Introduction to Ethics

Steve Shiver may not be familiar with the subject, but that's about to change

Scenario No. 3: A selection committee reviews proposals by two companies competing for a county contract and overwhelmingly supports one proposal over the other. Do you:

a. forward that recommendation to the county commission for approval,

b. recommend the other firm but tell county commissioners about the selection committee's decision so they can make an informed choice, or

Back to school: The county manager is about to learn the ABCs of right and wrong
Steve Satterwhite
Back to school: The county manager is about to learn the ABCs of right and wrong

c. recommend the other firm and then try to slip it past commissioners when they aren't looking?

Want to guess which one Shiver picked? If you chose "c," you certainly know your manager. Last July Shiver rejected the nearly unanimous recommendation of an expert selection committee and instead handed a nine-million-dollar computer-software contract to a company that had hired a politically influential lobbyist. That lobbyist, Rodney Barreto, is one of Mayor Alex Penelas's biggest fundraisers. He also helped raise money for Shiver's various political races in Homestead and then helped Shiver win approval as county manager last year.

Shiver tried to hide the contract in a section of the county agenda rarely scrutinized by commissioners. Then when caught, he attempted to mislead commissioners into believing the selection committee had actually recommended his choice, which wasn't true.

Scenario No. 4: Your name is Robert Meyers and you are executive director of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. You'll be one of the instructors during February's ethics seminar for the county manager and his senior staff. Do you play it safe, stick to the script of the day's workshop, and allow the manager to slide through? Or do you use the opportunity to help Shiver -- possibly for the first time in his life -- understand the meaning of the word ethics by challenging (academically speaking) his past actions?

We'll have to wait for the answer to this one.

No matter what Meyers decides to do, chances are February's class won't have a lasting effect. Steve Shiver is simply incapable of allowing himself to alter his conduct or look at his actions in anything but the most favorable light. All he can do is make excuses for himself. He's incapable of accepting responsibility, which I suspect has been a lifelong problem.

In recent months I've invested a fair amount of time reading Shiver's e-mail messages -- and not just to document the spelling and grammatical errors. This manager has made himself more accessible than any of his predecessors. He encourages employees to e-mail him their concerns or questions, no matter how trivial. And he takes the time to answer each of them.

But he addresses the county's 28,000 employees as if he were some snake-oil salesman. On the surface it may seem as though he's trying to sell the idea of better government, but the real product is Steve Shiver. "I am really excited about 2002," he wrote in a message to employees at the beginning of the year. "We must be able to create a working environment that promotes enthusiasm, creativity, and the sense of being part of a true team. To do this, each one of us must commit to certain principles that we embrace every single day of the year."

Later he added, "I am very committed to Miami-Dade County, as are all of you. So day, night, or weekends my door is always open. Let's make this the year that Miami-Dade County Government becomes known as the most user-friendly, progressive government in America."

Shiver is doing this for two reasons. First and foremost he is playing to the vanity and insecurity of county employees for political advantage. He came to county hall a politician without a constituency. The commission was split on his appointment, and he knew the mayor could turn on him in a heartbeat -- just as Penelas did with the two previous managers, Armando Vidal and Merrett Stierheim. His only benefactors were a handful of lobbyists and a few greedy business people in South Miami-Dade. Now he is trying to build a following within county government, not to effect change but to bolster his own power.

The needy tone of his e-mail messages betrays another reason as well: Shiver is desperate for acceptance by strangers. In fact the more I read them, the more I feel sorry for him. Every time he sends out an e-mail, he receives a few hundred replies from county employees who thank him for taking the time to write and who tell him he's doing a great job. The fact that a couple of hundred replies represent only a small fraction of his workforce means nothing to Shiver. He gets to bathe in the joy of opening hundreds of e-mails telling him what a great guy he is. This isn't about good government. It's about an insecure man seeking approval and admiration.

"Thanks for the kind words," Shiver responded recently to one of the people who wrote him. "I am just surprised that those before me didn't see the importance of this type of communication. Have a great day!"

Despite the cheery esprit de corps, Shiver's words bear little relationship to his actions. He may preach to county employees that "our ethics and professionalism must always be the basis for our actions," but his deeds betray that creed. When the Herald in December wrote about Shiver's failure to attend the mandatory ethics class, the manager used county employees for cover, simultaneously courting their favor and hiding among them. "I do think there is a stigma with the constant association of employees with a lack of ethics," he declared. "I truly believe there's a fundamental good in people, that there is a basic code of what's right and what's wrong. I'm focusing on the 99 percent of the employees that are working hard and not focusing on the 1 percent that give us a bad name."

Shiver will never understand that he's part of the 1 percent. Let's just hope the other 99 percent don't allow themselves to be fooled by the pretender in their midst.

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