By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
In 1959, the year Merrett Roscoe Stierheim moved here to work in government, life in Miami, if not exactly fair for all citizens, was at least simpler. A Long Island, New York transplant to what was then a segregated Southern town, Stierheim arrived just in time to witness the startling metamorphosis of Miami. His formative apprenticeship in Miami's city government occurred during the early and mid-Sixties as masses of Cuban immigrants fled Fidel Castro's revolution and African Americans demanded civil rights. Eventually he rose to the position of assistant city manager.
Then he was hired away by Clearwater, Florida, where he spent six years as city manager and three more leading Pinellas County. He survived even as three of the commissioners who appointed him were thrown in jail. In 1976 Stierheim was lured back south to manage the burgeoning Dade County government, a job he kept until 1986. In that time the portent of the Sixties had come to fruition in a series of intense social spasms -- the Mariel boatlift, race riots, cocaine cowboys, Haitian refugees. All the while the budget-constrained county built the trappings of a modern megalopolis: Metrorail, Metrozoo, parks, libraries, and the huge, soulless county hall complex.
Stierheim spent the next dozen years in the private sector, four as CEO of Women's Professional Tennis and eight as president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. While head cheerleader for Miami tourism, he presided over a turbulent spell that included a major black boycott, Hurricane Andrew, and several high-profile tourist murders.
In 1996 he was called out of mothballs for a rescue mission at the City of Miami, after the former city manager and finance director were indicted as part of the Operation Greenpalm bribery scandal. A pro bono city manager for two months, he discovered a $68 million shortfall in the city's general fund and led the beginning of a long recovery effort. In 1998 he was again tapped to become county manager as Miami-Dade reeled from scandals and corruption at the airport and the Port of Miami.
Bill Cullom, long-time president and CEO of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, credits Stierheim with significantly turning around the county and believes he can do the same for the school district. "He's capable of handling more complex problems at one time than anyone I've seen," Cullom says. "He can see the total picture. He sometimes is thought of as being very aggressive. I'd say Merrett has a very strong personality. When he believes in something, he is going to work hard to get the right things done."
Stierheim retired in early 2001 when it became clear Mayor Alex Penelas wanted a less independent and forceful county manager, a difficult forfeiture for an old warrior. He kept himself busy through the spring and summer by becoming interim manager of the newly incorporated City of Miami Lakes, and leading another emergency recovery team through Homestead's shaky finances.
In October 2001 Stierheim took on what he acknowledges is his most challenging -- and arguably his most important -- job yet: superintendent of the mammoth public-school system. His appointment as interim superintendent came after a particularly vicious smear campaign by old enemies (lobbyists, commissioners, Penelas allies) who tried unsuccessfully to brand him as anti-black and anti-Cuban. Stierheim got the job anyway, performed so well he won the full-time position, and now, under tremendous pressure, is beginning to demonstrate what a difference a professional can make in the $4.1 billion-bureaucracy.