Thursday, February 18, 2010

The City Manager

Francisco Alvarado, who blogs at the Miami New Times, posted a piece today about North Bay Village residents unhappy with Matt Schwartz. You can read it by clicking here. Predictably, it was about the police and alleged conspiracies and dark doings. But as I've said before, it's always about the police and it's never about the police.

Look, North Bay Village carefully earned its reputation over the years for shady behavior and nefarious governance. It's been a long hard slog to clean that up and the people who lost control of the city when Joe Geller and later Oscar Alfonso took office are predictably bitter about their loss. So they scream about the police and never stay around for the answers.

Matthew has become their favorite target. And I call foul about that.

Let's talk about Matthew Schwartz.

When Schwartz started here a little over a year ago, I was appalled to find out that the city could only account for $35,000 of its reserve. NBV was $35,000, or one good rainstorm, away from bankruptcy. I was appointed to the Citizens Oversight Board at that time. It turned out things were even spookier than I thought. We found the reserve and it now sits at about $1.2 million but the legacy accounting was so bad that it was entirely possible to misplace 1/4 of the city budget. Remember, we could have just as easily gone the other way and have been $1.2 million in the red, meaning NBV would be in receivership right now.

Matt took a lot of heat from the board and citizens. He opened the books, corrected errors, listened to (and maybe didn't like) criticism and instituted numerous common sense changes and critical reforms to our accounting procedures. We can now confidently understand and plan based on real numbers. I know this is dull stuff but it is the life blood of our city.

The second critical issue was the deteriorating infrastructure. During the condocraze, NBV did not seem to be aware that there is a limit to what a 60 years old infrastructure can handle. Now I knew about the >$35 million in bond issues and was somewhat aware of the plans, but did not see how these projects could continue during the worst downturn in living memory.

But Matt did. He was able to take the carefully constructed and thought out plans from the Geller administration, when we all wrongly believed that the rise in property values would pay for these improvements , and get large portions funded under the ARRA (Stimulus) money. Instead of collapsing, we are moving forward.

These two issues, for me, are the highest priorities for North Bay Village. Without sound accounting and without good sewer systems and traffic controls, cities collapse. Don't believe me? Just walk the once lovely neighborhood of Forest Hill in Newark, New Jersey or the empty malls of Colorado Springs, Co. Cities can and do die.

Matt has excelled at dealing with both of these issues with an attitude of complete transparency. He's not always right but you never wonder what he's thinking and why. In fact, sometimes I wish he would hold a thing or two back.

Now the classic North Bay Village issue is up again - the police. No disrespect to the police or to my fellow NBV'ers, but third place is the right place for the police department issue. To be clear, I am not saying that our police department is third place, but the other issues had to be priorities for us to survive. First, Schwartz had to stop the bleeding on the finances and get the city moving again, and he's done it.

Not by himself I might add. Matt has aggressively involved the Oversight Board on the accounting issues and the Community Enhancement Board on the projects, has his door open to any citizen and has carefully gained the support of the commission on lobbying and other key issues.

Now the long problem of the contentious North Bay Village Police Department is coming to a head. Poor labor relations, intradepartmental conflict, different citizen priorities, lawsuits,etc have wrought havoc on the police department.

And because it makes for easy sound bites, the NBV PD situation has become the flash point. But easy sound bites don't make good public policy and every mother's son has an opinion on the police from the wannabe cops to the apparently crime plagued denizens of North Bay Island, but the solutions are not so obvious.

I don't know what Matt's plans are for the police. I don't know if Matt knows what his plans are for the police. But if they follow his previous patterns, they will carefully involve all the stakeholders - citizens, police themselves, city administration - and will not be the easy answers but should be the right ones.

So far from me and others, the City Manager gets top marks for prioritizing the problems, approaching them openly, involving the citizens and stakeholders and quickly responding. He has earned the confidence that the police problem will be resolved.

It's a shame that the screamers and conspiracy theorists can't see this, but then again, they don't really care, do they? You never see them doing the hard, boring work on the city boards or spending their weekends researching best practices. In fact, they seldom even stay at the commission meetings past the ironically titled "Good and Welfare". They don't seem to like to hear the answers so maybe it's best they are not involved.

Kevin Vericker

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