BEST BUREAUCRAT (2002)

Merrett Stierheim

In a town where far too many public servants graduated from the school of corruption and incompetence, Merrett Stierheim stands out as a beacon in the darkness. Since 1959, when he began his career as an assistant manager with the City of Miami, Stierheim has kept an able hand on the tiller of our biggest and most complex governments, often called up on deck just as the ship was about to hit the rocks. By dint of his reputation as a fixer of big problems, he has become an almost mythic figure in his own lifetime. In 1967 he left for Florida's west coast but returned in 1976 to become Dade County's manager during a most difficult period (the Mariel boatlift, riots, cocaine cowboys) until his retirement in 1986. In the early Nineties Stierheim became Miami's chief cheerleader as president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. Then in 1996, as the City of Miami faced a financial meltdown amid political scandal, Stierheim was coaxed out of his second retirement to become the pro bono city manager. In no time 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. He retired in early 2001 when it became clear Mayor Alex Penelas wanted a less independent and forceful manager. Stierheim kept himself busy through the spring and summer by becoming interim manager of newly incorporated Miami Lakes and leading another emergency recovery team through Homestead's shaky finances. In October 2001 Stierheim took on what is arguably his most challenging and important job yet -- superintendent of Miami-Dade County's mammoth public-school system. The school district is a magnified version of the bureaucracies Stierheim had wrestled with earlier: unwieldy, riddled with corruption, and filled with a demoralized workforce. But with the future of 370,000 children in his hands, the stakes are much higher. Stierheim has already begun to heal an ailing bureaucratic culture. Only time will tell whether he can successfully complete the job.