New year, new faces and titles at Miami City Hall.
Mayor Francis Suarez has named a new chairman of the City Commission and hired a new chief of staff. Fresh off his first year in office, which featured a mix of legislative and political wins and losses that included a failed bid to expand his powers by becoming a "strong mayor," Suarez has used one of his few powers to name Commissioner Ken Russell as the new commission chairman. Russell represents District 2 along Miami's coast stretching from Morningside to Coconut Grove. His vice chairman will be Commissioner Willy Gort, who is entering his final year in office representing District 1, which includes Allapattah and Grapeland Heights.
This mean Russell, considered a Suarez ally who is running for re-election this year, will control the flow of legislation for Miami's decision-making body and run commission meetings. Russell has served as vice chairman for Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who served as chairman for three years.
Russell will hold the gavel as he vies for a second four-year term after dropping his bid for Congress nearly last spring. He already has a challenger — Javier Gonzalez, a Coconut Grove real estate agent who ran in 2015. Russell also a war chest. After refunding donors who wanted their money back and donating to nonprofits and other Democratic organizations and campaigns last year, Russell moved $100,000 from his Congressional campaign into a political committee backing his commission campaign, a group called Turn the Page. Two donors complained they never heard from Russell before the transfer, gripes that Russell considered political potshots from folks who've been angered by his votes in the past. The District 2 race could be a lively one.
Suarez thanked Hardemon in a memo this week announcing the appointments, saying Hardemon "effectively and efficiently presided over the City Commission." Hardemon, the District 5 commissioner representing Overtown, Liberty City, Wynwood and the Upper Eastside, was known for keeping meetings moving along, thought he drew some critics with the way he organized public comment periods. He held public hearings at the beginning of morning and afternoon sessions during commission meetings instead of allowing comments before votes on individual items. Hardemon developed a reputation for capably steering the sometimes-heated conversation among commissioners without inciting their ire and using his position to make speeches about race relations in Miami.
On Wednesday, Russell told the Miami Herald he is not planning on any substantive changes at this point, but he generally wants to work with city staffers to improve the resident experience for those who come to City Hall and wish to address the commission.
Suarez also named a new chief of staff: Jeremy Schwarz, an attorney at K&L Gates, Harvard Law graduate and Navy veteran. In other personnel news, city communications director Eugene Ramirez is leaving to join national public affairs and communications firm Kivvit. A former television journalist, Ramirez joined the administration in spring 2018 as a new hire under City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, a Suarez appointee. Ramirez worked with Stephanie Severino, deputy communications director, who has now been promoted to director.