Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Manny Diaz succeeds so well in the city that he may get drafted for the county mayor's race

Diaz adds that being an effective mayor has little to do with what's written on paper, everything to do with character. "You can have a strong-mayor form of government and be a weak mayor," Diaz theorizes. "But I have a fairly strong character. And I'm not afraid to use my bully pulpit to make my agenda clear and [state] what my vision is."

"Manny is certainly a better handler of the media than I ever was," offers Suarez. "But Manny now has a strong manager in Arriola who is implementing his agenda. And that is how the executive-mayor form of government is supposed to work."

Suarez actually complimented the synergy between the mayor's office and the city administration these days. "I was at a commission meeting recently," Suarez says. "I was amazed at how well both interact. I saw a great environment at city hall, an atmosphere of stability." Coming from Suarez, that's a mouthful.

Childhood pal Carlos McDonald runs the city's communications department
Bill Cooke
Childhood pal Carlos McDonald runs the city's communications department
Kelly Penton, Diaz's press secretary, works to keep the mayor's image pristine
Steve Satterwhite
Kelly Penton, Diaz's press secretary, works to keep the mayor's image pristine

Some of Diaz's supporters do note that on the surface one could view him as the guy calling the shots, not the city manager. "When the mayor and the manager are sitting side by side, going through the process of choosing the best candidate for a city position, that is when you get pretty close to stepping over the line," says Winton. "But Manny is not a guy to overstep his bounds."

Of course Diaz doesn't need to cross the line to spell out what he wants done. For example, shortly after taking office, the mayor introduced a friend and campaign supporter to Gimenez. That friend is Stuart Myers, a retired insurance sales executive who has known Diaz for the past six years and who contributed to his mayoral campaign. The mayor wanted Myers to help Gimenez clean up the city's risk management department, which for years has been a golden piñata for legal claims against the city. "Manny called me up one day about a year ago and told me the city was having some problems," Myers relates during a phone interview from his West Palm Beach home. "He asked me to take a look."

And just like that, Myers was put on the city's payroll, although it's hardly the kind of dough that would raise eyebrows. Myers earns a ten-dollar-a-year salary, in addition to his annual health benefits package worth three thousand dollars. Nevertheless Myers was instrumental in bringing in two other insurance consultants who gave to Diaz's mayoral campaign. One of those experts is Elliott Fixler, a New York lawyer and former assistant U.S. Attorney who earned $60,000 in consulting fees plus $7371 in living expenses from the City of Miami over the course of five months. Gimenez hired Fixler last October based on Myers's advice. "Fixler took over the department when I had no one," Gimenez says defensively. "We tried to hire a new director but all the people fell through." (The city has since hired Diane Ericson as its risk management director.)

Myers, Fixler, and the third player, John Petillo, a New York-based accountant who was recently appointed to the city's police and fire pension board at Diaz's request, were instrumental in putting out new bids to hire an insurance broker for the city; the contract ended up going to a company whose executives contributed generously to Diaz's campaign.

For years AON Risk Services of Florida had a lock on the contract because the city curiously did not put out new bids for insurance broker services to see if it could get a better deal. Last year the firm was up for contract renewal when the insurance experts discovered the city's premiums would skyrocket if the deal went through -- from $2 million to $3.7 million next year. Myers says instead of renewing the contract, which would have paid AON a significant commission, they convinced city officials to put out new bids. Three firms responded. The winner would be picked by the standard means: lowest fee. AON bid the highest, coming in at $312,000. The second company, Arthur Gallagher & Co., bid $247,500. The winning outfit, Tampa-based Brown & Brown Inc., said that it could do the job for $106,000. Coincidentally, Brown & Brown executives had donated about $6500 for Diaz's mayoral run.

On its face, this would appear to be classic Miami: friends and campaign supporters of the mayor getting the inside track on lucrative public contracts. But Myers insists the city's deal with Brown & Brown will save it $622,250 a year. "When most municipalities are facing increasing insurance costs, we were able to get a decrease," he says. Brown & Brown vice president Gerard Fiacco, the company's point man with the city, declined comment. Fiacco and his wife Heidi each personally donated $500 to Diaz's campaign.

Diaz acknowledges introducing Myers to Gimenez, but says he didn't tell the former city manager to hire him, Fixler, or Petillo. He defends the decision to award the contract to Brown & Brown. "There was a competitive process," says a visibly irked Diaz. "Their bid was the lowest and represents more than a half-million-dollar savings to the city. So, I guess, shoot me."

4. When Diaz delivered his state of the city address earlier this year, he called on Arriola to analyze compensation, benefits, and pension programs to reduce personnel costs. "The fact is, no business, public or private, can guarantee its long-term financial health when its personnel costs exceed 80 percent of its revenues," Diaz proclaimed during his speech.

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