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Fresh from a four-day weekend trip to Paris celebrating his 38th wedding anniversary, a jovial Joe Arriola assures his department directors his job is not in jeopardy. "I'm going to be here for a long time," Miami's embattled city manager promises his senior staff during a January 31 meeting at the city's administration building in downtown Miami. "So that is the end of that conversation," Arriola continues. "We are not going to talk about it anymore."
In the weeks preceding his minivacation to the City of Lights, Arriola had taken center stage in the embarrassing fire fee fiasco engulfing Miami City Hall. In January several witnesses in the high-profile case, including prominent attorney Henry "Hank" Adorno and current and former city employees, countered Arriola's line that he had no idea a seven-million-dollar settlement that was supposed to be divided among some 80,000 Miami property owners had gone to only seven individuals.
While he and his wife Lourdes traveled down the Champs lysées, back home Arriola's adversaries and outraged taxpayers were demanding his ouster. Television and newspaper reporters were abuzz with unconfirmed rumors Arriola would be out of a job by the time he returned to Dinner Key.
Yet Arriola was right. He is not going anywhere not until he is ready to walk out the door. "I have an incredible relationship with the mayor and four of the five commissioners," Arriola brags. "If the naysayers want to keep painting me as an ogre that is their problem."
Undoubtedly Arriola's boss, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, has consistently voiced unwavering support for Arriola, whose authoritarian and abrasive leadership style conveniently allows Diaz to concentrate on a more pressing interest raising his profile for a higher office, perhaps even lieutenant governor, in the 2006 state election. City Commissioners Angel Gonzalez, Joe Sanchez, Michelle Spence-Jones, and Johnny Winton have also demonstrated that their loyalties lie with Diaz and Arriola. Tomas Regalado has been the only Miami elected official to openly challenge the city manager, going as far as seeking a vote of no confidence in the wake of the fire fee revelations. Arriola responded by calling Regalado a "demagogue and a liar who hides behind his wife's skirt" in front of a group of television reporters.
"It seems everyone is lying but Joe," Regalado says during a recent conversation. "I think if he really wants to help the city, he should leave."
But even Regalado and other members of the Arriola Critics Club concede the city manager is not going to bow out gracefully. "I don't see him resigning," opines Edward Pidermann, the city's fire union president, who has often clashed with Arriola. "His ego will not allow him to admit wrongdoing on his part."
Instead Pidermann is betting that Diaz, the man with the power to can Arriola, will soon have no choice but to fire the manager, especially if Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Peter Lopez rules against the city later this month. "Joe has become a political liability," Pidermann offers. "I think the time is drawing near when the mayor is going to say enough is enough."
Arriola, a self-made millionaire who enjoys boasting about his tax-deductible decision to donate all but ten dollars of his $245,000 annual salary and pension benefits to the United Way, dismissed Pidermann's commentary during one of several sessions with New Times in the days following his return from France. (Arriola made his fortune as chairman and CEO of Avanti/Case-Hoyt, a printing press company he sold for $42 million in 2001 to the St. Ives Corporation). "Like a lot of people, Ed Pidermann has personal reasons for disliking me," Arriola says. "But I've got news for him: I'm staying."
Hanging out with Arriola is like sitting through a Tony Soprano therapy session. "I put up with all these headaches for ten dollars a year," Arriola grouses. "You think people give a damn? No. People want to hate their local government. They want to believe everyone is stealing. But I believe what I'm doing is right, and I really don't care what people say or think of me."
In addition to claiming he gets no respect, Arriola whines that the local media, particularly the Miami Herald, have inaccurately portrayed him as a bad guy. "Sure we make mistakes," Arriola spouts. "Sure we fuck up. But not everyone here is stealing from the public trough. The most frustrating thing is that you tell people the truth, but they don't want to hear it."
Shortly after concluding the January 31 staff meeting, Arriola marches into his office at the Miami Riverside Center on SW Second Avenue. The city manager is dressed in cream pants, a white dress shirt, a turquoise print tie, and black loafers. The only sign of his sizable personal wealth is the chunky gold Rolex watch on his left wrist.
His office walls are covered with plaques and awards from various civic groups honoring him, including the Dade Heritage Trust and the Latin Builders Association. Near the door, Arriola has hung a framed picture of the Rat Pack and an autographed photograph of former University of Miami football star Kellen Winslow, Jr.