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Williamson Takes Command

NEWS ANALYSIS

Steve Williamson, a former Army colonel and Miami capital projects director, was formally appointed as Key Biscayne’s seventh village manager Thursday. He will report to work May 10.

Williamson succeeds Charles Press, the island’s police chief, who served more than four months as interim manager. The manager spot was left open by the departure of Andrea Agha, who resigned in September and left office at the beginning of the year. Williamson will be paid $195,000 annually, a total compensation that amounts to around $47,000 less than Agha would have earned in 2021 had she stayed, officials said. (Williamson declined Village medical coverage, so the numbers are not strictly comparable).

The selection process was neither swift nor easy, revealing a Village Council still struggling to find consensus after a bruising November election that saw 10 candidates vie for three seats. Williamson was selected in a 4-3 vote, emerging —though some might find ‘surviving’ more apt— as the Village Council’s final choice from a field of at least 52 candidates.

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Last month, an effort to consider Press as a permanent manager erupted into controversy — a move coming after the Village’s own search consultant scored two of the five finalists as unqualified and gave two of three —including Williamson— somewhat tepid approval. The leading candidate, former Town of Palm Beach manager Tom Bradford, withdrew for personal reasons.

The idea of having Press become permanent manager came under withering criticism from several members of the Council, with allegations of “clique” and “conspiracy” being hurled from the dais. The idea was withdrawn, and Press now returns to his post as police chief to deal with an uptick in youth crime.

The challenge for Williamson? Bridging still-raw divisions and escaping the ones that may have contributed to Agha’s truncated tenure as manager. 

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Agha was hired by an outgoing council, not an incoming one, a move that surprised other municipal leaders in the County at the time. She had to execute the wishes of a 4-3 council majority that insisted on lowering taxes and fiscal performance, angering other members focused on services, who complained Agha kept her decision-making process close to her vest.

It was a tendentious political environment she witnessed early on, seeing bitter comments in closed-door legal meetings about her predecessor, John C. Gilbert, who was suing the Village in a dispute over his retirement savings. From there, she was thrust into a series of crises, starting with the Ultra Music Festival on Virginia Key, a hacking of Village computers, a hurricane, and contentious union negotiations. Finally, there was the pandemic, resulting in an unprecedented state of emergency that remains to this day.

Williamson, in contrast, starts his job with the end of the pandemic tantalizingly in sight, ratified labor agreements, improving finances, and $5 million in federal recovery money to allocate. He said Thursday his first task will be reviewing the Village’s response to youth issues, saying he thought Press had done an “excellent job.”

Williamson’s appointment came at the first meeting of the Council in chambers where members of the public were allowed to physically attend, after a majority of Council members twice voted to eject a news media representative. 

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Still, the potential for conflict is ripe. While voters in November resoundingly approved a $100 million resiliency bond to deal with sea level rise and other threats, any actual borrowing requires a supermajority of five votes on the Council. Mayor Mike Davey is term-limited and previous fights over electrical power line undergrounding and other contentious topics are unresolved. 

Williamson, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, may have his hands full. There may be no IEDs, but local politics has its own set of minefields. 

Previous Village Managers

Sam Kissinger, 1991-2002
Jacqueline Menendez, 2002-2007
Genaro “Chip” Iglesias, 2007-2011
John C. Gilbert, 2011-2018
Andrea Agha, 2018-2020
Charles Press*, 2021 (*Interim)
Tony Winton
Tony Wintonmailto:[email protected]
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.
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