Andrea Agha chats about the challenges, pleasures and achievements being Key Biscayne’s village manager
Key Biscayne Village Manager Andrea Agha has, since taking the role in August of 2018, been an engaged and sometimes controversial leader, driving strategic initiatives, challenging department personnel and priorities, and at times butting heads with elected council members over village priorities, bureaucracy and communication.
The Islander News decided to chat with Agha to catch up on how she thinks things are going.
Islander: Being in public service, the village manager is often at the center of the storm, so to speak, when dealing with controversial topics and decisions. What do you think has been your biggest success in public policy on the Island?
Agha: First, I would like to thank you, Justo, for reaching out and giving us the opportunity to have this conversation. With everything going on, I don’t always have as much time as I would like to have conversations like these. I am deeply appreciative of the role you play in keeping residents informed.
You are correct. Navigating the difficult issues facing the village can feel a lot like being in the center of a storm. Luckily, through my experience working in the public and private sector, I have acquired a sense for these things that always keeps me calm. In the village manager role, I do not set policy as much as I recommend it.
I would have to say that one of my biggest successes, administratively speaking, has to be the analysis and recommendation that secured the funding mechanism to advance the first 60% of the Stormwater Master Plan. The investment in our stormwater infrastructure is essential to implementing new technologies that mitigate sunny day flooding. The decision came at the right time as our Island’s existence is threatened by sea level rise. We are adapting.
Islander: Most disappointing?
Agha: I would have to say the most disappointing was the Undergrounding Utility Master Plan. Not because the product wasn’t a good one, but because it was not fully adopted. As the head of the village government, I strive to put forth solutions for pertinent issues facing the village, and rising sea levels are a well-documented concern, both globally and locally.
It’s disappointing to work on something and not see it come to fruition. I think any hardworking professional understands that feeling. Notwithstanding, we took an item for approval at the May 19 council meeting to award a contract for survey work, which is the next step to be able to underground utilities.
Islander: Two-part question: As the county starts to reopen May 18, what do you see as the most immediate priority for the village?
Agha: The most immediate priority for the village continues to be the health and safety of our residents. As we transition into the recovery phase, we must strike the right balance between reopening and providing appropriate safeguards for public health.
The “new normal” will be an unprecedented reality for all of us. As businesses reopen, we must continue to be mindful of the practices we have adopted during this pandemic to keep ourselves and those around us healthy. As your village government, it is our job to enforce the rules and diligently monitor for any indication that this reopening is hazardous to the health and safety of our community.
Islander: Taking a longer-range view, as you see it, what will be the biggest challenge facing the village post-pandemic?
Agha: In the long-term, the biggest challenge facing the village continues to be how we will adapt to a changing climate and rising sea-levels. These issues are still coming our way and will continue unabated by the current health crisis. However, this experience does show us that the village can, and should, prepare for more than climate-related disasters.
Some of the biggest challenges revealed by the current crisis is the heavy reliance on in-person business and systems. I have made a big push toward automation, and I foresee a continued effort to develop more resilient systems that function normally, even when the workforce is required to work remotely, whether due to hurricane debris blocking the roads or a global pandemic. No matter what comes our way, flexibility, creativity, resilience, and a collaborative spirit will be very helpful in dealing with any emerging challenges.
Islander: How do you respond to people in the community who categorize the village’s management as being too bureaucratic and slow, creating inefficiencies in the timely completion of projects? Do you think the issue is more process or people? Or there is no issue? Please explain.
Agha: The village is at a critical stage in its development. It has aging infrastructure that needs to be upgraded and maintained. The community has high aspirations, which is a good thing, and it requires a significant amount of work to accomplish successfully. There are also significant issues that threaten the future of the village such as rising sea levels and ever-strengthening storms. As the village’s needs and infrastructure become more complex, it requires the organization to grow and adapt with it. A considerable amount of planning and analysis goes into implementing solutions that properly address these problems in a financially responsible way.
What we are experiencing now, and what many people call increased bureaucracy, are the growing pains of an organization accustomed to a lax approach to management. Speed and efficiency are expected to improve as we align on our goal to imbue the organization with modern management practices.
Have you ever built a boat? There are many ways to do it. You can cobble together a couple of sticks, tie them together and push it on out. It’ll take you probably about an hour or two, it’ll float, and you may get pretty far on it, but it isn’t what I’d call professional craftsmanship. If you wanted to build a sailboat however, that would take time, probably a long time. You would take a lot more care in how you build it. If you asked me which I would rather travel in, hands down I would go with the sailboat.
Islander: What have you done to put these objections to rest? What specific changes in approach or style have you made that show you, the mayor and council are working together to implement performance changes?
Agha: In the end, I believe our work product will clear the record. I decided to be more active in the community. I find that when I spend time with volunteer leaders, community groups, residents, and local businesses we quickly find common goals and ground on which to develop our goals. Shameless plug: I recently launched my Twitter account @Andrea_M_Agha. Follow me!
Islander: It appears that the council constantly adds to the staff’s workload and then complains about the staff completing these tasks in a timely manner. Do you agree with that statement, and if so, what needs to be done to clarify expectations to all concerned?
Agha: I don’t think that is necessarily true. I believe the council is truly appreciative of the work that staff does and understands that there is a lot on our plate. Where we [council, staff and I] could improve is in priority setting. We have several initiatives that we want to accomplish, and each is making progress with the limited resources that we have.
However, if we were to be more strategic in our decision making and dedicate our efforts on a handful of initiatives and allow others to be completed in later years, we could push more to the finish line so to speak. The council has the right and responsibility to set policy that addresses the needs and desires of the community we serve. I am responsible and accountable to deliver. The more focused and strategic we can be as a government the less distractions will encumber our ability to deliver on what really impacts the lives and pocketbooks of our residents. We need more focus on what counts.
I believe our efforts toward hardening the Island through resilient infrastructure and sustainable practices is #1.
Islander: The email generated by the village’s communications program on managing communications procedure was withdrawn soon after it was criticized as creating an impediment to council members having direct access to department heads. What was the intent of the original communication?
Agha: The original intent was to remind directors of a directive made months prior, which was that any director that receives a communication from a councilmember should provide a response and should inform me shortly thereafter. This directive was not given to chastise any director or council member, but rather is something put in place to preserve the intent of the Village Charter and to keep myself accountable to council. If I am unaware of communications and requests from council, I cannot respond accordingly. It also aids me in managing staff time as each request takes directors’ time away from directives that I have given them.
My intent was not to bar council members from their right to request information or make investigative inquiries.
Islander: On the lighter side, here is a word association game. Without too much thinking, what is the first thing that comes to your mind.
Islander: Breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Favorite meal?
Agha: Breakfast, anytime of day. It’s also the meal I get to enjoy with my amazing husband, Leslie, and our two delightful children, Seth (4) and Satya (2) almost daily.
Islander: Village traffic?
Agha: Too much! Perhaps half the number of cars on the island would probably feel right. We are making progress creating alternative modalities of transportation like our free on-demand transit service, the Safe Routes to School sidewalk project, and bike and pedestrian improvements on Crandon Boulevard.
I am particularly intrigued by autonomous vehicles and other smart technologies that will be our future.
Islander: Chicken, fish, or beef? Preferred protein?
Agha: Fish! Nothing beats a fresh catch on the grill, delicious!
Islander: Best part of this past Mother’s Day?
Agha: Enjoying the glorious ever-deepening bond between my mother and my daughter— they have a very special thing going!