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 look like you need a vacation. You've got this terrible tiredness behind your eyes.

God, I do. This place ... this place...[he shakes his head]. I'm getting pretty long in the tooth. I don't want to believe the calendar, but it doesn't lie. You know, what's really bothering me is there's so much that needs to be done. We are so constrained by this budget and I don't think anybody really realizes it. How are we going to do it? Are we going to increase the student-teacher ratio? That'll make all the parents mad, the teachers, everybody. That's the antithesis of what we want to do. But when you have to cut $40 to $50 million out or maybe more ... I made it very clear in my budget message. Say we're $40 million behind, and that's without health insurance, which is going to go up. This insurance business scares the hell out of me, absolutely scares the hell out of me. It's going to affect the lower-paid employees a lot worse than the higher-paid ones.

Critics would say this is a great opportunity to cut all the dead weight out of the system.

Steve Satterwhite
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser

It's easy to say this is a bloated bureaucracy. Well, we cut $16 million on an annualized basis, maybe closer to $18 million. You have to have administration. There was some comment that we didn't need regional offices, but hell, the average regional office here in the school system has 45 to 50 schools. That's bigger than, I'm guessing, 98 percent of the entire school districts in America. Maybe 99 percent. So we really need those offices. These regional offices are dealing with principals, teachers, parent complaints. They couldn't all come downtown. People say, like my good friend Michael Lewis [publisher of the weekly Miami Today]: "Well, why don't we divide it up into six or eight districts?"

What do you think of that idea?

Disaster. Absolute disaster because it would fractionalize everything. How many of those districts would you cover for New Times? How many could the Herald cover? And what's going on in those districts? Seriously. Look what happened when we had all the [Miami-Dade County] Community Councils, and who covered every one of them? What was going on with the zoning and everything else? The incorporation movement is another interesting question. Wait'll we get 60, 80 cities and see who covers all of them. Bigness doesn't necessarily beget economy. On the other hand, there are things that can be done in a large organization. For example, the county was an extremely efficient organization when I left in 1985. Don't think that's self-aggrandizement because there were a succession of good managers and politicians and department heads. We would win more national awards than any county every year.

The luminaries of local government, tourism, and culture like to say that Miami, with its diverse population, is a leader of national trends. Yet Miami's political culture seems to be based on parochialism and distrust among its various ethnic groups.

I love to tell the story of when we had a new chairman of the [Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce]. It was around the time we were coming off of Mariel and the Haitian refugees and the riots -- sometime in the early Nineties. The chamber chairman announced that he wanted to do something about the image of this community, which is such a simplistic approach to a very, very complicated subject. He gathered sixteen people, all heavy hitters from the community. We started out by each listing our five greatest assets. Then we said, "What are our five greatest liabilities?" To this day, it's an amazing phenomenon. You would think that people would say that our greatest asset was our climate, sun, beaches, water, flora, fauna -- you know? But sixteen out of sixteen picked cultural diversity as our greatest asset. Then for the greatest liability, sixteen out of sixteen had ethnic polarization in one form or another. So your greatest asset is, paradoxically, your greatest liability. That, to me, tells the story of Miami. If you look at Elian, if you look at police brutality, if you look at economic disparity in the black community. So what we love most about this town, which makes it so exciting in addition to its God-given assets, is its diversity. Some people are frightened by that and a lot of old-guard Miamians fled. They fled the Cuban migrations. They fled the Haitian migrations. They couldn't cope with it.

What became of the "image" list?

The only way you can change image is by doing something about it. I know that from having run the convention bureau for nine years and dealt with image, which to the perceiver is reality. We had the black boycott. We had the tourist murders. We were losing huge percentages of our international trade and tourism and so forth. The next thing you know, four people got killed. The British guy and a couple of Germans, lying out on the highway. The international press was all over it. I mean, it was ugly. We lost, overnight, 58 percent of our German market, 37 percent of the UK market, and 34 percent of the Canadians. We didn't sit back like ostriches with our heads in the sand. I went over to the county and the police. We set up special programs, like the Robbery Intervention Detail. We had the first tourist-information police in the nation, paid for from airport funds. We did press conferences in Europe. As a result we turned it around and people recognized that Miami is a safe destination. That's how you change image, though. You plan, you execute, and you communicate.

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