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

"I'm still not used to this," Gretsas admits. "In White Plains, the government was the government. We didn't have these niche organizations and special tax-assessment districts."

Gretsas walks to his desk in City Hall and pulls out a cartoon published in the Sun-Sentinel not longer after he took the top job in Fort Lauderdale. It depicts two U.S. Army soldiers defusing a roadside bomb in Iraq. "It could be worse," one of the soldiers says. "We could be the new Fort Lauderdale city manager."

Gretsas laughs. "Keeping your head down and hoping you'll get through the day is a very depressing thought," he says. "I've never been afraid to accept a new challenge, and Fort Lauderdale offers a great one."

Chad Crowe
Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas (pictured) believes he can clean up the financial mess left by former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson (next photo).
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Gretsas (pictured) believes he can clean up the financial mess left by former City Manager Floyd T. Johnson (next photo).

The city is debt-ridden. Services have been cut. Morale is low.

Naugle isn't likely to lead the city out of its mess. When Gretsas' first budget, which included a 24 percent tax increase, came before the commission in September 2004, the mayor voted against it.

And after less than a year on the job, it's beginning to seem that Gretsas can't do the job either. Fort Lauderdale's new city manager has allowed personal biases to get in the way of city business. Gretsas' most ardent critic is his predecessor, Silva, who has publicly questioned Gretsas' commitment to fixing the insurance and reserve-fund problems.

The city manager's distaste for Silva became apparent at a March 1 City Commission conference meeting. Leaning over a table surrounded by Gretsas, Naugle, and the rest of the commission, Vice Mayor Trantalis offered his nomination for the audit advisory board, a citizen's budget oversight group that Silva created when he was interim city manager.

"Don't shoot me for this, George," Trantalis said, addressing Gretsas, "but for the audit advisory position, Alan Silva."

Gretsas stared at Trantalis angrily for a long three seconds, then nodded his head and scribbled on a legal pad. A few hours later, at Gretsas' request, Trantalis privately withdrew his nomination of Silva.

"Sometimes wounds have to heal," Gretsas explains. "I'm not sure that the best way to heal is to have Alan Silva on an advisory board... Alan Silva and I have different styles and different philosophies. [He] has to accept the fact that [he's] gone."

But by muscling out his predecessor, Gretsas may have violated Florida laws that require open government, says Barbara Peterson, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. "It's troubling that a commissioner would make a nomination at a public meeting, have a private meeting with the city manager, and then privately withdraw that nomination," Peterson says. "It might not be a technical violation of the Sunshine Law, but it does raise questions about the intent and spirit of the law. The intent is to make the public aware of the entire deliberative process. If the city manager has a problem with the nomination, why didn't he say something at the conference meeting?"

Silva agrees. "Are the other city commissioners opening themselves up to a situation where the city manager can withdraw their nomination?" he asks. "It sets a precedent."

Moreover, Silva believes Gretsas is courting disaster. The new manager has refused to implement plans that are essential to preventing another financial calamity in Fort Lauderdale. Among them: pushing a financial stability ordinance mandating that the city manager build up the reserve fund by 2007 and that the commission vote at least 4-1 before dipping into reserves. These policies would keep both the commission and the manager in check.

"There's no accountability right now," Silva says. "You can't hold George Gretsas to any sort of accountability."

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