Bunker Mentality

Merrett Stierheim and Alex Penelas square off during Hurricane Michelle

By its very nature, the county's Emergency Operations Center is a tense place. Activated in times of crisis, the EOC becomes the nerve center of local government, the fulcrum of decision-making for the state's most populous county. And so as Hurricane Michelle moved north toward Cuba and possibly South Florida, the county's brain trust gathered at the EOC, located in the Doral area at 9300 NW 41st St.

Serious work takes place at the EOC. Representatives from the fire and police departments are present, as are officials from BellSouth, Florida Power and Light, the Red Cross, and numerous other agencies that might be called upon in the event South Florida is hit by a catastrophic storm. Having all these people in one secure location allows them to coordinate their efforts effectively.

But the EOC also is a something of a clubhouse. And by clubhouse I don't mean the kind you find just past the eighteenth green at the golf course. It's more like an adult version of the ultimate kid's tree house or fort. When it is up and running, the EOC always has that clubhouse feel -- specifically the county mayor's clubhouse.

Merrett Stierheim made it clear that no one but him was talking on behalf of the school district
Steve Satterwhite
Merrett Stierheim made it clear that no one but him was talking on behalf of the school district

The mayor gets to hang out, he doesn't have to wear a business suit or tie, and best of all, he gets to hold as many press conferences as he likes and the local television stations will put him on the air live every time, whether or not he has anything important to say.

On Saturday, November 3, with Hurricane Michelle's intentions still unclear, Mayor Alex Penelas strolled the halls of the EOC, confident and relaxed. Never far from his side was County Manager Steve Shiver. And then suddenly the unthinkable happened. Former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, recently appointed schools superintendent, showed up.

It was as if Darla had stormed into a secret meeting of the Little Rascals' He-Man Woman Haters Club and the boys didn't know what to do.

Based on interviews with half a dozen people who watched events unfold over the course of the weekend, the tension between Stierheim, Penelas, and Shiver was palpable. And with good reason.

Stierheim resigned as county manager last year because he believed he was about to be severely undermined by Penelas's efforts to create a strong-mayor form of government that would allow our sexy little mayor to run for another term of office. When Stierheim recently offered his name for consideration as interim schools superintendent, it was widely perceived that Penelas -- through various minions -- campaigned against his appointment. As one county hall insider puts it: "There is certainly no love lost between those two."

Shiver and Stierheim have their own recent history. In many ways it was the ultimate insult to Stierheim for Penelas to replace him with someone as unqualified as Shiver. The former mayor of Homestead, Shiver has proven himself to be little more than a political shill for the mayor and his lobbyist cronies. (Shortly after Shiver became county manager, it was discovered that Homestead was on the verge of financial ruin after years of mismanagement.)

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the man the City of Homestead tapped to clean up the mess Shiver and his predecessors left behind was Stierheim.

Now imagine the three of them -- Stierheim, Penelas, and Shiver -- all in the confined space of the EOC. Based on interviews with five people present during different parts of the weekend, both Penelas and Shiver were incredulous that Stierheim would show up.

Shiver in particular seemed upset. He knows how badly he suffers when compared to the near-mythic figure Stierheim has become in this community. The anchors for one local television station, after spotting Stierheim at the EOC, praised him repeatedly during their broadcast, going on about how reassuring it was to have a man with so much experience at the EOC during a time of crisis.

No one could recall another instance when a school superintendent showed up at the EOC. One county official saw it as "Merrett trying to be the thorn in Steve and Alex's side." But a school official says Stierheim was simply following through on a mandate from the school board to be more visible. Indeed, this school official claims, district administrators and school board members were always uncomfortable with the way former Superintendent Roger Cuevas allowed Penelas to speak on behalf of the school district during times of crisis.

"The mayor thinks that once he declares a state of emergency that everyone is awestruck," says another school official, "and that everyone immediately has to do whatever he says. Well, that wasn't going to happen [with Stierheim]."

Stierheim made it clear from the outset that no one was going to speak for the school district but him. "He showed up on Saturday," says a county official, "and one of the first things he said was, I'm the superintendent, and I'm the only one who has the authority to close schools.'"

Before arriving at the EOC, Stierheim contacted the school board's attorney, Johnny Brown, and asked him how far his authority as school superintendent extended. Brown told him the superintendent was the only person who could close schools because of a storm and that he was the only one who could open schools as emergency shelters. "Under the statute it's the superintendent who can do that," Brown reiterated last week. "And that's what I told Merrett."

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