Morales, who will be 57 in April, sought a five-year extension to finish out his career here. “This is the hardest job I’ve had and the best job I’ve had,” he told Commissioners Tuesday.
With a part-time City Commission, the City’s manager acts as its CEO. Morales has been on the job since April 1, 2013. His initial two-year contract was renewed in 2015 for a term of four years ending March 31, 2019. His current annual salary is $291,011.50.
A review of Morales’ performance and discussion of the contract renewal was held during a Committee of the Whole, a process where the full Commission can explore items that may take more time for discussion.
Mayor Dan Gelber who initially suggested a five-year extension came to the meeting with a four-year proposal given that was the term of Morales’ last renewal. Tradition has been for the Finance Committee Chair to negotiate the contract and he asked Commissioners to authorize current chair Ricky Arriola to negotiate Morales’ renewal.
“I ran for mayor believing the manager was going to be here,” Gelber said. Gelber, who's in his first term, announced he’s running for re-election. He can serve a maximum of two additional two-year terms.
“We are very fortunate to have Jimmy Morales as our manager,” he said. While there are “always areas we can do better,” he said, “an enormous amount has happened” under Morales, citing the recent GO Bond vote as “reflective of resident support for what the City is doing.”
Noting many important projects coming up in the next few years including Ocean Drive, implementation of the $439 million GO Bond program, completing the Convention Center campus and new park, and the Convention Center hotel, he said, “We need to keep him and, for me personally, it would make me feel much better. His core competencies are so beyond what I’ve seen in other governments.”
“The GO Bond [vote] to me was very striking,” Gelber said. “70% support to spend $430 million says a lot is getting done. A lot is getting done right.”
Gelber said with the major projects in the pipeline, continuity in leadership will be important. “Steady hands” and someone “who knows what they’re doing,” has a strong team and relationships with Commissioners as Morales does are what the City needs right now,” he added.
Opening it up to Commissioners for comment, the group unanimously agreed a renewal was in order but there was disagreement as to the term. They also provided suggestions for improvement.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said he wanted to see “more data, more fact-based analysis” of projects. “With the size of money flying around, I really think we need to elevate our game.”
Referencing the “unique challenges” faced by the City in terms of sea level rise and flooding, he said he wanted to “raise the bar on resiliency” with better “planning and executive engagement with community stakeholders and with the boards.”
Samuelian urged Morales to present a “stronger point of view” on items so that decisions are “less Commission driven.”
“We rely on your professional expertise and your team to call it like you see it,” Samuelian told Morales. He wants Commissioners to consider less of the “small details” and more big picture items but added, “Overall, I’m very pleased.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora noted that he “pushed for evaluation of the City Manager” during another Committee of the Whole when City Attorney Raul Aguila and City Clerk Rafael Granado received their performance reviews and contract extensions. Góngora, who previously served on the Commission before his current term, added, “I was very involved in your hiring.”
“Overall,” Góngora told Morales he was “doing a good job” and was “highly ethical.”
Agreeing with Samuelian, he said the City is “now more driven in a Commission manner” than during his previous term. In his view, he said the “Administration needs to maintain the lead.”
As to the length of the contract, Góngora said long-term contracts are “not the norm,” with 2-3 years more common. He said he would not vote for a four- or five-year deal which would be “beyond the shelf life of many of us here today.”
Saying it would be “bad business policy” to extend for that length of time, he added he was concerned that it would “reek to the public of some kind of secret deal” negotiated in a meeting that was “not highly publicized.”
Góngora and others on social media raised concerns about the lack of transparency with regard to the meeting. City Clerk Granado said it was publicly noticed on the City’s website on February 12 via the NOVUS agenda page and notice was provided in the Sunday Miami Herald. Góngora also posted the notice and agenda on Facebook Tuesday morning. The meeting was open to the public and several members of the community and this reporter attended. (In general, Commission meeting agendas are published the Thursday prior to a Wednesday meeting. In this case, the agenda was posted on Friday prior to a Tuesday meeting.)
Commissioner Micky Steinberg agreed Morales had the “highest of ethics” and said she was open on the number of years for a renewal. “It’s more important that we look at the termination clause,” she said.
Morales answered he was “terminable at will” by a 4/7 vote of the Commission. He currently would receive five months of severance pay, if terminated.
Arriola said, “A 4/7 vote to fire is hard to get short of malfeasance… that’s a high threshold… in essence, that’s how long they’ll be on the job.”
“I’m not a rubber stamp,” he told Morales. “I have high standards, high expectations.” While “getting the Convention Center done is an amazing accomplishment for the City, there are still a lot of things to be finished.”
Arriola reiterated frustrations he has expressed at Commission meetings that “it’s so hard for us to make decisions, to get things through staff.” He told Morales he needed to “cut through the bureaucracy.”
Arriola proposed a one-year term with a list of benchmarks that needed to be completed for another extension.
As he thinks about his own re-election he said there are many projects “approved but still not done,” citing the canopy for the North Beach Bandshell and the Lincoln Court pedestrian bridge, among others.
“We have our own four-year contract with the public,” he said. “I’m terrified of what the GO Bond is going to look like.”
Arriola said he, too, wanted Morales to be “more vocal in meetings, take the lead. I signed up for this to be a member of a Board of Directors” comparing the part-time Commission to a Board. “Right now, there are seven CEOS who tell you what to do and you go implement.”
A Board of Directors okays and authorizes funds, he said. “You’re the visionary that drives this train.”
Commissioner John Alemán said she, too, would like Morales to take “more of a leadership role” but she said, if Commissioners are asking him to “challenge our authority, he needs more security” than a one-year contract.
Calling Morales a “highly marketable person…. a strong, sober, stable, intelligent leader,” she said with the large projects coming up, “It’s in our interest to continue with that” leadership.
Her priorities for Morales include “recrafting a new plan for neighborhood improvement projects” that have been put on pause while the City evaluates its resiliency strategy and getting the resiliency efforts “back on track,” and finding solutions for “how hard it is to do business with the City of Miami Beach.”
Alemán told Morales he is an “amazing city manager” and said, "It's more important to me as a resident than as a City Commissioner that you be here.”
Commissioner Joy Malakoff said “Jimmy has been an extraordinary city manager” in a “very complex, international city.”
“He’s done an extraordinary job in a very fast-moving environment,” Malakoff said. “There’s so much accomplished, so much more to be finished… I would hate to lose our leader at the top.”
“If he can be stronger in running the City, perhaps there wouldn’t be as much waffling among Commissioners,” she said.
Gelber summed up. “There’s unanimous belief you are the man to lead our city, the question is how long before we ask you to go through this again.”
He also argued if Commissioners want an independent city manager, he needs a longer contract to not worry that he’s offending anyone. A longer term gives him “a little more freedom to say to all of us ‘You guys are getting this wrong.’”
Góngora reiterated his support for a one-year renewal.
Arriola said he could “get comfortable giving him a long runway, but I need the comfort based on certain deliverables that we all list.”
Steinberg who was on the Commission when Morales’ contract was renewed last said, “All I know is four years” but that she would support a minimum of three years, maximum of four.
Malakoff, a former bank executive, said “Bank CEOs are not hired one year at a time,” but rather for three- and five-year contracts.
Gelber said, “You also want to make sure your guy is not a free agent soon. One, two years, my concern is sends a message to the world that they can poach us.”
Saying “Jimmy has been as clear-eyed about his performance as anyone, Gelber said he would support not less than three years but asked for four. [Excerpts from Morales’ self-evaluation can be found at the end of this article.]
During the discussion of various benchmarks, Commissioners disagreed on what was within the manager’s control and what was up to private developers and, in some cases, there was mention of obstructions placed by Commissioners.
Morales said he appreciated the “very candid conversation.”
“I admit I’m still a work in progress guy,” he said. He added he welcomed the benchmarks saying “This is a dynamic city. Governing should be dynamic.”
When he was hired, Morales said the “benchmarks were a lot looser. We’ve come a long way.” He was hired, he said, “to restore trust, restore morale, get things done.”
He said he was heartened by the GO Bond ballot initiative. If the voters trusted the Commission but not the Administration, Morales said they would not have voted for the bonds with an approval of almost 70% on all three buckets.
He acknowledged “We do an incredible job on some of the really big stuff” but on the smaller things that “mean a lot to a particular community… we need to do a better job.”
“We have a huge footprint, the budget of a medium size city, profile of a large city,” Morales said. “We still have to keep the streets clean and make sure code is enforced and sometimes things fall through the cracks. That can’t happen.”
“It’s been an incredible six years,” he said. “I look forward to giving back to the town that gave me so much.” Morales is a product of Miami Beach and is a graduate of Miami Beach Senior High School. He said he appreciated whatever time the Commission would give him.
Arriola then turned the tables and asked Morales what makes his job harder and what Commissioners can do to help him.
“Revisiting issues,” Morales said. “When you start, stop, start, stop, the staff starts and stops and we lose momentum.” When “two people show up at a meeting” and Commissioners reconsider a previously approved project “then it’s stalled for a year” he said, referring back to the Lincoln Court pedestrian bridge Arriola mentioned earlier.
Second, he said, “I appreciate you want to reach consensus,” but added, “A 4-3 vote’s a good vote.” Gaining consensus on everything takes a lot of time and while there may be some issues where Commissioners may want to push consensus, he said, on others, “Vote 4-3 and let’s move on.”
Finally, he said, “Don’t overreact. Stuff happens, it’s on social media, something false, a fraction of a story.” Rather than discussing it with him, he said, it gets placed on a Commission agenda as a discussion item.
“Tell me what’s going on,” he said. “I’m available.” Responding is “hard in real time, social media moves so fast.” The Administration may not respond as quickly, he said, because “we want to make sure what we put out is accurate.”
“Give us a chance to respond,” he said. “Trust that we’re going to respond and we’re going to be responsible.”
Commissioners agreed Arriola as the Finance Committee Chair would negotiate the terms of the contract including a list of benchmarks curated from contributions from Commissioners and Morales.
Final tally of the extension term:
Steinberg: minimum three years, maximum four
Malakoff: four years
Arriola: three to “give the new Commission the ability to renew him in three years.”
Góngora: “I’m likely a no” but said he would support “two as a compromise.”
Samuelian: either three or four
Arriola will work with a three- to four-year timeframe and clarified that if there was a “good roadmap” in terms of benchmarks, he could get comfortable with a four-year term so Morales has time to implement them.
Final vote on the extension for three to four years was 6-1 with Góngora voting no.
Góngora told Morales, “I support you and I support your extension. It’s the term I disagree with.”
A list of the benchmarks will be distributed via a Letter to Commission (LTC). LTCs are publicly available and posted on the City’s website under the City Clerk’s office.
A vote on the contract will be taken at the March 13th Commission meeting.
Morales provided Commissioners with a self-evaluation in a nine-page memo dated January 29.
He noted accomplishments that include delivering “on a significant workload,” including completion of over $900 million worth of capital projects during his tenure. He cited the Convention Center project, “a critical regional asset, that while partially funded by the County, was delivered by City staff from start to finish.”
Morales also highlighted the creation of the trolley system, and the successful Convention Center hotel and GO Bond referendums.
He touted his recruitment of a “strong management team” and efforts to improve morale. At the same time, he said he has terminated thirteen department directors, including five that he hired, and a total of 253 employees which, he said, represented “approximately 12% of the workforce” due to poor performance.
Morales noted the response to the challenges of Zika and Hurricane Irma as examples that “highlight the strength of the organization” in performing under duress and his personal handling of the theft of $3.6 million from City coffers. In that case, he said, he worked closely with the police, FBI, and US Attorney’s office to recover 99% of the stolen funds within one year “without having to file one lawsuit or spend a penny on litigation.” He also noted new processes and controls put in place to prevent further fraud of this type.
Other successes, he said, include maintaining the lowest millage rate in City history based on available City records, healthy reserves, and a strong credit rating; completion of the beachwalk in Mid-beach; “restoration and strengthening of our dune system which worked wonders during Irma”; and a successful rollout of the Park Ranger program.
He also highlighted a new emphasis on North Beach. “We have endeavored to focus more resources on this area in which I grew up: restoration of the Normandy fountain, First Fridays at the Fountain, opening a Building Dept. annex, the NB trolley, the NEET team, four new historic districts, NB town center overlay, Rhythm Foundation programming at the Bandshell, upgrades to all the parks in North Beach, additional fire unit, an RFP for the Byron-Carlyle building, and increased services to seniors. By issuing fuel cards to police officers in North Beach (thereby eliminating the need to drive to Terminal Island for gas [the location of the City’s Fleet Management facility]), we obtained an estimated productivity gain of over 3,500 neighborhood patrol hours annually in North Beach. Expanding our efforts in North Beach is one motivation for wanting to continue in my current role.”
With regard to resiliency, he wrote, “It was only two months after I started in 2013 that Rolling Stone magazine published that cover of Miami drowning, and suddenly South Florida and especially Miami Beach, became ground zero and the poster child for sea level rise and climate change. More importantly, the City really does face an existential challenge in the long term, and serious flooding and other issues in the short and medium term. Unfortunately, we are having to address these issues (i) with little or no financial or other support from the federal and state governments, and (ii) with no real roadmap or manual on what needs to be done. The City is literally writing the playbook that others will follow. The problem is that since most learning is done through trial and error, this process is and will continue to be difficult and controversial.”
Still, he said, much had been accomplishment on resiliency including a “more robust stormwater management master plan”; elimination of “sunny day” flooding in Sunset Harbour, most of West Avenue and lower Alton Road; completed stormwater projects on lower North Bay Road, Crespi Boulevard and nearly competed on the Venetian Islands, Palm and Hibiscus Islands, and Sunset 3 and 4 Islands; and some relief on resident flood insurance premiums due to a higher rating in the National Flood Insurance Program Community Rating System as a result of the City’s resiliency initiatives.
“This progress has not been without missteps and hiccups,” Morales wrote. “Early in the process, we were not very good about communicating with impacted neighborhoods. We have learned that we need to communicate extensively throughout the process. Hopefully the experience of the Columbia University accelerator which resulted in the re-activation of the West Avenue project will serve as a model moving forward.”
“Similarly, we did not pay adequate attention to aesthetics and greenspace in the early days when the project was driven by a desire to address flooding as quickly as possible. The ULI report was instructive on this and the GOB has now afforded us above ground funding to address these concerns.”
“The most difficult project has been the Indian Creek road and seawall stormwater project,” he continued. “The seawall work turned out to be more complicated than originally understood, and sadly the actions of a former employee caused a portion of the wall constructed to date to not comply with applicable law and the permit. The roadwork portion has dragged on since we are doing this project in conjunction with FDOT (they are funding 80% and dictate the procurement process). The good news is that the work done so far and temporary measures we have taken have significantly reduced the sunny day flooding that took place on that stretch of the road. We are working closely with the regulatory agencies to correct the seawall work and finish it.”
Morales also highlighted his effort to improve ethics. “During my time here, I have strived to make sure that my administration was transparent, honest, ethical and apolitical,” he said.
He cited expansion of ethics training for regulatory employees and an increased number of city vehicles with automatic vehicle locators “from 300 to 1,090 which has given us much better oversight of vehicle use and employee behavior.”
“The one scandal that did take place at a management level during my tenure (the building official) was identified by my office,” he said. “I engaged the police and the State Attorney’s office to investigate, and I took disciplinary actions (including termination) despite the case still being pending.”
Moving forward, he noted the $1.6 billion in construction work on the horizon including the 57 projects in the $439 million GO Bond, the Convention Center campus work, implementation of the stormwater master plan and other water and sewer projects, the Lincoln Road restoration, completion of the beachwalk and baywalk, various parking garages and lots, and the Convention Center hotel.
“I am excited by the prospect of completing the work left on the Convention Center campus and helping inaugurate the new parks. I want to work with you to see that the HQ hotel be built and open in time for Art Basel 2022. I acknowledge that my tenure here has not been perfect, but I know that I am a better manager today than I was six years ago, and I believe I am in the best position to continue working with you to make your vision a reality.”