When Joaquin Avino announced last October that he would be resigning as county manager at the end of the year to take a new post in the private sector, no one on the Dade County Commission publicly asked him what he intended to do after he stepped down from his $160,000-per-year job at Metro.
When reporters inquired about his plans, the county manager would smile and refuse to comment. It would be his secret, he insisted, until he left office. And so it remained until Avi*o's going-away party on Key Biscayne in early January, when he announced he had accepted a position at the local engineering firm Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners. "I went with them," he later told the Miami Herald, "because they were my friends."
The quote was published in a January 29 Herald story that juxtaposed Avi*o's move to Wolfberg Alvarez against that company's involvement in a $260 million deal for the redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base, a project Avi*o had recommended to Metro commissioners a mere two weeks before leaving office. The ex-county manager also said he was "shocked and indignant" that anyone would suggest his assessment of the proposal submitted by Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI) A in which Wolfberg Alvarez provided early technical support A was based on anything but the deal's own merits.
Commissioners immediately voiced their support for Avi*o. The day after the story broke, Wolfberg Alvarez withdrew from the project in an effort to correct any misperception that the firm was trying to benefit from Avi*o's past connection with the county. The final word on the subject was delivered by HABDI lobbyist Miguel DeGrandy at the February 2 commission meeting; DeGrandy blasted the Herald story as patently unfair and added that Wolfberg Alvarez was only a small part of the HABDI proposal and hardly worth all the putative intrigue.
But although Wolfberg Alvarez backed out of the HABDI deal, the engineering firm has by no means disassociated itself from contracts involving the county. One such project is the Performing Arts Center, a $139 million complex that is to be constructed by the end of this century on 6.5 acres downtown. To an architecture firm and its subcontractors, the Performing Arts Center contract represents a lucrative plum. According to a source familiar with such projects, eight to twelve percent of a typical budget goes to design fees.
Initially 25 architects vied for the opportunity to design the new center, complete with a 2200-seat concert hall and a 2500-seat opera/ballet house. This past August, a seven-person committee chosen by Avi*o whittled the field to seven, and then, two months later, to three. The finalists: New Haven, Connecticut-based Cesar Pelli & Associates; Miami's Arquitectonica International Corporation; and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, headquartered in the Netherlands.
The three companies, which until that stage had been evaluated solely on their general qualifications, were then required to assemble teams of subcontractors (engineering firms, landscapers, lighting experts, et cetera) and to present a design. Among the subcontractors listed by Pelli was Joaquin Avi*o's future employer, Wolfberg Alvarez.
In February a second county committee reviewed the plans. This committee, too, had been selected last summer by Avi*o. In keeping with an agreement with the Performing Arts Center Trust, six committee members were chosen from the Trust's board of directors; the other five were county staffers. (Parker Thomson, president of the Trust, a nonprofit group that was formed to help raise money for construction of the center, assisted Avi*o in picking board members to sit on the committee.)
After all the presentations were made, the committee voted. Seven members preferred Pelli, three went for Arquitectonica, and one voted for Metropolitan.
By the time the committee had convened, four members A two Trust board members and two county staffers A had dropped out for various reasons; their replacements had been chosen by Avi*o's successor as county manager, Armando Vidal. Of the seven people who remained from Avi*o's original roster, five voted for Pelli. Among those five were the remaining three county employees Avi*o had appointed to the committee.
County Attorney Robert Ginsburg acknowledges that "it looks bad" to have an Avi*o-appointed committee single out a team that includes Wolfberg Alvarez. But legally speaking, the county attorney quickly adds, there is nothing improper about it. Under Metro's ethics rules, although Avi*o himself is barred from doing any work for the county for two years, Wolfberg Alvarez is excluded from that constraint as long as Avi*o doesn't directly participate in the project in question.
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David Wolfberg, a partner in Wolfberg Alvarez, says he is frustrated by the continued questioning of his firm's character and its relationship with Avi*o. Wolfberg contends Avi*o played no role whatsoever in aiding his firm or pushing for the Pelli proposal. "He's not involved, he wasn't involved," Wolfberg maintains. Refusing to answer any further questions, he adds, "It's a shame reporters don't have better things to look at." (Spokesmen for Cesar Pelli & Associates had no comment regarding Wolfberg Alvarez's inclusion in their proposal. Avi*o himself did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)
County officials have begun negotiating the financial terms of a contract with Pelli. Both the design committee's choice and the eventual contract must be approved by Metro commissioners; no date for consideration has been set.
Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele says he was unaware Wolfberg Alvarez was part of the Pelli proposal. But he also says he has no intention of second-guessing the design committee's recommendation by speculating whether any members gave weight to Avi*o's involvement with the engineering company. "I think there has got to be a presumption of properness and correctness with this process," Teele asserts. "I believe the people that we had on that committee were people of the highest ethics, and I don't think there was any nexus at all between their decision and Joaquin Avi*o working for one of the subcontractors.