "He could not recuse himself.")

In his role as county manager, with the stakes immeasurably higher, Shiver will struggle daily with perceptions of conflict, perceptions of fairness, perceptions of bias -- regardless of whether the letter of the law supports him. That fact begs an answer to this question: How will Shiver, who owes much of his success as a politician to his financial backers, deal with those individuals and companies when they come before him seeking county business?

According to attorney Dan Paul, principal author of the county's charter, Miami-Dade has never hired an elected official to be manager, prevailing wisdom having dictated that the manager should not be compromised by political obligations, past or present. Indeed outgoing two-time County Manager Merrett Stierheim was trusted in no small part because he was never a politician.

Shiver is bucking that tradition, and he already has stated unequivocally that, barring admonitions from the county attorney, he will not recuse himself from county contract deliberations involving those who have donated money to his political campaigns. He insists he will not be influenced by special interests. "Never was while in office," he says flatly.

The list of people and companies who have taken an interest in Shiver's seven-year political career is extensive. Among those who donated the $500 maximum to his 1999 mayoral campaign and have significant business before Miami-Dade County are:

•Powerhouse lobbyist and Penelas confidant Rodney Barreto, who essentially donated twice to Shiver's 1999 campaign, once through his consulting firm and again through his law firm. According to disclosure forms on file with the county, Barreto currently represents 88 clients, including AT&T, the Florida Marlins Baseball Club, Florida Rock Industries, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians.

•Sergio Pino, the politically influential developer and former head of the Latin Builders Association. One of Pino's companies, Century Homebuilders, is growing rapidly. It now has construction projects under way throughout Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

•The law firm of Rasco Reininger & Perez, counsel for Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI), the company to which the county awarded a no-bid contract to build a commercial airport at Homestead Air Force Base. The air force nixed the jetport plan last week, leaving HABDI's future in doubt. Rasco Reininger & Perez is expected to represent the company in its continuing negotiations with the county.

•Retired U.S. Army Col. Terry Rice, the powerful former head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville District, which includes South Florida. Today Rice works as a consultant for the Miccosukee Tribe, which has numerous contentious issues before the county revolving around development, water quality, and flood abatement.

•Dexter Lehtinen, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who today is the litigious chief counsel for the Miccosukee Tribe.

•Michael Latterner, the businessman who is building Keys Gate in South Miami-Dade, an ambitious housing development on 800 acres of land.

•The Dade County Farm Bureau. This private, nonprofit organization is a perennial Shiver supporter. Despite its name, farmers constitute only a part of its membership. Critics say it is controlled by a handful of wealthy South Miami-Dade landholders. The bureau has constantly fought Redland residents who want to preserve agricultural land, a county zoning issue.

Commercial interests that donated the $500 limit to Shiver during his 1999 campaign and currently are doing business with the county, or have done business within the past year, include B.F.I. Waste Services, Puig & Martinez Architects, Adelphia Cable Communications, Biscayne Builders, and Magnum Environmental Services, which donated $250 to the campaign.

In addition veteran political consultants Herman Echevarria and Bob Levy contributed to Shiver's campaign. Echevarria is another confidant of Penelas who recently was instrumental in negotiating the proposed contract to build a new baseball stadium for the Florida Marlins. Levy, who also works as a lobbyist and represents the City of Homestead in Tallahassee, has known and supported Shiver for years.

Shiver also enjoys close ties to Jorge Lopez, one of Miami-Dade's most successful lobbyists. A former chief of staff to Penelas, Lopez lists 119 clients now doing business with the county, including BellSouth, Florida Power and Light, the Miami Heat, Adelphia Cable, Wackenhut Corrections, Magnum Construction Management, HABDI, Odebrecht Contractors of Florida, ATC Associates, and The Related Group. Lopez was not included on the official list of Shiver's 1999 political contributors, but he believes that could be an oversight. "I was sure I contributed," he says. "I've known the mayor a long time."

If that list of contributors suggests that Shiver may be inviting intense scrutiny as county manager, it wouldn't be the first time he's faced questions about possible conflicts of interest. One of those incidents was the subject of a New Timescover story ("Homestead's Dirt,"July 29, 1999).

In June 1999, as Shiver was running for re-election as Homestead's mayor, a campaign fundraiser was held at the $1.8 million Redland home of Tomas Andres Mestre, who owns a hauling company. In the past Mestre's firm, Resource Reclamation Services (RRS), has been involved in questionable and controversial municipal contracts, but it has thrived nonetheless.

At the time of the fundraiser, which was cohosted by Alex Penelas, RRS was a subcontractor to a company called ATC Associates in a proposal to clean up and develop the site of an old Homestead landfill. The plan needed city approval but would be federally funded. Although Shiver would soon cast a vote that could directly benefit RRS, he saw no conflict in allowing Mestre to host the highly successful fundraiser. (It brought in approximately $25,000.)

"Let the red flags fly," Shiver scoffed at the time. "I did not do anything improper."

One of Shiver's colleagues on the Homestead City Council didn't see it that way. Councilman Eddie Berrones told New Times: "I did not attend the party. At that point I knew we were in contract negotiations with ATC. To me it didn't seem ethical."

The city commission, including Shiver, later voted to award ATC the contract over several competitors. Once again city lawyers said Shiver had no conflict because Mestre did not give tangible gifts to the mayor; he only loaned the use of his posh house. (ATC's lobbyist at county hall, incidentally, is Jorge Lopez, the mayor's long-time supporter.)

The Miami-Dade County Commission is expected to narrowly confirm Shiver's appointment at its January 23 meeting. Tellingly, though, the two commissioners who first announced their opposition to Penelas's choice were the ones who knew Shiver best: Katy Sorenson and Dennis Moss, whose commission districts include portions of Homestead. Last week Sorenson and Moss expressed concern that Shiver lacks the experience for the manager's job. Sorenson wondered aloud why a national search had not been undertaken. "I like Steve Shiver," she said. "I think he's done some good things as mayor. And if we did a national search and his credentials stacked up against the competition, I'd support him."

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