Fresh from a four-day weekend trip to Paris celebrating his 38th wedding anniversary, a jovial Joe Arriola assures his department directors his job is not in jeopardy. "I'm going to be here for a long time," Miami's embattled city manager promises his senior staff during a January 31 meeting at the city's administration building in downtown Miami. "So that is the end of that conversation," Arriola continues. "We are not going to talk about it anymore."
In the weeks preceding his minivacation to the City of Lights, Arriola had taken center stage in the embarrassing fire fee fiasco engulfing Miami City Hall. In January several witnesses in the high-profile case, including prominent attorney Henry "Hank" Adorno and current and former city employees, countered Arriola's line that he had no idea a seven-million-dollar settlement that was supposed to be divided among some 80,000 Miami property owners had gone to only seven individuals.
While he and his wife Lourdes traveled down the Champs lysées, back home Arriola's adversaries and outraged taxpayers were demanding his ouster. Television and newspaper reporters were abuzz with unconfirmed rumors Arriola would be out of a job by the time he returned to Dinner Key.
Yet Arriola was right. He is not going anywhere not until he is ready to walk out the door. "I have an incredible relationship with the mayor and four of the five commissioners," Arriola brags. "If the naysayers want to keep painting me as an ogre that is their problem."
Undoubtedly Arriola's boss, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, has consistently voiced unwavering support for Arriola, whose authoritarian and abrasive leadership style conveniently allows Diaz to concentrate on a more pressing interest raising his profile for a higher office, perhaps even lieutenant governor, in the 2006 state election. City Commissioners Angel Gonzalez, Joe Sanchez, Michelle Spence-Jones, and Johnny Winton have also demonstrated that their loyalties lie with Diaz and Arriola. Tomas Regalado has been the only Miami elected official to openly challenge the city manager, going as far as seeking a vote of no confidence in the wake of the fire fee revelations. Arriola responded by calling Regalado a "demagogue and a liar who hides behind his wife's skirt" in front of a group of television reporters.
"It seems everyone is lying but Joe," Regalado says during a recent conversation. "I think if he really wants to help the city, he should leave."
But even Regalado and other members of the Arriola Critics Club concede the city manager is not going to bow out gracefully. "I don't see him resigning," opines Edward Pidermann, the city's fire union president, who has often clashed with Arriola. "His ego will not allow him to admit wrongdoing on his part."
Instead Pidermann is betting that Diaz, the man with the power to can Arriola, will soon have no choice but to fire the manager, especially if Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Peter Lopez rules against the city later this month. "Joe has become a political liability," Pidermann offers. "I think the time is drawing near when the mayor is going to say enough is enough."
Arriola, a self-made millionaire who enjoys boasting about his tax-deductible decision to donate all but ten dollars of his $245,000 annual salary and pension benefits to the United Way, dismissed Pidermann's commentary during one of several sessions with New Times in the days following his return from France. (Arriola made his fortune as chairman and CEO of Avanti/Case-Hoyt, a printing press company he sold for $42 million in 2001 to the St. Ives Corporation). "Like a lot of people, Ed Pidermann has personal reasons for disliking me," Arriola says. "But I've got news for him: I'm staying."
Hanging out with Arriola is like sitting through a Tony Soprano therapy session. "I put up with all these headaches for ten dollars a year," Arriola grouses. "You think people give a damn? No. People want to hate their local government. They want to believe everyone is stealing. But I believe what I'm doing is right, and I really don't care what people say or think of me."
In addition to claiming he gets no respect, Arriola whines that the local media, particularly the Miami Herald, have inaccurately portrayed him as a bad guy. "Sure we make mistakes," Arriola spouts. "Sure we fuck up. But not everyone here is stealing from the public trough. The most frustrating thing is that you tell people the truth, but they don't want to hear it."
Shortly after concluding the January 31 staff meeting, Arriola marches into his office at the Miami Riverside Center on SW Second Avenue. The city manager is dressed in cream pants, a white dress shirt, a turquoise print tie, and black loafers. The only sign of his sizable personal wealth is the chunky gold Rolex watch on his left wrist.
His office walls are covered with plaques and awards from various civic groups honoring him, including the Dade Heritage Trust and the Latin Builders Association. Near the door, Arriola has hung a framed picture of the Rat Pack and an autographed photograph of former University of Miami football star Kellen Winslow, Jr.
On a mantel near his computer desktop, Arriola displays a shrine of family photographs. He and his wife have five adult children and two grandchildren. The Arriolas live in a six-bedroom, six-bathroom estate in South Miami, which they purchased in 2001 for $1.5 million. Joe drives a 2004 Jaguar, while Lourdes cruises around town in a 2005 Porsche.
Waiting outside Arriola's office is local developer and Latin Builders Association president Gus Gil, who made the unfortunate decision to cut down a black olive tree in Coconut Grove without the city's permission. Arriola's booming baritone voice vibrates the walls as he calls Gil into his office. What unfolds is reminiscent of the scene from Arriola's favorite flick, The Godfather, in which Johnny Fontane asks Vito Corleone for assistance.
A handsome fellow dressed in a pink-and-white striped guayabera and black slacks, Gil tells Arriola he is going to plant fourteen trees in the Grove to atone for his mistake.
Arriola is not satisfied. "Eso es una mierda," Arriola roars. "I want sixteen trees and $3000 for the city's tree fund."
A flabbergasted Gil balks. "No way," he responds. "It's either the trees or the cash."
"C'mon, it will be good for your conscience," Arriola insists. "You won't have to go to confession."
"Don't give me that bullshit," Gil retorts. "I've already planted six trees. I'll give you eight more and the $3000."
Arriola doesn't budge. By the time the negotiation is over, Gil has agreed to plant twenty oak trees and donate $4000 to the tree fund. "You're an abuser," Gil says to Arriola.
Later the same afternoon, after meeting with out-of-town investors interested in doing business in Miami, Arriola arrives at his office at Miami City Hall on Pan American Drive. Like his downtown office, the room is adorned with mementos, sports memorabilia, and family photos. Arriola settles into his office chair, ignites a Marlboro Lights menthol cigarette, and takes a drag.
On his desk rests a framed Far Side comic strip depicting the Devil sticking his pitchfork into a guy standing in front of two doors. One door has a sign that says: Damned if you do. The other door's sign reads: Damned if you don't. The Devil says to the guy: "C'mon, c'mon, it's one or the other."
Halfway through the cancer stick, Arriola takes a phone call from a disgruntled Miami taxpayer. Arriola puts August Barone, a 75-year-old retiree, on speakerphone. Barone demands an explanation about the fire fee controversy: "I want to know what happened to my money," Barone bellows. "Someone has created a fraud against the people of Miami, and I want to know what is being done about it!"
During the half-hour conversation, Arriola coolly shares his version of events with Barone while chain-smoking at least five cigarettes. As he relays his story to Barone, Arriola accuses the Miami Herald of making him look like a liar.
Barone: "But the people who were paying the fire fee where never notified about this settlement. That is the fault of the people running the city, not the Miami Herald ."
Arriola: "And I'm telling you we are trying to get your money back. That is why we went to court."
Barone: "You know it is very difficult for the average taxpayer to know who is telling the truth and who is telling a lie."
Two weeks after his conversation with the city manager, Barone says he doesn't believe Arriola when he claims he didn't know the seven million dollars was going only to the seven plaintiffs. Barone cites the testimony of Hank Adorno and former city attorneys Alex Villarelo and Charles Mays, all of whom refuted Arriola's version of events. Under oath, Adorno insisted Arriola was fully aware the settlement would go only to his clients. Under oath, Mays relayed that Arriola knew the city's strategy was to allow the statute of limitations to run out on certifying the lawsuit as a class action so no other taxpayer could make a claim against the city. Under oath, Villarelo denied advising Arriola that he should personally meet with Adorno to hash out an agreement.
"Someone is telling a lie," Barone reasons. "Are you to believe the many people who are telling the same story, or Joe Arriola, who is telling us something else? I can only assume that the city manager did what he would have done as a private businessman: He took the easy way out."
In the late afternoon on February 2, Arriola is doing his best not to pay attention to the commotion outside city hall. Several dozen people have gathered in front of the building, carrying placards reading: "Let Go of Joe!" and "Fire Arriola!"
For nearly an hour, about 100 protesters chant for Arriola's ouster. The impromptu protest was organized by 42-year-old paralegal Yvonne Bayona, a member of the Roads-Vizcaya Homeowners Association who battled with the city administration and Commissioner Joe Sanchez to save the majestic trees on Cuban Memorial Boulevard last year. During that brouhaha, Bayona had her own run-in with Arriola at a public meeting. "He kept saying things that were not true," Bayona recalls. "When I tried to correct him, he ordered two police officers to kick me out of the meeting."
Bayona is among a growing number of Miami residents dissatisfied with Arriola's arrogance and disdain toward the average citizen. "Arriola doesn't respect the taxpayers," Bayona says. Incensed that Arriola has not been terminated for his role in the fire fee debacle, Bayona decided it was time to take action. So she e-mailed messages and distributed flyers to hundreds of homeowners and enlisted the fire union to show up at city hall and demand Arriola's head.
"How can Manny Diaz continue to support someone with such ignorance and low class?" Bayona raps. "Arriola thinks he will be there forever. So does the mayor. But we are the ones who have the say, not their political machinery."
Meanwhile Arriola acted as if there was no protest. He went about his business as usual. He later incorrectly dismissed the gathering as a ploy by the fire union to rattle him and the mayor. "Only 42 people showed up," Arriola sounds off. "Three-quarters of them were from the fire union. The rest of them were people who supported the losers in the election. So why should I care?"
Arriola's reaction did not surprise Tomas Regalado. "The guy attacks everyone who doesn't agree with him," Regalado sighs. "And it's not just people who have criticized him regarding the fire fee. He's had a lot of turnover with department directors who have clashed with his agenda."
For example, Regalado notes, Arriola forced the resignation of former zoning administrator Francisco Garcia in late 2004. Despite protests from local developers, Garcia had issued a reinterpretation of the city's zoning code that required proposed projects taller than 40 feet be set back farther from single-family homes. Regalado says Garcia's ruling led to his departure. Arriola claims Garcia left his post because he was not capable of doing his job.
Regalado also cited Arriola's tussle with city auditor Victor Igwe concerning the latter's scathing inquiry into how the administration awarded $39 million in no-bid contracts to companies represented by lobbyist Steve Marin, a close friend of Arriola and Mayor Diaz's. "Arriola threw him out of his office because he didn't like being investigated," Regalado says. "If you play by Joe's rules, things get done. But you better not question his judgment."
It is midmorning February 3. Arriola has just wrapped up an appearance on Bernadette Pardo's WQBA (1140 AM) radio show, where yet again he addressed the fire fee quagmire. Radio journalist Edwin Bautista, who does man-on-the-street interviews for El Vacilón de la Mañana on El Zol (WXDJ, 95.7 FM), approaches Arriola outside WQBA's studio on SW Eighth Street.
The city manager, who was engaged in a cell phone conversation and being videotaped by a WPLG-TV (Channel 10) cameraman, tried to ignore Bautista. The El Zol reporter, holding his cell phone in front of Arriola's face, grilled the city manager with questions, asking why only seven residents received the seven-million-dollar settlement. The encounter was being broadcast live on El Vacilón, a popular Spanish-language radio show hosted by Enrique Santos, who last year ran against Diaz for mayor and lost. Not surprisingly the fire fee has been a constant subject of ridicule on El Vacilón.
After walking half a block, Arriola turned around and snapped at Bautista. Arriola squeezed Bautista's flip-phone shut and slapped the reporter's hand away. Arriola barked in Spanish: "Get that shit away from me, man!"
Bautista scurried off. He later filed a complaint with the Coral Gables Police Department and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, alleging Arriola assaulted him. Back at his city hall office, Arriola defends his actions. "I didn't punch the guy," Arriola fumes. "I didn't even shove the guy. All I did was shut off his phone. But don't worry I'm gonna get him for filing a false police report."
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Bautista is not the first person to complain to the state attorney's public corruption unit about Arriola. Richard Dunn, a former city commissioner who lost his bid against Spence-Jones last year to represent District 5, asked prosecutors to investigate Arriola for official misconduct during the city election this past November. Dunn claims Arriola is guilty of abusing his position as city manager to help Spence-Jones get elected. Regalado is among several people who also filed complaints with the SAO, requesting an investigation into possible perjury by witnesses, including Arriola. Joe Centorino, head of the SAO's public corruption unit, acknowledged he is looking into the complaints, but stopped short of saying Arriola was the target of an criminal investigation. "It is something that bears our attention," Centorino haws. "Beyond that, I really can't comment."
Yet Arriola detractors such as Bayona don't think Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle will conduct a thorough investigation. "She hasn't done anything," Bayona grumbles. "If she investigated Art Teele, she should also be investigating Diaz, Arriola, and the rest of them, because something definitely smells bad."
Meanwhile Arriola is reclining in his chair at city hall. His feet are propped up on his desk. A Marlboro hangs from his lips. He says he is not worried about being investigated, because he has not done anything criminal. But the public beatings are beginning to take a toll. He reveals he is unsure he will stay on the job for the duration of Diaz's final term as mayor. Two commission aides who asked to remain anonymous say Arriola has hinted he will step down by the end of May. "I love my job, but I'm also 58 years old," Arriola says. "I need to find new challenges."
At the same time, Arriola insists he is not about to quit with the fire fee controversy hanging over his administration. "I know I am better off leaving," Arriola says. "But I have never backed down from a fight. This has become personal, and I am going to prove the naysayers wrong."