Under New Management

Mayco Villafaña is a decent man who has been communications director for Miami-Dade County for the past two and a half years. "Mayco always personified integrity and honesty when he worked for me," says former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, who also worked with Villafaña for years at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "He was a professional committed to doing what was in the best interests of the county."

Last week the man who now occupies Stierheim's office, 34-year-old Steve Shiver, abruptly ordered that Villafaña be fired. The manner in which Shiver had his order carried out was disgraceful enough to suggest that its real purpose was to send a message to all county employees: The new manager will ruthlessly fire anyone he perceives to be a threat.

At 8:00 a.m. last Thursday, March 29, Villafaña met with Shiver's new executive assistant, Tom David. The meeting, held in Villafaña's office, lasted no more than five minutes. David quickly got to the point: Villafaña had until 2:00 p.m. to resign, or he would be fired. When Villafaña asked for a reason, David would only say the manager wanted to go "in a different direction."

Within minutes the stunned Villafaña was astonished a second time. A county employee from the Information Technology Department marched into his office and confiscated his computer. Humiliated, he had no choice but to write his resignation letter at his assistant's desk. "The manager has the right to assemble his own team of people. I have no problem with that," Villafaña tells me. "I do have an issue with the way this was done. They seized my computer like I was a criminal. I didn't deserve that. If they told me they wanted someone else in the position, I would have submitted my letter of resignation and we could have worked out a smooth transition." Villafaña pauses, then concludes, "This was all very distasteful."

Stierheim agrees. The manner in which Villafaña was terminated, he says, is "very disappointing; it leaves me cold."

Word of Villafaña's firing quickly spread throughout county hall, further eroding confidence in Shiver's ability to do his job. "I've been receiving calls from department heads and other county officials who are very upset with the way this was handled," Villafaña reports. "You don't treat anybody in that fashion, but you certainly don't treat your professional staff like this."

Shiver defends his decision to fire Villafaña and claims it was prompted by "philosophical differences." He wants someone who will be more "proactive." It's fruitless, however, to ask the manager what he means by proactive. "I'm not going to go into details about that," he sniffs.

Villafaña believes he knows why he was fired. "They think I was leaking information to you and other members of the press," he says. "They think I was giving you too much information about Chris Hebert."

Chris Hebert is the county manager's buddy. They've been friends since high school. The first thing Shiver did in his new position was to hire his pal, who has no experience working in county government -- or even municipal government. But that was no impediment to Shiver placing him on the county payroll at a salary of $67,000 per year with an executive-benefit package worth an additional $14,300.

Shiver and Hebert met while attending South Dade High School in Homestead. Shiver was dating the captain of the cheerleading squad, and Hebert was dating the co-captain. Besides sharing with Shiver an affinity for girls with pompoms, Hebert seems to have only one other qualification for a job in the manager's office: For the past five years he's worked as the appraisal department manager for Shiver's real estate company.

In addition to the hefty new salary and benefits package, Shiver gave 35-year-old Hebert the title "public affairs administrator," a newly minted county position with no job description and no known minimum qualifications. "No one understood what that title meant," recalls Villafaña. "We were only told he reported directly to the county manager."

About two weeks ago, along with reporters from the Sun-Sentinel (and eventually the Miami Herald), I began asking questions about Hebert's hiring. Until that point, Villafaña says, he'd seen Hebert only a couple of times and didn't know much about him. "Once we started getting all these calls from the press about Hebert, I realized there might be a problem and that I needed to find out what was going on," he recounts.

So Villafaña spoke with staffers in the county's employee-relations office and learned the manager had not followed regulations in hiring Hebert. As manager, Shiver has the authority to hire individuals who answer directly to him, but he still must adhere to certain guidelines. For example there must be a job description for the position that outlines responsibilities and qualifications. Job candidates' professional experience must meet the minimum qualifications. In addition prospective employees must submit to a police background check and undergo a physical exam, which includes a drug test. Says Villafaña: "I was told by employee relations that those things were not done."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede