Firings don't cure city's scandals — they just cover them up
By Michael Lewis
The firing of two officials last week in separate scandals seemed to eradicate cancers in Miami's city hall.
Nothing of the sort. The malady lingers, awaiting a cure.
In one case, the housing director was fired after steering contracts to an agency that employed an ex-husband, funding a non-profit that employed her son and allegedly misleading the US government about the potential conflicts.
In the other, the former director of capital improvements was fired after a quarter of that department was arrested for doing private work on city time for years, even though she blew the whistle on the scam.
The two cases differ markedly. The housing director was at center stage, whereas the capital-improvements director was a bystander. Both, however, came to personify scandals in the press and, by extension, the public mind.
In fact, neither woman was the core problem. The gut issue still festers at city hall.
That malady is a culture that looks the other way. And that's more dangerous than any malefactor.
During years in which 11 employees spent 85% of their day using city computers, materials and cars doing illicit jobs for their own benefit, didn't co-workers notice anything?
A quarter of the Capital Improvement Department toils away assiduously but produces virtually nothing. How come folks at the next desks didn't notice — for years?
Either they pay absolutely no attention to what their department does, they're indifferent to an obvious ripoff of the city or they're afraid to speak up.
Any of those explanations shows a rot in city hall that's far worse than 11 people who have been charged with crimes because under any of those conditions — inattention, indifference or fear — the whole of the city is at risk.
The discharged ex-director couldn't have caused such insidious work climates. Mary Conway joined the city in 2003 and later left that department. She was in charge during a fraction of the scam's years — and she blew the whistle. Whether she's due some blame while she was in charge or is merely a convenient scapegoat to get the media off the city's back, we'll probably never know.
What we do know is that she was not the problem. And the problem still festers.
Take Barbara Gomez, the ousted housing director. She couldn't have been steering contracts to places where family and former family worked without subordinates being aware. Why didn't they speak up? Was it inattention, indifference or fear?
Again, Ms. Gomez was ousted not because anyone internally objected but because the media heat was on affordable housing. Sure, she bore responsibility, but she also was a scapegoat for a problem that's still festering, waiting for the next time and the next.
It seems to be a culture where nobody inside talks about big problems. Nobody asks Mayor Manny Diaz about his business partners who lease city land any more than anyone in city government worried about where Ms. Gomez was steering contracts or what 11 employees were doing all day for years without producing work.
It could be inattention at city hall. It could be indifference at city hall. It could be fear at city hall. It could be all three.
Any of those is far more insidious than one woman steering contracts and certainly far worse than a department head who blew the whistle on a scam.
Inattention, indifference and fear are endemic. They rot an organization.
And that is the true scandal at city hall.
Leadership in rooting out this perilous environment in which business is done, or not done, at city hall must come from all directions — the top, the rank-and-file employees and the voters. None of them — or us — should tolerate a government where nobody speaks up as a city decays from within.