Curious George Sails the River of Red

Following a long tradition, new Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas tries to tame the big spenders at City Hall

On October 7, 2003, Teel nominated Silva as interim city manager -- with a bizarre twist. After having to shell out a ridiculously expensive severance package to remove Johnson from the city payroll, commissioners needed to find someone cheap. The commission unanimously approved Silva when he agreed not only to do the job for nothing but to forsake the $1,000-per-month expense account the commission offered. "It was time to give back to the community," he says. "After working in humanitarian aid for so long, public service comes naturally."

Silva knew he would have to make cutbacks and layoffs, but to fully understand what was going wrong and where, he offered department heads immunity from being fired. Assuming they hadn't done anything illegal, Silva said he would protect their jobs. "A lot of people said, 'Who allowed this? Get rid of the finance people! Get rid of this person! Get rid of that one! They should have told us!'" Silva remembers. "I told these people to come clean, that I needed to know everything. After doing that, I couldn't say, 'OK, because you told me everything, I'm going to get rid of you.' If they were straight with me, I was straight with them. This was a new day."

Silva discovered that the situation was even worse than initially reported. He expected a roughly $14 million deficit. In reality, Fort Lauderdale was in the hole $21 million. Uncapped overtime expenses were costing the city $8 million per year. Departments were inefficient. The pension plan -- whose benefits the City Commission had agreed to increase substantially only two years earlier -- was out of hand.

Vice Mayor Dean Trantalis nominated Silva to the city's audit advisory board, then privately rescinded the nomination.
Colby Katz
Vice Mayor Dean Trantalis nominated Silva to the city's audit advisory board, then privately rescinded the nomination.

"We had to go cold turkey," Silva says. "I couldn't have cared less about how popular or unpopular I was, so I decided to hit everyone between the eyes with all these facts that showed we weren't fiscally sound."

The interim manager put Fort Lauderdale on a strict diet. Overtime was slashed. Employees would not get raises. Hundreds of unfilled positions stayed empty, since salary, health care, and pensions accounted for 75 percent of the city's $215 million annual budget. Services were reduced as a result.

Silva proposed eliminating 14 jobs, including guard positions at the recently shuttered jail. But terminating city employees wasn't easy. A seniority provision in the labor union's collective bargaining agreement made layoffs excruciating. Effectively, the last person hired would have to be the first to go.

"The unions had created a system that caused layoffs to be so painful that you would never think of laying off anyone," Silva says. He remembers how the walls in a large conference room in City Hall were covered with paper. City personnel employees created an enormous flow chart, showing who was bumping into whom and whose jobs would be lost.

"I don't think people realized how emotional all of this was," Silva says, describing the budget crisis' toll. Then he leans back. His chin quivers. A tear streams down his right cheek. Two more follow on the other side of his face. He props his elbows on the table, curls his index fingers, and jabs them below his glasses and into his eyes.

The job that was supposed to be six months turned into ten. In less than a year, Silva did the dirty work that Johnson and the commission had refused to do. "In many cases, people perceived that the commission didn't want to hear bad news," he explains. "There was a culture. I tried to change that culture."

Among the changes Silva made was forcing the police union, coddled by previous administrations and commissions, to share the city's burden. He even proposed closing the Police Department and contracting with the Broward Sheriff's Office. But then city officers protested outside City Hall holding a large drawing depicting Sheriff Ken Jenne lying in bed with Silva, his penis erect.

That proposal -- and Silva's inability to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement with the police and fire unions -- made him persona non grata at City Hall. By the time budget-crunched Fort Lauderdale hired a new city manager in June 2004, Silva was battered and bruised politically. "He was run out of town with torches," Naugle says.

But none of that past turmoil has prevented Silva, now an area director for the Broward Democratic Party, from becoming the foremost authority on what went wrong in Fort Lauderdale and what needs to be done to fix the ailing city.

George Gretsas began down the path to Fort Lauderdale about a year ago, when a friend handed him a help-wanted ad published in the New York Times. "It was seeking a city manager of Fort Lauderdale," he explained recently to about 50 members of the Edgewood Civic Association. "Let me read you what the city was advertising: 'furloughs, layoffs, budget deficit, huge tax increase, union problems, backlogs, poor morale, lack of cohesion, homeless problem, panhandling.' I began to think to myself, 'Do these people need a city manager or an exorcist?'"

At the time, the scrawny, bespectacled, 36-year-old Gretsas was executive officer in White Plains, New York, a city an hour north of Manhattan and one-third the size of Fort Lauderdale. During his roughly six years in White Plains, the New York University Law School grad (who never passed the bar) served under Mayor Joseph Delfino. "We had a father-son relationship," Gretsas recalls. "We were really inside each other's heads. He knew where I was going; I knew where he was going."

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