The Miami-Dade commissioner who tapped a police officer to help drive him 1,000 miles on a county trip to Louisiana defended himself Thursday, saying his promotional efforts were worth the escort’s $2,000 overtime expense.
Before a crowd of more than 100 awaiting the start of the county’s final budget meeting, Commissioner Javier Souto asked for the chance to address a Miami Herald article reporting on his July trip to a West Monroe cattle show, where he promoted Miami-Dade’s own yearly agricultural expo.
“We were working in that show,” Souto said during 12 minutes of remarks. “Working for you. Working for all of this county.”
Several commissioners joined Souto in defending the 13-member board’s security detail. The 2017 budget includes $550,000 for the four police officers who serve as sergeants-at-arms for the commissioners. Their duties include providing security at commission meetings and driving members to county events.
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Chairman Jean Monestime said members, who earn up to about $45,000 a year in pay and stipends, often must attend four or five events a day on top of their own jobs in Miami-Dade, where traffic has become a top gripe among residents. “How do you get from Point A to Point B without the assistance of the sergeant-at-arms?” Monestime asked.
Commissioner Barbara Jordan requested a staff report on how much Miami pays its police to drive its elected officials, noting the city has a larger sergeant-at-arms staff than the county does. And she praised Souto for his decision to drive with two county aides and Officer Mike Roan, rather than book airline tickets. “The cost of your trip was probably cheaper the way you took it,” she said.
Miami maintains a five-member staff for its five city commissioners and mayor, Miami manager Daniel Alfonso said Thursday. That’s almost one driver per official, compared to four for the 13 county commissioners (Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez does not have a driver). Alfonso said he was unable to provide a budget figure, since it’s folded into the city’s police spending.
Souto pointed to a policy that allows commissioners to use police on trips when security is a concern. He noted his trip in early July followed a fatal ambush of three Baton Rouge police officers amid a time of rising tension in some cities over law enforcement conduct.
“We were in Louisiana in the days when there were big troubles in Baton Rouge. Remember that?” Souto said. The 77-year-old said he left the driving to his two aides and Roan, a police officer whose overtime rate is about $60 an hour.
“We refueled at some really incredible places,” Souto added. “You don’t want to be in some of those roads in the middle of the night refueling.”
The Bay of Pigs veteran also questioned whether scrutiny of his trip stemmed from discrimination. He said he and his two aides in the county van for the trip are Cuban-American, while Roan is black. “If it bothers some people that we are minorities,” he said, “that bothers me.”