South Miami’s police chief was abruptly terminated Wednesday night, after a majority of city commissioners decided at a special meeting that his employment contract was no longer valid.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to declare that Chief Orlando Martinez de Castro’s contract was no longer in force. The move paved the way for City Manager Steven Alexander to terminate Martinez de Castro and appoint police Maj. Rene Landa as acting chief.
Mayor Philip Stoddard and commissioners Walter Harris and Bob Welsh voted for the resolution. Commissioners Josh Liebman and Valerie Newman voted against it.
The vote came after an attorney for Martinez de Castro and several supporters of the chief spoke in his favor.
Attorney Paul Totten called the move “just another attempt by the mayor and certain members of the commission to circumvent the specific terms of the employment agreement of my client and the city of South Miami.’’
Stoddard, Welsh and Harris had been interested in firing the chief for months. In January, the commission voted 3-2 to pass a resolution of “no confidence” in the chief. Under South Miami’s charter — the city’s constitution — only the city manager can fire the chief.
What’s more, the chief’s employment contract, which began in 2010, states that if he is fired without cause, the city would pay him for the balance of the agreement. Since the contract wasn’t set to expire until October 2015, that works out to more than $200,000.
The contract calls for a base salary of $100,000, plus other compensation.
But on Wednesday, a majority of the commission passed a resolution declaring that the chief’s contract no longer applies.
Here’s the city’s reasoning: Martinez de Castro has served as acting city manager on a number of occasions. According to the resolution, a single person cannot serve simultaneously as both a police chief and a city manager. The resolution cites a 1970 state Supreme Court case as saying that “acceptance of an incompatible office by one already holding office operates as a resignation of the first.”
The result, according to the resolution, is that Martinez de Castro remained the “de facto” police chief as an “at will” employee — with no operative contract.
On Thursday, Alexander sent a memo to city commissioners stating that he “had no alternative but to find that I had no Chief of Police in place.”
In an interview, Alexander clarified that this meant that Martinez de Castro had been “terminated.”
Even if Alexander had wanted to put Martinez de Castro back in office, his attempt probably would have been futile. Under the city charter, the city manager chooses department heads, but a majority of commissioners must ratify his decisions. And three of the city’s five commissioners wanted Martinez de Castro out.
Martinez de Castro sued the city over his contract in March. In that case, which is still pending, the chief claims that the city breached his contract by failing to provide him with pay raises and longevity pay, and by wrongly cutting his salary.
The chief also has filed notice with the city to complain about an alleged invasion of privacy. According to a July 1 letter from Totten to the city, Commissioner Welsh invaded the chief’s privacy when Welsh asked a question at a public meeting about a city loan to the chief to help pay for bariatric surgery. This kind of letter is required before filing suit against a city.
Meanwhile, Stoddard and Welsh have leveled various complaints against the chief. For example:
• Stoddard has accused the chief of misusing state forfeiture funds.
• Last August, South Miami police arrested Warren Papove, a homeless, undocumented Canadian immigrant who Welsh and some neighbors would occasionally hire as a handyman. Welsh, who said he did not know Papove was undocumented, felt the arrest was politically motivated.
• Last month, Welsh asked the Miami-Dade ethics commission to reject a settlement of an ethics complaint that accused the chief of steering city business to his wife’s auto tag agency, Airways Auto Tag, and soliciting business for his wife’s insurance company using his city email.
The commission accepted the settlement, with Martinez de Castro pleading no contest to three of the four charges against him. He agreed to pay $2,000 in investigative costs and receive a letter of instruction. The fourth charge, relating to the insurance company, was dropped as part of the settlement.
Stoddard said Thursday that the ethics case was one of the reasons he wanted Martinez de Castro out — along with what the mayor described as a falling clearance rate. The clearance rate is the percentage of crimes solved by the police.
“These are pieces of tangible evidence anyone could understand,” Stoddard said Thursday.