The Real McGuffin

A handful of people waited quietly in the sparse community room on the ground floor of the northern building of Rebecca Towers this past March 14. Neil McGuffin, the Miami Beach Housing Authority's (MBHA) executive director, sat on the far right of a dais, seemingly not sensing his job was on the line. Dressed in a light-brown jacket and no tie, his thinning golden locks were streaked with gray and his pale, doughy, cherubic Irish face was stoic.

The five members of the MBHA board sat nearby. At the head of the table was Charles Burkett IV, the board's chairman, slender, deeply tanned, his receding hairline contrasting his youthful and casual air. To Burkett's left was McGuffin's only ally, Amy Turkell, a 39-year-old dark-haired businesswoman and community activist prone to speaking in a thoughtful, measured, diplomatic style. To Burkett's right sat Ruth Pasarell, McGuffin's unabashed enemy. The afternoon light washed through the windows and half-open vertical blinds behind the dais, casting Pasarell in a menacing silhouette. Large-boned, big-haired, dramatic, divaesque, and Cuban, she was the antithesis of McGuffin's humble-pie reserve. The billowing shoulders of her blue dress made her substantial girth appear even larger. Also at the table were the board's two other members: John Beloff, bearded and bald, wearing a pensive look, and Betty Gutierrez, bent over slightly, hands clasped in front of her on the tabletop, and looking like a bookend to McGuffin. A handful of visitors and staff watched from maroon, cushioned chairs set up in the room.

After dealing with several less urgent agenda items, the board turned to the pressing matter of McGuffin's firing, which Pasarell had proposed. Burkett called on the executive director. Eerily, like a man giving his last will and testament, McGuffin began reading from a sixteen-page prepared speech summarizing the disastrous circumstances of his tenure. Hunched low over his presentation notes, with methodical determination, McGuffin began his litany. He spoke in a voice that exuded a choirboy's earnestness. "It is no secret that we have come here today with a resolution made by Commissioner Pasarell to terminate my contract ... and a suggestion that I tender you my resignation. Before you take action, I urge you, once again, to consider the problems facing this organization.... When I stepped into the job I had no idea that the impairment and dysfunction reached to the depths of the organization....When I recognized the depth and expanse of problems I hired nationally recognized consultants who have, to a person, noted that the authority is troubled and that the problems are systemic, deeply entrenched, and of long standing ... problems commenced long before my tenure."

McGuffin went on and on. He chronicled bungling in the MBHA's Section 8 department, which provides rent aid to thousands of Beach residents. He mentioned overpayments to more than 100 landlords that totaled a whopping $22,176 per month because the inspections department was incompetent, negligent, or just plain corrupt; he reminded the five commissioners and the visitors seated before the boardroom table of the outdated computer system the authority was in the process of replacing. Then he shifted to a delicate subject: the employees he was charged with directing, many of whom had come to despise him. "Staff has bad habits, inadequate supervision, and no quality-control measures in place," he said of the Section 8 department. He also encouraged the board to begin "the immediate dismissal of ... incompetent and contumacious staff persons."

After the presentation Burkett leaned back in his seat, placed a finger over his lip, and opened the floor to discussion of Pasarell's resolution. After a brief pause, Turkell spoke on behalf of McGuffin. "We have the information before us and a chance to be proactive and support our executive director ... or we can close our eyes to the reality of what is going on here," she said. But her approval was dampened by Pasarell, who expressed a strident righteousness regarding her attack on McGuffin: "When you make a decision, think about what your children would think if they saw it in the newspaper.... Everything that I have done, I don't mind my children seeing it on the front page." When Beloff chimed in moments later, he complimented McGuffin for bringing the agency a long way. He cited his technical expertise, but his conclusion left little doubt as to the vote: "[McGuffin's] people skills have gotten in the way," he said.

Indeed the MBHA is in crisis. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the government benefactor that doles out millions in rent aid through the MBHA to tenants annually, has put the organization on probation. HUD's Inspector General is also reviewing MBHA activities. And the State Attorney's Office (SAO) is reviewing allegations of corruption in the authority's Section 8 department, which among its other tasks is supposed to monitor whether landlords are charging reasonable rents. In the wake of the controversy, Turkell resigned two weeks ago. Worst of all, as the internal upheaval continues, the MBHA, a key player in providing inexpensive shelter to the area's elderly and low-income tenants, is unable to help many of the people it is supposed to serve.

Among those who have asked the MBHA for help is 52-year-old Randall Neighbert. He is thin, wiry, and unafraid of a hard day's work. The hair on his head -- trim and graying -- is combed neatly back and he has the sort of neat mustache you would expect to see on a state trooper. In his burgundy penny loafers, white dress socks pulled way up high on his calves, white shorts, and mint-blue T-shirt, he looks more like a tourist caught in a too-fashion-savvy resort town than a homeless man. A few weekends ago, he was sharing a beer with his friend Peter Demos, age 41, who, like him, has no permanent address. The two sat at one of the sheltered wooden tables at South Pointe Park, the picnic area adjacent to the southernmost pier in South Beach.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Neighbert has spent the greater part of his life working in Panama. Since coming to Miami a year and a half ago, he has taken to sleeping behind a prominent South Beach hotel at night and searching for work during the day. "Who's gonna give you an engineering job when you're 50 years old?" he asks.

Several weeks ago Neighbert stopped at the MBHA offices hoping to find a place to rent. He had earned a little cash setting up outdoor carnivals and festivals in the Miami area, so he assumed the authority would help him. With an address he could upgrade to a better job. "There wasn't even an interview," he says. "They told me there wasn't anything for me.... If you're not crazy or an alcoholic or a drug addict, you're not going to get help." Indeed Neighbert was turned away because the authority had no room. There are already 1200 people on a closed waiting list who hope to get a Section 8 subsidy or the next available apartment.

The MBHA was born in the early 1950s to help provide low- and moderate-income people with affordable housing. According to 1990 census figures, the most recent available, there are 35,614 rental units in Miami Beach. Today the MBHA offers rent aid for 3097 apartments, about one out of every twelve. Most of these places, 2372, are owned by private landlords who accept payment in government certificates and vouchers for up to 70 percent of rental costs. The other 725 apartments either belong to the authority or, in a few cases, to landlords specially designated by the MBHA. All of the apartments are supposed to pass a safety inspection.

This year the federal government approved $15,873,120 for the agency, mostly in the form of the rent vouchers and certificates that are turned over to tenants. The MBHA has a salaried staff of 48 and a volunteer board of five. The mayor recommends board members for four-year terms; appointments must be approved by the city commission. The board is charged with setting policy, as well as hiring and firing the executive director.

Over the years the agency has been a key force in softening the effect of the Miami Beach development explosion on the poor, according to Matti Bower, who served three years on the MBHA board before being elected a city commissioner this past November. "There is a great need for the authority if we don't want to become increasingly gentrified," she says. "Old people, working single mothers, young folks ... and people of a lot of different nationalities have benefited."

Olga Golik, a program administrator for Catholic Charities, a countywide nonprofit that helps the poor find housing, training, and work, disagrees. Not only has the MBHA done a poor job of creating affordable housing opportunities, she says, but the city has been complicit. "Miami Beach has been anti-affordable housing for at least five or six years now," she asserts. "The city commission appointed [MBHA] board members because they are not in favor of affordable housing."

Burkett was a key organizer in a 1995 citizens' effort to return about three million dollars in HUD funds, money given to the city for the development of affordable housing, Golik contends. The move to give back the money failed, but it reflects the city's anti-affordable-housing sentiment. "As a result, the city did not spend a lot of money on housing for the homeless," Golik says. "There weren't any housing programs that received capital dollars."

Burkett, who was first appointed to the board by former Mayor Seymour Gelber in 1996 and reappointed by current Mayor Neisen Kasdin, dismisses the claims that he has failed to promote the MBHA's mission. He simply wanted to convert money budgeted for constructing facilities to cash for repairing old ones. "I have always been a supporter of affordable housing," he says. "Being a staunch preservationist, I wanted to see existing buildings renovated rather than new buildings constructed."

One reason Neighbert and those thousand-plus folks on the waiting list continue hoping for a place, is that the agency's bookkeeping isn't very good. According to a March 1999 report -- one of the several reviews spearheaded by McGuffin and carried out by hired consultants -- as a result of poor planning, the Section 8 program passed up four million dollars of HUD money that could have been used to lease 612 more apartments for the poor. "It is clear that the MBHA has perhaps permanently lost hundreds of Section 8 units," according to the report, which was drafted by Casterline Associates, a Pennsylvania accounting and consulting firm.

In total McGuffin, who took the director's job in May 1998, convinced the board to shell out about $180,000 in fees to consultants to help identify the agency's weaknesses. Before McGuffin finished unleashing the experts -- not unlike a hunter loosing pedigreed bloodhounds -- Casterline and the others would file reports indicating virtually every aspect of the agency's operations were being inefficiently run and that landlords were being paid far above market rates.

McGuffin also hired an outside group in June 1999 to compare MBHA workers' salaries to those of employees in twelve similar agencies. The report, executed by Parilla and Associates of Plantation, sent the MBHA staff reeling. Twenty-two employees were being overpaid. A maintenance laborer received $30,690, about $6000 more than the maximum found at similar organizations surveyed; and a Section 8 worker, got $50,795 yearly, about $20,000 more than the maximum expected for the same labor elsewhere. On July 1, 1999, McGuffin ratcheted up the pressure another notch: He froze the salaries of the 22 employees. "The survey clearly showed very few people needed a raise," he says.

McGuffin also brought in experts to determine how best to manage property holdings. For this task he hired Stephenson and Moore, a prominent real estate management firm, to probe the day-to-day operations at the twin Rebecca Towers buildings as well as a property at 211 Collins Ave. In September 1999 the consultants recommended replacing the entire maintenance staff of sixteen with an outside service. The only other reasonable option, said the report, was a complete restructuring and reduction of employees' salaries. Says Bower: "People became more worried about who [McGuffin] was going to fire next than about getting problems solved." McGuffin had already terminated the agency's accountant, Don Cornwell.

The most serious findings concerned the Section 8 department. Inspector David Kleinman alleged staff members were receiving cash and gifts as kickbacks in exchange for allowing rents to be set higher than market value. He also claimed employees were steering tenants toward certain landlords and falsifying inspection reports. Kleinman claimed his life was being threatened by landlords who opposed his uncovering of misdeeds. These allegations have yet to be proven. The SAO is currently reviewing materials related to the matter, says SAO spokesman Don Ungurait.

The report confirms there was "a lack of adequate written procedures in virtually every area of the Section 8 program.... The problem is particularly troubling in the area of determining contract rents to owners." The authority was making monthly payments fourteen percent above market rate for one-bedroom apartments and thirteen percent above market rents for two-bedroom dwellings. "In any Section 8 program, this is the area most vulnerable to impropriety," the report's author adds.

A February 2000 follow-up analysis estimates the agency was making an annual overpayment of $266,112 to area landlords, while paperwork that tracked rental rates was poorly maintained. "The deficiencies identified in this report have crippled the authority's ability to effectively refute allegations of impropriety. For this reason, these allegations cannot be dismissed," Casterline concluded. The HUD Inspector General's Office agrees. It is currently reviewing the MBHA's books.

By November 1999 a serious rift had grown between McGuffin and others associated with the authority, both on the board and on his staff. His most vehement opponent was Ruth Pasarell, an outspoken 40-year-old, who is the only MBHA board member living in Section 8 housing. Pasarell had suffered the brunt of McGuffin's criticism, which often came in the form of ironic jabs. It was she who initiated the bid to terminate McGuffin. "I'm the big mouth, the loud pushy one, I've got something to lose," says Pasarell, in her typically powerful style, a mix of self-deprecation and fierce, unrelenting self-promotion.

Pasarell, who has been on the board for three years, adamantly refutes any charge of impropriety in the Section 8 department. "It might be neglect, it might be incompetence, but it's not corruption," she says. "The last time some of these people received instruction was fifteen years ago."

In some ways she shares McGuffin's frustrations with the city's efforts at supporting the poor. "The board is being manipulated by the mayor," she says. "[City government] doesn't want Miami Beach to develop any more Section 8 housing." She blames McGuffin for the agency's internal problems, citing his divisive and counterproductive managerial style. Like many agency staff members she believes problems could have been better solved by seeking solutions from within the organization, rather than bringing in outsiders.

At an MBHA meeting this past November 16, the pressure to oust McGuffin began to spill over. Fifteen staff members, one by one, spoke for several minutes about tensions that had risen to the boiling point. Some speakers had to be escorted back to their seats after venting frustration. Others wept.

Jay Maxwell, an intake specialist and 22-year veteran of the Section 8 department, expressed the department's pain. "Morale is at an all-time low," said Maxwell, reading from a prepared speech. "Big Brother is lurking over our shoulder.... We are not overpaid, and we are willing to work.... These changes are hitting us like bricks."

"What went wrong here [is that] ... employees are being made scapegoats for everything wrong," said Miguel Villa, assistant supervisor of the inspections department.

"Lately, all we do is answer to consultants, HUD, and auditors," summed up Ana Muñoz, a member of the accounting department.

Staff members objected to McGuffin's hiring of consultants and their impossible workload. Although McGuffin dismisses the complaints as sour grapes, several MBHA commissioners, led by Pasarell, complain the executive director had little ability to effectively motivate his staff toward change.

"To me, he was destroying the agency," Bower says. "When you only point out the negative without offering solutions, that ruins things. I thought his heart was in the right place, but his people skills were lacking. You need to handle [your employees] so they are receptive and not inflammatory."

Turkell disagrees. "I think Neil was very good at making recommendations to bring in experts, to bring to the attention of the leaders the status of the authority," she says. "He brought a great deal of information about housing and was a good organizer and a very compassionate man."

At the March 14 hearing only one commissioner, Turkell, voted against McGuffin's firing. The other four -- Burkett, Beloff, Pasarell, and Gutierrez -- agreed to strip him of his $97,500-per-year post and institute a nationwide search for a replacement. Few people were surprised. Even McGuffin's speech seemed no more than an attempt to recite his side of the story for the record.

Although the MBHA commissioners proposed hiring McGuffin as a consultant, he declined the offer. All except Pasarell couched their comments on McGuffin's dismissal in favorable-to-neutral terms. "You have become a lightning rod," Burkett said. "We have become deadlocked, gridlocked, and it's come to a point where we need to make a change."

"Change?" McGuffin recalls thinking. "I'm the first significant force of change in the past seventeen years!" McGuffin maintains he was fired for delivering bad news. "I have been the unfortunate messenger to the board, and they have shot that messenger," he says. McGuffin alleges the MBHA board "is opposed to public housing [although it] is legally mandated to support it.... They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table to bring about change!"

Rolando Barrios, interim director of the MBHA and formerly McGuffin's right-hand man, sits at the same desk McGuffin once used. Barrios wears a purple tie with his gray dress shirt. He is bald and has a thick black mustache. He exudes a wily charm when New Times inquires about the agency's future, parrying questions with other questions in a bantering style. His desk is covered with mounds of documents that rise six inches high. Amazingly Barrios seems to know exactly where to locate a sought-after report amid all of the paper.

He acknowledges Casterline's reasonable-rent survey raises questions about corruption then shrugs, palms up, and offers a pained smile. "I can't get it back," he says of the thousands lost in overpayments. "I'd need an army of workers to solve this problem." Then Barrios shoots a glance at the paper on his desk, indicating the multitude of other problems he has to deal with, including restructuring of the authority, which may mean heads will roll.

Barrios says Maria Martinez, the staffer in charge of establishing reasonable rents, has been stripped of much of her former responsibility. The agency now has a consolidated budget and, surprise, it is even up to date. Barrios offers New Times a copy.

What are Barrios's plans for the agency? "Right now I am in the process of making organizational changes," he says, refusing to be more specific. "I am taking advantage of the staff that wants to work.... I have seen a very positive change.... Staff are coming from all over the place, offering to help."

In a few weeks HUD will release a comprehensive review of the MBHA's Section 8 program. Barrios's refusal to elaborate on changes suggests that nothing will be done until that report is released. Barrios also declines to reveal when the new executive director will be hired, although last week the MBHA began interviewing the first of more than two dozen applicants.

What will the next executive director face? Bower believes the agency is in good shape, despite the consultants' reports. "The MBHA has had good ratings from HUD; it was considered a good housing agency for years," she says. "Things changed at HUD, not at our housing authority." Indeed HUD enacted some new rules in 1998 that require greater accountability and are more rigid than ever. The MBHA is only now experiencing the demands of those changes.

Even Turkell is guardedly optimistic. "Overall the focus in the future needs to be to enhance the philosophy of the MBHA and to increase compliance, " she says. "It was unfortunate the way McGuffin was terminated, and I hope that decision will prove to be a good one and will create the kind of change to make the MBHA a productive, compassionate, and effective organization."

Adds Burkett: "The authority embarked upon a self-examination, a long overdue examination, that revealed a number of deficiencies.... The first step is to take what we have and make it the best it can be."


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