Port Miami chief has eye on Beacon Council job

dhanks@MiamiHerald.comApril 29, 2013 

Port Miami director Bill Johnson may jump ship and pursue the vacant CEO slot at the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s economic development agency.

Johnson said Monday he was “leaning towards” pursuing the post. It was left vacant by last month’s ouster of long-time CEO Frank Nero amid a squabble with the county’s elected officials and board members on the tax-funded non-profit.

Johnson, 58, said his seven years luring cruise and cargo companies to the port after a career climbing the bureaucratic ladder in Miami-Dade government would translate well into the Beacon Council’s role as the top corporate recruiter for Miami-Dade’s government.

“It’s about bridging the private and public sectors,’’ Johnson said of the Beacon Council, which receives about $4 million a year in county tax dollars. “The Beacon Council has the opportunity to do great things.”

In Johnson, the Beacon Council would gain a top insider in county government and perhaps the most high-profile administrator in Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration. He has led the port through the construction of the $1 billion tunnel connecting it to I-395 and has been front-and-center as Miami-Dade pursued dredging money tied to lure the larger ships that will be traveling through a widened Panama canal. When President Barack Obama toured the port in late March, Johnson served as a host.

But Johnson’s departure for the Beacon Council could also cause complications for Miami-Dade. His deputy, Juan Kuryla, last week was selected as the new director of the Jacksonville port. Johnson said he has discussed the Beacon Council post with Gimenez, who likely will have a significant say through back channels on who the Beacon Council picks for its next CEO. Johnson also said Monday that his confidence in having a candidate ready to run the port would be a significant factor in his deciding whether to pursue the Beacon Council position.

“I’m not going to lobby for the job,’’ he said. “I’m leaning towards applying.”

Johnson said he has not spoken to the Beacon Council’s search committee, which only officially posted the position Monday on the organization’s website. Interim CEO Robin Reiter declined to comment on Johnson’s potential candidacy. The search firm DHR International has been hired to find candidates for the job.

Nero earned $390,000 a year, according to tax filings, and his abrupt resignation has set off some jockeying for a position last vacant in 1996, when Nero started. Jorge Gonzalez, former city manager of Miami Beach, confirmed Monday he was also interested in the job.

Gonzalez was forced out in July 2012, but said Monday his long tenure in a city known for tempestuous politics was a sign of his ability to navigate the public sector. And he sees his 12 years running a city that depends on tourism as proof he can be a player in the private sector, too.

“That experience of straddling the private and public sector is a key skill set at the Beacon Council,’’ said Gonzalez, 46. “Those 12 years show I was very successful in dealing with elected officials.”

Johnson began work as an intern at the port shortly after college, and has been on the Miami-Dade payroll ever since. Prior to the port director’s job, he served as an assistant county manager. He said he currently earns $262,000 a year, and he has been eligible for a retirement pension for the last three years.

There is no official deadline for picking the next Beacon Council chief, but Reiter said in March that the process will involve a national search and likely take between three and six months.

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