Merrett Stierheim made it clear that no one but him was talking on behalf of the school district
Merrett Stierheim made it clear that no one but him was talking on behalf of the school district
Steve Satterwhite

Bunker Mentality

By its very nature, the county's Emergency Operations Center is a tense place. Activated in times of crisis, the EOC becomes the nerve center of local government, the fulcrum of decision-making for the state's most populous county. And so as Hurricane Michelle moved north toward Cuba and possibly South Florida, the county's brain trust gathered at the EOC, located in the Doral area at 9300 NW 41st St.

Serious work takes place at the EOC. Representatives from the fire and police departments are present, as are officials from BellSouth, Florida Power and Light, the Red Cross, and numerous other agencies that might be called upon in the event South Florida is hit by a catastrophic storm. Having all these people in one secure location allows them to coordinate their efforts effectively.

But the EOC also is a something of a clubhouse. And by clubhouse I don't mean the kind you find just past the eighteenth green at the golf course. It's more like an adult version of the ultimate kid's tree house or fort. When it is up and running, the EOC always has that clubhouse feel -- specifically the county mayor's clubhouse.

The mayor gets to hang out, he doesn't have to wear a business suit or tie, and best of all, he gets to hold as many press conferences as he likes and the local television stations will put him on the air live every time, whether or not he has anything important to say.

On Saturday, November 3, with Hurricane Michelle's intentions still unclear, Mayor Alex Penelas strolled the halls of the EOC, confident and relaxed. Never far from his side was County Manager Steve Shiver. And then suddenly the unthinkable happened. Former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, recently appointed schools superintendent, showed up.

It was as if Darla had stormed into a secret meeting of the Little Rascals' He-Man Woman Haters Club and the boys didn't know what to do.

Based on interviews with half a dozen people who watched events unfold over the course of the weekend, the tension between Stierheim, Penelas, and Shiver was palpable. And with good reason.

Stierheim resigned as county manager last year because he believed he was about to be severely undermined by Penelas's efforts to create a strong-mayor form of government that would allow our sexy little mayor to run for another term of office. When Stierheim recently offered his name for consideration as interim schools superintendent, it was widely perceived that Penelas -- through various minions -- campaigned against his appointment. As one county hall insider puts it: "There is certainly no love lost between those two."

Shiver and Stierheim have their own recent history. In many ways it was the ultimate insult to Stierheim for Penelas to replace him with someone as unqualified as Shiver. The former mayor of Homestead, Shiver has proven himself to be little more than a political shill for the mayor and his lobbyist cronies. (Shortly after Shiver became county manager, it was discovered that Homestead was on the verge of financial ruin after years of mismanagement.)

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the man the City of Homestead tapped to clean up the mess Shiver and his predecessors left behind was Stierheim.

Now imagine the three of them -- Stierheim, Penelas, and Shiver -- all in the confined space of the EOC. Based on interviews with five people present during different parts of the weekend, both Penelas and Shiver were incredulous that Stierheim would show up.

Shiver in particular seemed upset. He knows how badly he suffers when compared to the near-mythic figure Stierheim has become in this community. The anchors for one local television station, after spotting Stierheim at the EOC, praised him repeatedly during their broadcast, going on about how reassuring it was to have a man with so much experience at the EOC during a time of crisis.

No one could recall another instance when a school superintendent showed up at the EOC. One county official saw it as "Merrett trying to be the thorn in Steve and Alex's side." But a school official says Stierheim was simply following through on a mandate from the school board to be more visible. Indeed, this school official claims, district administrators and school board members were always uncomfortable with the way former Superintendent Roger Cuevas allowed Penelas to speak on behalf of the school district during times of crisis.

"The mayor thinks that once he declares a state of emergency that everyone is awestruck," says another school official, "and that everyone immediately has to do whatever he says. Well, that wasn't going to happen [with Stierheim]."

Stierheim made it clear from the outset that no one was going to speak for the school district but him. "He showed up on Saturday," says a county official, "and one of the first things he said was, “I'm the superintendent, and I'm the only one who has the authority to close schools.'"

Before arriving at the EOC, Stierheim contacted the school board's attorney, Johnny Brown, and asked him how far his authority as school superintendent extended. Brown told him the superintendent was the only person who could close schools because of a storm and that he was the only one who could open schools as emergency shelters. "Under the statute it's the superintendent who can do that," Brown reiterated last week. "And that's what I told Merrett."

The next morning, Sunday, November 4, as the hurricane began pounding Cuba, approximately twenty people gathered in the conference room of the EOC for an update. Penelas positioned himself at the head of the table. Sitting alongside him was Shiver. At the other end of the long table was Stierheim. As the 11:00 a.m. private briefing got under way, the mayor made a few comments about the possible evacuation of residents from Miami Beach and other areas along the coast. The mayor then mentioned the possible need for school closings.

Stierheim interrupted the mayor. "Mr. Mayor," he announced, according to several people present, "your state of emergency does not legally affect the school district. There is one person, by state law, who has the ability to close schools and only one person who can open schools as emergency shelters. And that's the superintendent."

Silence. The meeting momentarily came to an abrupt halt. "That speech went over like a condom on a collection plate," recalls one of the participants.

Stierheim's statement sent county officials scrambling. As soon as the meeting ended, Penelas, Shiver, and a few others huddled. Who did have authority during a state of emergency: the mayor or the superintendent? Tom David, the executive assistant county manager, called first Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg at home. Greenberg then contacted another attorney from his office, and the two raced to look up the relevant statutes. Greenberg called his boss, County Attorney Bob Ginsburg, who at the time was driving home from Vero Beach. The county attorneys decided that, based on their reading of the law, the mayor had the ultimate authority over schools. That message was conveyed to Penelas.

The prospect of a head-to-head showdown left several people dumbfounded. Suppose Penelas wanted to order the schools closed before Stierheim was prepared to do so? How would it be settled? Would they have to go to court? Would they need to call the governor?

The County Attorney's Office makes the most persuasive case for why the mayor would have ultimate authority. Although the emergency statutes do not specifically give the mayor jurisdiction over schools, they do grant him extraordinary powers. He could, for example, close down all streets surrounding schools, making it impossible for them to open. He could also order a curfew, which would prohibit parents from taking their children to school. Most important, he has a police force that can enforce his orders. The school district has a police force as well, but as one county official boasted, "Our police force is a lot bigger than theirs."

As far as who has authority to open schools as emergency shelters, the law states that the school district "shall" make schools available for shelters "upon the request" of the county. That language suggests the school district doesn't have a choice. Once the county asks for shelters, the district must provide them. "Luckily," Ginsburg says, "push never came to shove."

At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, during a conference call with the National Hurricane Center, Stierheim and Penelas were told that even though the hurricane looked as if it would miss South Florida, the county could still expect winds Monday morning in excess of 40 miles per hour. As Stierheim already knew, anything over 35 miles per hour makes it unsafe for school buses to travel. So he ordered Monday classes canceled and opened several schools for shelters.

During his 4:30 p.m. press conference, Penelas announced that all schools would be closed Monday. But then he referred other questions about schools to Stierheim, who held his own press conference immediately after the mayor's.

Obviously neither Stierheim nor Penelas was going to do anything that would have endangered the lives of school children. But their jostling at the EOC has reaffirmed the division between the two men, and it did not escape the notice of political insiders. "Yes, yes, I heard all about it," says school board member Marta Perez. "I understand that the mayor really had his feathers ruffled. But it's no big deal. I see it all as being very innocent. It's just a difference in styles between the way Roger [Cuevas] used to handle emergencies and the way Merrett does. Someone has to be responsible for what happens in the schools. I think Merrett is doing an excellent job."


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