January 25, 2020
Miami’s top administrator survives push to fire him, but will be investigated
 
 
By Joey Flechas
 

The top administrator in Miami’s government is under investigation after surviving a dramatic attempt to remove him on Thursday.

In a tense political showdown where he was not even present, Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez narrowly survived an attempt to remove him from the most powerful position in the city’s day-to-day operations, a post that oversees a $1 billion budget and a 4,000-person municipal workforce. Though three of five commissioners voted to fire him, the removal of the manager requires four votes under city law. 

Gonzalez did not attend the meeting because he was with his wife, who is ill.

Thursday’s hours-long proceeding represented an eruption of tensions at the highest levels of Miami’s government that amounted to a vote of no confidence in Gonzalez by a majority of the commission. Commissioner Joe Carollo, one of Gonzalez’s most frequent and loudest critics, moved to fire Gonzalez after presenting images and permitting records that suggest Gonzalez might have falsified a land survey while applying for a permit to repair a deck in his backyard earlier this year. The deck, Carollo said, was never permitted in the first place, and he said Gonzalez must have doctored the survey to make it look as if the deck had been there for 20 years.

The commissioner parlayed the issue, which raised concerns among fellow commissioners, into a vote to dismiss Gonzalez and launch a national search for a new manager.  

Carollo, who was cited for unpermitted work on one of his own properties earlier this year, said the unpermitted work was not the crux of his concern, but his suspicion that Gonzalez falsified a document attached to his permit application to cover up the unpermitted work.

“The big deal isn’t that he put a 24’-by-24’ deck in his backyard,” Carollo said. “The issue is that as the city manager, he tried to hide it.”

After the failed vote, commissioners unanimously agreed to send the allegations to the city’s independent auditor general to begin an inquiry. Commissioners expect a report in late January.

Carollo, a former mayor, piled onto the permitting issue with a litany of gripes surrounding his relationship — or lack of one — with Gonzalez and his staff. The commissioner’s arguments veered from saying he doesn’t feel safe in Miami because he’s not sure he can trust the police department under Gonzalez to complaining his office is not notified of important projects and events in his district.

He also blasted the administrator’s management style. He accused Gonzalez of working less than 40 hours a week, delegating too many responsibilities to his deputy, Joe Napoli, and spending too much time posting selfies to social media and rubbing elbows with politicians around town and in Tallahassee. He also said an official from Miami-Dade College — someone he refused to name when the Herald questioned him — told him that Gonzalez had sought to be named the college’s next president.

“We could either make a professional decision, or we could keep playing politics,” Carollo said to his colleagues.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes eagerly supported Carollo’s motion, complaining that Gonzalez’s administration is unresponsive to information requests and to directives from the commissioners. He added that he’s been disappointed to find out about what’s going on in the city in the Miami Herald instead of getting briefed by his own administration. 

“It’s very sad for a commissioner to find things that are going to happen in the city of Miami through the paper,” Reyes said.

The third vote came from newly elected Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who sat on the dais for the first time Thursday and voted with his top political ally from the campaign, Carollo. He briefly explained that even before his election, he sensed a “toxic environment” in City Hall. 

When asked about Gonzalez’s performance before his election, Diaz de la Portilla told the Herald “the jury’s out” on Gonzalez, though he saw administrative problems with, coincidentally, the city’s permitting process. On Thursday, he said he’s had no personal experience that made him sour on Gonzalez, but he trusted Carollo and Reyes.

“I think we need to move the city forward,” said Diaz de la Portilla.

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Gonzalez did not respond to questions about the allegations regarding his permits or his conduct as city manager.

“I’m dealing with my wife’s situation right now,” he said. “I will deal with this matter at the appropriate time.”

The attempted firing prompted Mayor Francis Suarez, who nominated Gonzalez for the job shortly after his election in November 2017, to play defense. Suarez cited historically low homicide and property tax rates, as well as double-digit growth in property values, as major wins for Gonzalez’s administration — which, by extension, can be seen as Suarez’s administration. He also objected to holding the debate and airing accusations when Gonzalez was absent.

“I think that this entire conversation is inappropriate because the manager is not here,” he said. The move to fire Gonzalez came out of a vaguely worded agenda item that did not mention removing the manager.

Suarez has no vote on the commission; he only has the power of persuasion and the veto pen to influence legislation. Commissioners Keon Hardemon and Ken Russell echoed Suarez’s concerns about the timing, expressing disappointment that the commission would consider firing Gonzalez on a day he was caring for his sick wife. 

Hardemon in particular noted that the issues raised do not suggest there’s a threat to life safety in the city, which is typically a threshold for the commission taking emergency action. 

“I don’t understand the rush of it,” Hardemon said.

Still, Hardemon and Russell both expressed their own frustrations with Gonzalez, which include communication issues and his tendency to delegate responsibilities.

Before authorizing the auditor to look into the matter, commissioners considered holding their own investigation and using their subpoena power to question city employees about the permit accusations in a public meeting. Russell argued against holding an inquisition in City Hall, fearing the spectacle would project heightened instability in the city. 

Thursday’s debate, held in a commission meeting open to the public, suggested the city already has some deep divisions that breed dysfunction and bad blood between lawmakers and the staffers who implement those laws.