Midterm Exam

Q: Why would an intelligent man voluntarily leap into a toxic snakepit? A: Because his name is Merrett Stierheim and he just can't help himself.

You've experienced just about every bureaucratic culture that exists in this town -- forever, it seems, in the most difficult of times. In the last decade, particularly, it's been sort of crisis management, where you're coming in when the fire's already out of control. Why do you keep throwing yourself into these situations?

Well, I've been saying to my dear friends who have asked me, that I never saw a challenge I didn't like. And I have a feeling there's some truth to that. I didn't need to do this. I could have done other things. I didn't call any of the [school] board members. I had five of them call me and ask if I would be interested. They didn't offer me the job. They just said, "Would you be interested?" I started giving it some serious thought. Then I went to the other four and the rest is history.

What were your requirements for taking this job?

Early Sixties: Stierheim the straight arrow during his stint as an assistant Miami city manager
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Early Sixties: Stierheim the straight arrow during his stint as an assistant Miami city manager
Politics hasn't been his only racket: Stierheim with tennis pro Chris Evert
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Politics hasn't been his only racket: Stierheim with tennis pro Chris Evert

I had some apprehensions because I don't consider myself in any way, shape, or form to be an educator. That's not my forte. The fact that it was interim was appealing. I mean, I'm not a spring chicken. But I still have a hell of a lot of energy. It feels good to be really challenged again and to be back in the saddle, so to speak. It may get old at some point, but right now I'm enjoying it.

What was your understanding of your mandate coming in?

A majority of the board wanted a refocusing. They wanted to restore public confidence. Obviously they were not happy and they wanted a change. And I think they picked me as a change agent. There's a feeling out there that a shakeup would help, that they want to change the culture.

How would you rate the challenge here, compared to some of your other stints as a top manager?

This one is very different, and in many respects even more challenging. When I went back to the county, I knew everyone. I knew the organization, I knew how it functioned, I knew what the rules were, so I could move right in and be at home. Here I didn't know anybody. I did not know a single person among the senior staff. So I had to do an assessment of people rather rapidly, and that gives me a feeling of discomfort because I don't want to misjudge anybody. I found myself even changing my opinion of certain people as I've worked with them, either for the better or the other way. Another tough job was Miami Lakes [interim town manager]. It was a fun assignment because [his voice lowers, as if revealing a painful confidence] leaving the county was difficult.

Can you expand on that?

It was a difficult time in my life for reasons that came out later. [See "Stierheim in Brief"] It wasn't very happy around the Stierheim house. So when [Miami Lakes Mayor] Wayne Slaton said, "Would you come up and help us?" it was good. It got my mind off it. I could throw myself into it. What an adjustment! To go from 28,000 people and six or eight senior assistants, to go up there to a little storefront. I had one employee. One day Nancy Simon, the councilwoman, said, "I want to get reimbursed for my expenses." That's logical, I think. So I'm home on a Saturday with the county's travel form with the scissors, cutting out "Dade County." I mean it looked like hieroglyphics. And then having someone type in "Miami Lakes" and then I clipped everything and went in and Xeroxed it and I said, "Here's your form." [He chuckles ruefully.] Here's the county manager of the largest county in the United States under the strong-manager form, and I'm doing all this stuff. I had a newly elected city council -- wonderful people but they're all off like bunnies. They want to do everything, and you had to make decisions about whether you wanted to have a staff or not. Hell, they finally got the phone system in after six months, just when I left. But they're happy, pleased I was there. Then this thing came along. It was almost: Stop Friday there and start Monday [at the school district].

When you drop into a situation like this, what are you looking for?

Well, you do a lot of homework. You try to pick people you have a comfort level with and you think you have chemistry with. Then you spend some time with them and try to draw them out. Gradually you begin to put the puzzle together. You get to the point where you want to know who they trust and don't trust. And you sort of have a mental scorecard. You're not taking notes, but when certain individuals keep getting stars or minuses, you begin to get a picture. It takes time. And I'm still doing it. I've been logging the hours too. I need to play a little more tennis and keep myself in shape. This has been the most challenging assignment. When I went into the city [of Miami], that was a numbers game. But it was also -- I could see how sound and proven management principles had been violated just left and right.

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