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Lester Sola doesn’t think much of the bathrooms at Miami International, and now he’s ready to do something about them.
“It’s really a pet peeve of mine,” said Sola, a 26-year county employee recently tapped by Mayor Carlos Gimenez to shift from running Miami-Dade’s department of Water and Sewer to running its department of Aviation. “I think we have a great operation here. But I think if there is an area of improvement, cleanliness is one area I’d like to focus on.”
Sola, 52, takes over MIA and the county’s four executive airports after last year’s exit of Emilio González, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now Miami’s city manager under new mayor Francis Suarez. While González used his five years in the Gimenez administration to land a job elsewhere, Sola is taking over his fourth county department under his third mayor.
Admirers see the long-lived career as a credit to Sola’s administrative hands-on management abilities in a $7.4 billion government run by the mayor, but also his knack for keeping happy the 13 county commissioners who must approve all contracts.
“Lester is someone who can deliver on the administrative part — and the legislative part,” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, the current chairwoman of the committee that oversees aviation. “Sometimes we have an idea of what to do, but it might be the wrong thing to do. Getting feedback … is very important.”
Less than a month into his new job, Sola forced out a top MIA executive after a tense back-and-forth with Commissioner Dennis Moss during the March 6 commission meeting, according to the executive’s account. “Who is guarding the henhouse?” Moss asked Sola, citing a troubled management contract for the MIA hotel and the recent sentencing for money-laundering charges against the operators of an airport lounge.
If there is an area of improvement, cleanliness is one area I’d like to focus on.
Lester Sola, new director of Miami International Airport
Hours later, Greg Owens, MIA’s assistant director of business development, said Sola called him into his airport office, brought up Moss’ comments, and told him to find another job. “He said, ‘I just need to get rid of problems,’ ” Owens said of Sola. “He said, ‘You need to find a place to go.’ ”
Owens is a 27-year county employee whose portfolio as MIA’s real estate manager includes the airport and lounge. He also clashed with Moss’s wife, Margaret, when she worked in the airport’s real estate division and Owens was a supervisor, according to internal emails between the two obtained through a public-records request. She transferred to Water and Sewer in 2015.
Owens said he told Sola the criminal investigations tied to the hotel and lounge came before his 2013 promotion to his current post, but that Sola didn’t change his mind. An airport spokesman denied Sola asked Owens to resign, saying Owens made a “personal decision” to leave. Owens submitted his letter of resignation Monday, with his last day slated for Tuesday and an official retirement taking effect July 1.
Moss said he wasn’t aware of Owens’ resignation. “That’s up to them in terms of what they do,” he said of Sola and Owens. “But accountability is important.”
Sola, now earning $301,000 a year, takes over MIA on the heels of a soft year for the airport — traffic dropped 1 percent to 44 million in 2017, making it Florida’s second-busiest airport, ceding the bragging rights to Orlando for the first time in years.
A drop-off in domestic passengers last year caused the decline. Hurricane Irma didn’t help. The airport closed outright for several days from a storm that disrupted state travel for more than a week. But domestic traffic at MIA was already down nearly 3 percent through August, according to airport statistics. The airport barely avoided a decline in 2016, with the Zika scare turning an 8-percent growth spurt the prior year into a gain of less than 1 percent by December 2016.
He said, “I just need to get rid of problems.” He said, ‘You need to find a place to go.
Greg Owens, outgoing assistant director of business development at MIA, on Sola
Lower traffic resulted in a 2 percent drop in operating revenues, according to the department’s latest certified financial report. Operating expenses grew 6 percent in the same year, thanks to higher payroll and larger bills from contractors.
The figures raise the stakes for Sola’s debut year as the county’s new aviation director. He is traveling with a county delegation to China and Japan this week in hopes of securing direct flights from Asia, a goal that was high on González’s unfinished to-do list after securing new routes to Israel, Africa and Europe.
As Sola makes his first big moves as MIA director, he said he wants to focus on areas where the airport leaves passengers confused or frustrated.
“This is a very large airport. Lots of people walking through it,” he said during a recent afternoon stroll past airline check-in lines and baggage-wrap kiosks.
“People want to come to Miami,” he said. “But you want to make that first impression a good one. From the gate, all the way through the facilities, restrooms, and really the signage making it easy to manage your way through the airport.”
In the latest J.D. Power ranking of the nation’s largest airports, MIA finished first when it came to dining and shopping options inside the terminal. But so-so customer reviews in the other areas — including baggage claim and terminal facilities — kept it out of the overall Top 10, with Orlando snagging the No. 1 ranking.
Sola said he has already had a meeting with C&W Services, the contractor responsible for cleaning MIA’s bathrooms. “I told them that, at least in the ones I had seen, there was room for improvement,” he said. A representative for C&W said the company is already implementing technology upgrades to keep the bathrooms cleaner, adding “we embrace Lester Sola’s forward thinking and priorities.”
If you’re walking through a terminal and you see a restroom is not clean — it’s everybody’s responsibility.
Lester Sola, new director of Miami International Airport
Sola started as a management trainee with the county in the 1990s and worked his way up to his first directorship as head of Elections in 2003, followed by the county’s purchasing arm, Internal Services, in 2011 and Water and Sewer three years ago. His tour through the management ranks included a four-month stint as MIA’s associate business director in 2001, and he helped reshape the airport’s controversial Dade Aviation consulting contract as an aide to then-County Manager Steve Shiver.
The Sola appointment comes months after Gimenez reshaped the contracting operation at MIA, long a source of corruption probes, politically influential lease holders and campaign contributions for county races.
Gimenez shifted Aviation’s purchasing operations to Internal and appointed a senior aide in the mayor’s 29th Floor office to oversee leasing. González fought the move, adding to the sometimes icy relations between him and County Hall. “I was very independent because I wasn’t a career county employee,” González said this week. “I made my own decisions.”
With Sola, Gimenez has an aviation director already well versed in commission relations and adept at avoiding the kind of flare-ups that can blow up contracts and spending decisions.
Sola said he routinely pores over bid documents and solicitations at Water and Sewer, sometimes intervening in negotiations over contract details. One of the longest-serving department heads in county government, Sola said he’s happy to bypass mid-level managers to fix things.
“When I was the Water and Sewer director, I would be driving down the street. And if there was a Water and Sewer truck working, I’d pull over and introduce myself to them,” Sola said. “They’d be confused, why is this citizen introducing himself to them?”
Sola said he even butted in with MIA staff years before taking the Aviation job — pulling aside janitors to point out a dirty bathroom even when running other departments. At one of his first meetings with his new deputies at Aviation, Sola said he told them he wanted the same kind of fixation from airport staff.
“If you’re walking through a terminal and you see a restroom is not clean — it’s everybody’s responsibility,” he said. “I really do want to empower people to say something. Say something to the person who is not doing their job.”