LIZ HERNANDEZ CITY’S COSTLIEST EMPLOYEE
By George Volsky
City records – budgetary figures for the last decade – indicate that City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez who is leaving City Hall December 31, 2010 to return to private law practice has been the most expensive employee heading the most expensive office that Coral Gables has ever had.
Since the beginning of the 1998-1999 Fiscal Year through September 30, 2010, the city’s legal office cost Coral Gables residents close to $7 million, of which she received about $2 million. Long-time analysts of the city’ wage structure, including retired top officials, regard those amounts as extraordinary high, especially since during about half of Hernandez’ city employment her office consisted only of her and one assistant, a knowledgeable, underpaid paralegal who did most of the work.
Hernandez relied on the paralegal’s expertise because, as several high city officials have noted there were legal issues she was unfamiliar with. In addition, it is known in City Hall that she used to be very often away from her office during working hours busy in extensive “social” activities, as Commissioner Chip Withers euphemistically called those absences at a recent city commission meeting. According to City Hall officials, Hernandez had ample time for her extensive “social” outings because there were virtually no legal cases, sometimes involving simple court appearances or one-page letters, which she wouldn’t outsource to dozens of law firms or individual attorneys.
(There is a consensus in City Hall that although Hernandez is supposed to strictly adhere to the law in all matters, regardless who might be affected by her rulings, “Loophole Liz” – the sobriquet she is referred often by countless city employees – she has essentially seen her job as being the defender of the commission, which had hired her, especially the mayor, and her friends in the administration, especially a few favored department directors. Another unanimous opinion of city insiders is that had Hernandez not announced her departure from the city she would have been asked to leave. It was because finally there were three commission votes against her: Commissioner Maria Anderson, once her supporter but lately on the fence, had reportedly decided to join her colleagues William Kerdyk and Withers, who for a long time wanted the city attorney removed. )
The above-mentioned budgetary totals, even though they include Hernandez’ salary and her office’s expenses through Dec. 31, are assuredly much higher. It’s because documents pertaining to the period from the Fiscal Year 1996-1997 – when Hernandez was hired – to FY 1998-1999 are not available at the Finance Department; they are said to be stored in a city repository and could be made accessible only at a very high cost for “labor and research.” That labor, under Hernandez was the task of IT, the Information Technology department which was supposed to enter that fiscal-legal information into the city’s data base but never did.
Still, had the 15-year expense of a city legal office would been only about $7 million, with the attorney making about $300,000 a year, some lawyers could persuasively argue that the cost wasn’t really excessive. (According to city records, In FY 2009-2010, Hernandez salary was $197,954; plus slightly more than 50 percent in benefits, she pocketed over $300,000. She is Coral Gables’ highest paid employee.)
But in addition to the $7 million that Coral Gables has paid for its legal office, in the city budgets there are expenditures of close to $8 million which over the years Hernandez used to retain outside attorney, sometimes for minor legal work that the job description requires city attorney to perform.
Yet, the total of $15 million does not represent all the cost of the city’s legal expenses either. Analysts of city budgeting point out that since 2001 – coincidently the year when Don Slesnick became mayor – the city paid exactly $1,067,071 for what the budget calls “Judgments and Damages.” Again, that figure could be much higher because some payments for lost cases, among them for employees wrongfully fired – separations which had to have the city attorney’s imprimatur, do not seem to be included that category, part of the budgetary “Non-Departmental” expenditures, a large appropriation without explanation. For example, in the 2007-2008 budget there is the “actual” expense of $381,606 for “Other Miscellaneous Expenses.” No enumeration for the “actual” outlay was provided.
Also, apparently hidden somewhere in the past city budgets was the money which Hernandez had spent at will, using her PC (Purchasing Card) often for what appeared purely personal expenses. Over the years, for example, she has been paying for expensive lunches and other items that were very little or totally unrelated to Coral Gables business. On at least one occasion, she paid with her PC for wine consumed at lunch, which the city prohibits. That was confirmed by her lunch companion Robert Meyers, head of the Miami-Dade County Commission of Ethics and Public Trust. Before taking possession of their Purchasing Cards, city employees must sign a statement which prohibits them to pay for alcoholic beverages and personal expenses.
There are also indirect expenses born by city taxpayers as a result of Hernandez’ actions or inactions, part of the gallimaufry of personal and legal skeletons that repose in various city closets and which hopefully will come out to be reported soon.