Downtown Development Authority to work fast to replace Nottingham, refocus efforts
By Risa Polansky
With veteran members cringing at the memory of eight months spent searching for a new director for the Downtown Development Authority five years ago, its board this week laid out plans to expeditiously replace outgoing head Dana Nottingham — without letting the agency's mission fall by the wayside this time around.
Board members set a 90-day goal to find a replacement.
They gathered Monday morning after last week receiving a letter from Mr. Nottingham announcing his "intention not to extend the term of my professional services agreement with the Miami DDA" and "desire to immediately commence discussions with the board about the possibility of my terminating employment without compromising any of my rights and privileges."
The letter followed a publicly criticized audit of the authority and came "in response to recent board discussions about the future direction of the organization and my role," Mr. Nottingham wrote.
The board intended to meet this week to discuss his future with the authority, but the focus turned to the hunt for a director after Mr. Nottingham announced his plan to leave.
During 2003's search, the authority "pretty much shut down for eight months," said longtime board member Loretta Cockrum, chairman and chief executive officer of the Foram Group.
She advised the board to begin laying out a "very careful plan" to avoid a repeat experience.
Fearing "a lag" and "some significant drawbacks," Oscar Rodriguez, senior vice president for the Related Group, urged fellow board members to quickly shortlist executive search firms — calling an eight-month search period "unacceptable" — and encouraged Mr. Nottingham to "stay on as long as possible until we find someone."
Commended by the board for his "professionalism," Mr. Nottingham pledged his support for the authority and downtown Miami.
"I've invested a lot of my life and time to downtown Miami, and I still want to contribute as much as I can," he said.
Board member Neisen Kasdin, attorney and shareholder with Akerman Senterfitt, suggested identifying a search firm "within a week" and setting up "a timeline along the lines of 90 days" to find a new executive director.
Board Chairman and Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, supportive of the 90-day goal, created committees to negotiate Mr. Nottingham's exiting terms, to head the search for his replacement and to focus on a smooth transition for the authority.
Mr. Nottingham, who left Virginia for Miami after being recruited for the post, said he could not comment yet on his hopes for the terms of his termination agreement and said he's unsure of his plans.
His agreement with the authority, which began Jan. 1, 2003, and has been automatically extended annually, says he is entitled to nine months' salary should the agreement be terminated but stipulates that the "DDA shall not be obligated to pay any severance or other amounts to the executive directorů if DDA terminates the agreement or elects not to extend the term due to the executive director's gross negligence, willful misconduct or fraud."
Mr. Sanchez, who has chaired the organization for about a year and worked to change its focus to aesthetics and services rather than straight development, said he has a vision for both the organization and its yet-to-be-named head.
"He needs to come with experience on promoting economic vitality," Mr. Sanchez said, "promoting retail and restaurants in the downtown."
Candidates should also be well read in beautification methods and come with plans to provide services "for those that pay taxes downtown," he said.
The development authority has been criticized recently for what some have called inaction and misspending.
After last month's audit — in which the City of Miami's auditor general Victor Igwe noted a lack of adherence to city code in some procurement processes, inaccurate payment of some staff salaries, some frivolous spending and other administrative slips — downtown property owner and developer Rafael Kapustin said it wasn't these findings that concerned him.
"The issue goes beyond that," he said early this month, rebuking the authority not for the audit itself but for its use of downtown property owners' money.
He doesn't mind paying extra taxes to the authority, he said, but "tell me what they're doing with that kind of money — I walk the streets, and it's a disaster."
The authority last year spent $1,795,840 in personnel expenses and $247,241 on rent for its 29th floor office in the Wachovia Financial Center on Biscayne Boulevard.
This year, spending plans call for $1,918,953 for personnel and $257,000 for rent — about half of the authority's more than $4 million budget.
Though Mr. Sanchez touted recent accomplishments such as the deployment of downtown ambassadors and increased spending on services in this year's budget, he agreed "one of the biggest concerns is we're too top-heavy in administrative costs."
Money should be spent on programs and services, he said, "not on fancy offices and senior staff."
He said he is examining the authority's lease, which ends in 2014, with hopes of arranging to, within the next year or two, leave the upscale building and sky-high office space that offers a breathtaking bird's-eye view of downtown in favor of a more hands-on, street-level space.
"With what we're spending here, we could have even purchased property downtown," Mr. Sanchez said.
He envisions a "one-stop administrative center" that could house also the area's Neighborhood Enhancement Team office and Community Redevelopment Agency office and offer services such as sessions with planning, zoning and code enforcement staff — and even time with the authority chairman.
"I'm going to be more hands on at the DDA," Mr. Sanchez said, hoping to spend three hours a week in the new office to address "issues pertaining to the DDA."
After taking a year to "digest the beast" as new chairman, he said, it's time now to "recalibrate the organization."