Bunker Mentality

Merrett Stierheim and Alex Penelas square off during Hurricane Michelle

The next morning, Sunday, November 4, as the hurricane began pounding Cuba, approximately twenty people gathered in the conference room of the EOC for an update. Penelas positioned himself at the head of the table. Sitting alongside him was Shiver. At the other end of the long table was Stierheim. As the 11:00 a.m. private briefing got under way, the mayor made a few comments about the possible evacuation of residents from Miami Beach and other areas along the coast. The mayor then mentioned the possible need for school closings.

Stierheim interrupted the mayor. "Mr. Mayor," he announced, according to several people present, "your state of emergency does not legally affect the school district. There is one person, by state law, who has the ability to close schools and only one person who can open schools as emergency shelters. And that's the superintendent."

Silence. The meeting momentarily came to an abrupt halt. "That speech went over like a condom on a collection plate," recalls one of the participants.

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

Stierheim's statement sent county officials scrambling. As soon as the meeting ended, Penelas, Shiver, and a few others huddled. Who did have authority during a state of emergency: the mayor or the superintendent? Tom David, the executive assistant county manager, called first Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg at home. Greenberg then contacted another attorney from his office, and the two raced to look up the relevant statutes. Greenberg called his boss, County Attorney Bob Ginsburg, who at the time was driving home from Vero Beach. The county attorneys decided that, based on their reading of the law, the mayor had the ultimate authority over schools. That message was conveyed to Penelas.

The prospect of a head-to-head showdown left several people dumbfounded. Suppose Penelas wanted to order the schools closed before Stierheim was prepared to do so? How would it be settled? Would they have to go to court? Would they need to call the governor?

The County Attorney's Office makes the most persuasive case for why the mayor would have ultimate authority. Although the emergency statutes do not specifically give the mayor jurisdiction over schools, they do grant him extraordinary powers. He could, for example, close down all streets surrounding schools, making it impossible for them to open. He could also order a curfew, which would prohibit parents from taking their children to school. Most important, he has a police force that can enforce his orders. The school district has a police force as well, but as one county official boasted, "Our police force is a lot bigger than theirs."

As far as who has authority to open schools as emergency shelters, the law states that the school district "shall" make schools available for shelters "upon the request" of the county. That language suggests the school district doesn't have a choice. Once the county asks for shelters, the district must provide them. "Luckily," Ginsburg says, "push never came to shove."

At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, during a conference call with the National Hurricane Center, Stierheim and Penelas were told that even though the hurricane looked as if it would miss South Florida, the county could still expect winds Monday morning in excess of 40 miles per hour. As Stierheim already knew, anything over 35 miles per hour makes it unsafe for school buses to travel. So he ordered Monday classes canceled and opened several schools for shelters.

During his 4:30 p.m. press conference, Penelas announced that all schools would be closed Monday. But then he referred other questions about schools to Stierheim, who held his own press conference immediately after the mayor's.

Obviously neither Stierheim nor Penelas was going to do anything that would have endangered the lives of school children. But their jostling at the EOC has reaffirmed the division between the two men, and it did not escape the notice of political insiders. "Yes, yes, I heard all about it," says school board member Marta Perez. "I understand that the mayor really had his feathers ruffled. But it's no big deal. I see it all as being very innocent. It's just a difference in styles between the way Roger [Cuevas] used to handle emergencies and the way Merrett does. Someone has to be responsible for what happens in the schools. I think Merrett is doing an excellent job."

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