As the new county manager, Steve Shiver already has two strikes against him. Strike one: The 34-year-old former mayor of Homestead has neither the qualifications nor the experience to manage a four-billion-dollar enterprise as diverse and complicated as Miami-Dade County. Only his arrogance deludes him into believing he's worthy of this position.
Strike two: He is widely regarded as a puppet of Mayor Alex Penelas. Other candidates were offered the job before Shiver, but they all turned it down because they understood that Penelas was looking for a lackey, not an independent and competent administrator.
Given these liabilities, Shiver must be very careful in how he conducts himself, especially before the county commission. Which is why it was so troubling to watch him earlier this month, during one of his first commission meetings as manager, severely damage what little credibility he has by demonstrating that his word cannot be trusted.
It was a stunning moment. On March 8 commissioners were debating whether they should accept the federal government's proposal to transfer to the county 717 acres of land within Homestead Air Force Base. The only stipulation was that the land could not be used as a commercial airport, a decision the feds reached after more than seven years of deliberation.
The county commission had two choices. Commissioner Katy Sorenson offered one of them: a resolution accepting the federal government's offer. Commissioner Natacha Seijas promoted the other: a "dual track" strategy of accepting the land while simultaneously suing the federal government in hopes of forcing it to allow the county to develop an airport at the base. Commissioners were told that such litigation could take years and that no one had ever succeeded with a lawsuit like the one they were contemplating.
"It's a simple question," Sorenson told her colleagues. "Do we want [the land] or do we not? If we sue, we have a very thin legal case because the federal government isn't obligated to give us anything. It's their land. They don't owe us an airport."
In Miami-Dade County, however, nothing is ever simple. Shiver, a long-time advocate for building an airport in Homestead, opened the discussion with a rambling and rather inane history lesson on the battle over the airport. He then noted that several days earlier the Homestead City Council endorsed Sorenson's resolution and urged the county to adopt it, accept the land, and move forward in developing it into something other than an airport.
Shiver knew Sorenson was planning to mention the Homestead City Council action, so he wanted to bring it up first. And as soon as he did, he dismissed it as inconsequential. Then he said something amazing. He suggested that commissioners should ignore it as well. Shiver announced that he had spoken to both the new mayor of Homestead, Roscoe Warren, and the vice mayor, Nick Sincore, and that the two men regretted their votes. "They informed me that if they would have known there were alternative methods -- with this dual track -- they would not have voted in the affirmative," he declared. Turning toward Terry Murphy, Seijas's chief of staff, Shiver continued: "And I think Mr. Murphy had an opportunity to speak to Vice Mayor Sincore as well."
Shiver was telling commissioners that the city council's action wasn't significant because Homestead officials didn't know that Seijas was proposing to accept the land while also filing a lawsuit. The council's ignorance, Shiver said, "would explain the change in [the Homestead City Council's previous] position." If council members had known of Seijas's proposal, Shiver reasoned, they wouldn't have supported Sorenson.
Sitting across the dais from Shiver, Sorenson appeared dumbfounded. "Excuse me, if I could just interrupt for a second," she said. "I was at the Homestead City Council meeting asking them to support my resolution. And I informed them at that meeting that there was an alternative resolution, and I distributed it at that meeting prior to their vote."
Shiver just shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry, I don't know why the discrepancy is there," he replied. "But I did speak to them a couple of hours ago, and that is what they indicated to me and I think as well to Mr. Murphy from Commissioner Seijas's office."
Last week I contacted Mayor Warren in Homestead and asked him if Shiver's comments were accurate. "No," he responded. "We were well aware of Natacha Seijas's position. Commissioner Sorenson was very gracious in presenting both sides to us during the meeting. We were aware of the differences."
Did Warren, as Shiver claimed, want to change his vote? "No," he said.
Was he in favor of pursuing Shiver's strategy of litigation? Once again he answered no. "The federal government made a decision, and the county needs to move forward," he said. "It's not going to do my community any good to continue to delay development out there."
Warren said his conversation with Shiver was very brief. Mainly Shiver told him he should call Seijas, and gave Warren the commissioner's phone number. "He just alerted me that Commissioner Seijas wanted to talk to me," Warren recalled, adding that he wasn't able to reach her.
Vice Mayor Sincore concurred that Sorenson presented hers and Seijas's resolutions during the council meeting. He said it wasn't entirely clear to him, however, whether the county would sue under the Seijas resolution or if they would only consider suing. When Shiver called him in the midst of the March 8 county commission meeting, Shiver told him the county was definitely going to sue the federal government under Seijas's resolution. "I was asked [by Shiver] if that would change my vote," Sincore recounted. "I said, It might. I don't know.'"
"Would you tell this man that?" Shiver said, according to Sincore.
The next thing Sincore knew Shiver had passed the phone to someone else. "I don't know his name," Sincore said. "I told him the same thing. I don't know why Steve called me."
Sincore told me he is fed up with the entire debate over the base. "I just want to see this thing laid to rest," he sighed. "I don't care what we put out there. I want jobs."
The man to whom Shiver handed the phone was Terry Murphy, Seijas's chief of staff. Murphy confirmed that during the commission meeting Shiver unexpectedly called him over to his desk and handed him the telephone. Would Murphy corroborate Shiver's statements to the commission regarding Sincore? "No comment," he said, and declined to answer follow-up questions. Other sources on the dais said Murphy was upset that Shiver tried to use him to support a contrived version of events.
The conclusions to be drawn from this episode are ominous. First and foremost, the new county manager misled the county commission with representations that were demonstrably false. Does that make him a liar? It's difficult to imagine that his misstatements were mere misunderstandings or "discrepancies." But if they were misunderstandings, what does that say about Shiver's intelligence? Which is scarier: a county manager who connives to lie to his bosses in order to advance his own agenda, or a county manager unable to draw accurate conclusions from straightforward conversations?
In either event Shiver has been damaged by this affair. His word is now suspect.
Setting aside for a moment the apparent lies, the very fact that Shiver, from the dais, was busy making phone calls to Mayor Warren and Vice Mayor Sincore is troubling as well. Shiver should be spending his time learning the business of the county. Instead it appears he was trying to weasel statements out of Warren and Sincore he could use to undermine the vote taken by the Homestead City Council. In Miami-Dade County we expect that sort of sleaze from our politicians, not from the manager, who is supposed to be a professional administrator remaining above the political fray. I realize it's a difficult ideal to maintain, but I would have hoped Shiver would have gone longer than three weeks on the job before casually and cynically tossing it aside.
Another disturbing aspect of Shiver's performance was his effort to upstage and personally embarrass Katy Sorenson by implying she had somehow deceived the Homestead City Council into voting for her resolution. He may look like a teenage choir boy, but what he attempted to do to Sorenson was deliberate and mean-spirited. Furthermore, by placing Terry Murphy in the middle of the dispute, Shiver showed he is willing to sacrifice anyone around him to get what he wants. Managers who conduct themselves this way will never earn the necessary loyalty of their staffs.
Finally there is the issue of Shiver telling Mayor Warren that Commissioner Seijas needed to speak to him and that he should call her. If Shiver doesn't want to be seen as a puppet of powerful people he shouldn't adopt the role of errand boy. Since his veracity is now questionable, it's impossible to know if Seijas asked him to pass a message to Warren or if Shiver made that up as well.
Either way, it was stupid.
Since becoming manager, Shiver has tried to package himself as a new brand of bureaucrat: young, energetic, and boundlessly optimistic. But all he really seems to be doing is mixing a golly-gee-whiz approach to government with motivational claptrap and hackneyed business psychobabble -- equal parts Eddie Haskell, Tony Robbins, and Lee Iacocca.
In a memo to county employees dated February 21 and titled "Management Philosophy," Shiver wrote that he intends "to serve as a change agent" and "develop a team of collectively driven public servants who are willing to push the envelope." He will "encourage groupthink approaches to addressing complex issues that require multiple perspectives to formulate creative solutions."
Shiver thanked Penelas and the county commission for selecting him. Then, referring to his own priorities, he added, "Above all, I am focused and driven to succeed. Whatever I do it is with 100 percent of my effort into the task at hand.... I look forward to your innovative thinking, creative advise [sic] and most of all your complete dedication to absolute excellence in all we do," Shiver concluded with a flourish. "As we come forward with new innovative ideas, remember this one cannot discover new oceans unless they [sic] have the courage to lose sight of the shore.'"
Shiver was so proud of this memo he posted it on the county's Website. The over-the-top missive, however, was greeted around county hall with both laughter and derision. One business leader who recently met with Shiver told me: "He's in so far over his head he doesn't even realize it."
Shiver believes his optimism is one of his strengths, but it is forced, artificial, and right now it's all talk, nothing more.
Interacting with commissioners, Shiver is at an even greater disadvantage. Sitting on the dais, he looks more like one of their nephews than their manager. When he speaks, he comes across as a hyperactive child demanding to go in twenty different directions at once, talking when he should be quiet and pouting when things don't go his way.
He lacks maturity, which is painfully evident from his apparent effort to lie to commissioners. He also needs to learn patience. And given how little he knows about running a government, before he starts making wholesale changes he should embrace the physician's creed: First, do no harm.
The commission debate over Homestead Air Force Base offered other insights into the management style of a man whose base salary is $174,000 per year and whose executive perks are worth tens of thousands of dollars more. Like most politicians, he is in love with the sound of his own voice and tends to act more like the fourteenth commissioner than an administrator. Shiver hasn't learned yet that as far as commissioners are concerned, he is not a colleague. He is an employee.
Shiver also appears fearless in telling other people how they should do their jobs, even when it isn't his place to do so. A striking example took place at the March 8 meeting. At one point during the Homestead discussions, commissioners were trying to craft precise legal language for Seijas's resolution. They were directing their questions to Bob Cuevas, an assistant county attorney with 31 years' experience (which means he started at the County Attorney's Office when Shiver was three years old). As Cuevas attempted to answer the commission's concerns, Shiver kept trying to tell him what to say. "You know, Steve, let me do the legal work for the board, okay?" Cuevas finally snapped.
"I thought that's what you were doing, sir," Shiver replied.
"All right, then," Cuevas said. "Let me give the answer." (The county attorney and his staff don't work for the manager; they answer directly to the commission.)
The next day Shiver called Murray Greenberg, senior assistant county attorney, to complain about Cuevas's tone. Greenberg declined to discuss his conversation with Shiver but said all was resolved amicably.
Shiver made another serious mistake during the air-base debate. Prompted by Seijas, he repeatedly referred to Homestead as "my community" and began sentences with phrases like this: "We as the community of Homestead...." He also implored the commission: "If you can realize the frustrations that we have had."
As county manager Shiver now represents the entire county, not just Homestead. Commissioners invited him to speak as the former mayor of Homestead, but it was an offer he should have declined. Once again, though, he couldn't resist an opportunity to speak. At another point he said, "Let me put my manager's hat back on, if I can please separate the two?"
Well, that's a good question. Can he separate the two?
The county commission ultimately rejected Sorenson's resolution and sided with Seijas. Late last week the county filed suit against the U.S. Air Force, the secretary of defense, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Neither Greenberg nor Cuevas could estimate how much the lawsuit would cost county taxpayers or how long it might drag on.
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