Miami hires controversial administrator amid scandal. She says she did nothing wrong

Facing his own controversy about his spouse’s involvement in city business, Miami City Manager Art Noriega this week hired Doral’s recently fired city manager, a longtime administrator who lost her job amid allegations that her own spouse improperly benefited from city resources.

Noriega made the hire as he faces his own wave of scrutiny over the city’s furniture purchases with Pradere Manufacturing, a company owned by his in-laws that employs his wife.

Barbara “Barbie” Hernandez, who was fired as Doral city manager in January, will begin her new job as Miami’s assistant city manager for operations on April 1. In her new role in Noriega’s administration, she will be paid an annual salary of $235,000, plus $800 in monthly car and cellphone allowances.

In a 3-2 vote on Jan. 31, Hernandez was dismissed after Doral Councilwoman Digna Cabral accused her of failing to “work collaboratively” with the whole council, using the city’s communications office to promote her husband, Miami-Dade School Board member Danny Espino, and serving drinks from a brewery co-founded by Espino at a city-sponsored event. Espino’s School Board district includes Doral.

After a debate that included words of support from community members and the mayor, Hernandez was terminated without cause.

Hernandez told the Miami Herald that Noriega and her direct supervisor, newly promoted Deputy City Manager Natasha Colebrook-Williams, did not ask her about the Doral controversy or her husband.

“That conversation didn’t come up actually because the School Board doesn’t have anything to do with the city,” she said.

Noriega did not respond to the Herald’s questions about his decision to hire Hernandez.

Hernandez denies any wrongdoing. On Thursday, she told the Herald that she was fired from Doral over “politics,” and she provided a memorandum that detailed her response to specific allegations against her. She said she had good working relationships will all five Doral councilmembers.

Hernandez provided previous examples of Doral social media channels promoting events for the previous district school board member, including backpack giveaways. She said parks staffers directly contacted several local businesses, including the brewery, to participate in the event at no cost to the city. The brewery, Beat Culture, was one of two businesses to respond the city’s request, and she said the city has worked with other alcohol establishments to participate in other city-sponsored events.

Days before her dismissal, Hernandez sought an opinion from the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Executive Director Jose Arrojo responded with a letter advising Hernandez that she can be involved in matters that broadly involved the school system, but to avoid conflicts in the future, she should not be directly involved in matters concerning her husband’s role as a School Board member. Arrojo did not review any of Hernandez’s past decisions or actions, in keeping with the agency’s rules.

Hernandez’s defense was not enough to fend off her firing. Weeks later, the Doral City Council expelled Espino from an office he maintained in City Hall.

A former parks director for Miami, Hernandez returns to a City Hall steeped in scandal. Mayor Francis Suarez is under multiple investigations over his jobs outside of City Hall. Commissioner Joe Carollo faces a $63.5 million civil judgment that could cost him his home after a federal jury found he weaponized city resources to pursue a political vendetta. Former Miami City Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla faces criminal bribery and money laundering charges.

And there are questions facing the person who hired Hernandez.

City Manager Arthur Noriega gives his remarks during a special commission meeting regarding the city’s budget at Miami City Hall on Monday, December 11, 2023.
City Manager Arthur Noriega gives his remarks during a special commission meeting regarding the city’s budget at Miami City Hall on Monday, December 11, 2023.

Concerns over a conflict of interest have persisted for Noriega since January, when Herald news partner WLRN reported that the city had contracts worth over $440,000 with Pradere. Noriega has vehemently denied any impropriety and pledged to address the concerns — though his initial response only sparked more questions.

On Monday, he released a report and spreadsheets with inaccurate information on the city’s spending on Pradere furnishings. He was forced to walk back the data on Tuesday, and he canceled a planned interview with the Herald to discuss the issue. He has declined to comment any further on the matter.

Hernandez previously served as Doral’s parks and recreation director from 2011 to 2019 before leaving to work for Miami Beach’s parks department. She led the city of Miami’s parks department from March 2021 to December 2022, when she became Doral’s city manager.

On Thursday, she said that despite the negative headlines, public servants are doing commendable work in Miami.

“I think there are a lot of good things happening in the city,” she said, “and I just don’t think they’re being showcased.”

Other appointments

Hernandez’s hire was one of several personnel moves announced by Noriega on Wednesday.

He named Colebrook-Williams as his deputy city manager after the departure of Nzeribe “Zerry” Ihekwaba, who will be installed as Homestead’s next city manager on Thursday.

Asael “Ace” Marrero, the city’s building director, has been promoted to assistant city manager of infrastructure.

Noriega also named a new fire chief. Robert Hevia, the city’s former emergency manager who helped lead the department’s COVID-19 response, will lead the fire department.