Gathered with the throng outside Miami Beach City Hall last Thursday to speak with protestors and observe their rally was Commissioner Ed Tobin. He, fellow Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, and Mayor Bower were the only City Hall notables to appear at the rally.
The mayor having just been confronted by angry demonstrators before leaving the area and taking refuge from the crowd, Tobin remained behind, unaccosted, to offer his perspective to the SunPost’s Charles Branham-Bailey:
“It’s very hard to hold the manager accountable.”
TOBIN: I asked for the Inspector General in 2008. I went to the State Attorney’s Office. I went to Jorge Gonzalez and I told him that I suspected some problems in the building department. I thought that we were paying quadruple for soft and hard costs and I had a contractor come to me and tell me that the selection process was rigged for money.
I was dismissed in the strongest way by the mayor, then-Commissioner Saul Gross, and the manager and I was told not to raise these issues, especially on TV – it destroys the public’s confidence in government.
SunPost: You received yesterday’s memo from him, did you not?, where he’s laid out a five-pronged plan of what he’s going to ask the Commission for? One of those is that he’s going to ask the Inspector General’s office to supply ethics retraining of employees. He’s also turning to the FBI. Are these solutions sufficient?
If I was the FBI, I wouldn’t speak to any of the employees here and disclose any of the information or anything regarding the investigation until their investigation is closed and they understand the full scope of the malfeasance.
What people need to understand is that the commissioners have very little say-so. We’re different from the county; we have term limits. The professional staff that runs the city have been together for decades. They went to high school together, were friends together, they socialize together. They all make very, very large salaries. The city commissioners are part-timers.
If we ask for any information on a sensitive issue, we don’t get it. We’ll ask for months and months and months and then, finally, we’ll get something that we didn’t ask for or a large group of documents that we didn’t ask for.
All information has to come from the city manager. All of our requests have to go through the city manager, so it’s very hard to hold your manager accountable when you don’t get any of the information that would suggest that there’s any impropriety or wrongdoing or, for that matter, poor management. We’re told ‘everything’s great’ until it hits the newspapers and then we come up with a big campaign [to address it].
I think elected officials are people that come from the community. The professional management [people that comprise the city manager's team] understand when we get here that it’s just a matter of time before they’re able to wear us down. It’s almost like a joke. They’re like, “Yeah, you’ll lose your resolve.”
If you look at the first year of [TV video] tapes when I’m on the Commission [raising issues with the administration], Commissioner Gross would look at me and laugh and he’d say things – I’m paraphrasing him – “You’ll see.” And I’d go, “What do you want me to do, Saul, quit?” And he’d go, “No. Go ahead, but you’ll see.”
“The compliant people are the favorites.”
SunPost: Commissioner Wolfson said on Tuesday at the [Miami Beach Tuesday Morning] Breakfast Club that he thinks that the city manager is a good man.
SunPost: He thinks that that the people who work on his team are good but that they’ve become out of touch with the public. Would you say that not only the city manager has to go but his entire team as well – Hilda [Fernandez] and on down?
I know very little. I’ve asked [Gonzalez] in the past, “Are there any written evaluations on your executive team?” And I was told by Jorge that he doesn’t believe in written evaluations.
You have to understand that when I say that very little if any information gets to the commissioners, I mean [chuckling] very little information gets to the Commission. We get nothing and anybody who wants to be honest with you will tell you.
Now – again – if you’re sort of “on the team” and you’re not complaining, you’ll get that program you want for the elderly and it’ll get put at the top of the list. Or you’ll get that sidewalk fixed. And – sort of magically – when you’re good, you get a little. And when you raise questions, or you ask too many questions, you face a maze of technicalities and obstacles. Even when there’s problems like this one in a much smaller degree.
We’re not allowed to speak to each other, so Jorge will come to each one of us individually and say, “Hey, I’m really sorry and everything’s fine, and – by the way – you know that project you want for the elderly? That’s going to the top of the list and we’re going to really try.”
I think the bigger picture is we need to look at the consequences of a professional management team versus elected officials that are term-limited, because you have a city administrator that’s been in here for 12 years – remember, billions of dollars’ worth of contracts run through this building.
The nice people and the compliant people are the favorites and get a return phone call and get an extra copy of a document.
And I do think that Jorge is a nice guy, he’s a family guy. I think he’s a master chessman in the political arena. I think that anyone who knows him will tell you that it would be sort of men-against-boys to try and compete against his seasoned ability to speak to the public and sort of disarm and dissuade the public from their anger and excitement over a multitude and myriad of issues.
I’ve had this conversation with him before where I say, “You know, you don’t reward competency, you reward loyalty.” It’s like the ambassador to France. He’s not maybe the most knowledgeable guy on France but he gave the Obama administration $5 million dollars during the campaign.
“Waste a lot of money, give the public half of what they need”
I think that what happens over time is you begin to say, “How do I protect my power base? I know that the public is malleable, I know they expect a C-minus product. I know for the most part they’re not involved and if I send them a glossy advertisement and give them a little helping hand here and there, for the most part the public’s going to accept C-minus.”
I’m not sure that I would say that they’ve lost touch. I would say that nowadays the public demands more, with social media and the Internet. Dissatisfied people can raise a stink, whereas before….
I think that Jorge and many of his administrators come from a generation where you could tell one guy in line to take a hike, or stall a project, or not do your work, and he [the unfortunate citizen] wasn’t able to reach another 20 or 30 or 50 people that have had the same experience. [Now] it’s a very different dynamic.
I think the public deserves at least a B-plus [effort from their leaders]. The public deserves the best that we can be. I’m not saying that we should be perfect. Right now, it’s “talking the talk but not walking the walk.” And the public accepts it.
Unfortunately, we [commissioners] have very little input unless we’re told that we’re going to have some input on a matter like outdoor food displays on Lincoln Road or the vendor ordinance where these people will sell their wares. Those are the things that they engage us in.
But when we question the budget or we question the spending or we say, “How do you measure…?” Public Works – [there's] flooding all over. Many of the projects we have started and completed, only to find that the outfalls – which are the pipes that lead out to the bay – have collapsed years ago. So why am I spending money on engineering and why am I building a new project – why am I changing the bathtub and changing the tile and changing the faucet when the drain was clogged? But if nobody knows or nobody cares….
Speak to the people in the Venetian Islands. They had an 11- or 12-million-dollar budget. The city burned through $3 million worth of soft costs on engineers and so forth and then, magically, the public works director said, “Uh, we checked the water pipes. We don’t have to redo water in this neighborhood because the water pipes are great.” That would have certainly saved a couple of million dollars which had already been wasted on soft costs.
The residents and I, and some activists in the community, said, “Well, we want to see the coupons that show that the water lines are okay.” And for weeks we asked for the coupons – which is what they’re called – and for weeks we didn’t get them. Finally, they had to say, “Well, we can’t find them.” We went out and witnessed coupons being taken and the lines were 80% and 90% tuberculated.
Normally, in government, what do you do? You waste a lot of money on soft costs and bad construction, you give the public half of what they need, you wait a couple of years and then you redo the work and you fix a little. It’s just done in a very haphazard, non-caring way.
“I’m hoping for better days.”
SunPost: Has the FBI or anyone with the U.S. attorney’s office come to you or any other commissioners –
SunPost: – and briefed you on the progress of this investigation?
No. Typically, the mayor – who has a long-standing friendship with Jorge – the mayor and Jorge are the guardians, so to speak, of all information.
SunPost: So no one from the federal government has reached out to any of you all to seek information or to brief you on any aspects of this.
No. I’ve made overtures to the federal government and the state government on occasion over the years that I’ve been here, but, typically, they want to know if I have a videotape or a photograph or something of a more concrete nature and then, of course, they’ll check in with the administration – I would hope that they would at least check in with the administration.
I’m hoping for better days. It’s unfortunate that we are in this sort of mutually-assured destruction. We all said in a nice way, “Maybe it’s time for a change,” and the mayor said, “No, it wasn’t,” and now we have to air our dirty laundry in public because the manager believes that enough of his influential people in the community….
[We] elected officials typically aren’t able to develop the type of ties that a city manager with a powerful position [has]. He’s developed some very, very strong contacts throughout the community, so there’s plenty of big players behind the scenes, calling commissioners, telling them to stand down.