Is Miami-Dade’s mayor too busy to wait in line at Miami International Airport like everybody else?
Yes, according the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
Last month, a draft report from the watchdog agency criticized elected officials’ frequent use of special MIA escorts in order to bypass security lines and avoid Customs hassles. On Wednesday, the full commission endorsed the report on MIA’s Protocol Office but with a lone exception aimed at Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose spokesman said he rarely uses the service.
“Any policy restricting the usage of the protocol service should be made flexible to accommodate the special circumstances of the Mayor of Miami-Dade County,” read the new passage of the Ethics report, which was added after a call to the commission’s director on Gimenez’s behalf. The mayor “is on duty 24 hours a day and likely maintains the tightest schedule of any local official in order to cover the extensive responsibilities of that office.”
The mayoral carve-out departs from the Feb. 8 report’s central theme, which questioned why elected officials should get special treatment at MIA even when on routine county business.
Any policy restricting the usage of the protocol service should be made flexible to accommodate the special circumstances of the Mayor of Miami-Dade County.
Ethics Commission report on Miami International Airport’s special security escorts for elected officials
Saying the sight of elected officials being escorted through security “is likely to be offensive to the traveling and taxpaying public,” the report recommends “that local, elected and appointed officials refrain from taking advantage of MIA protocol services except, perhaps, in the rare emergency situation when time constraints [make] the normal course of security clearance impractical.”
The report described Gimenez as an infrequent user of the service, with just 12 escorts recorded over five years in office. By contrast, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado received 48 escorts since 2010, according to the report, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman 45 times. All of the escorts were for government-related trips for the three officials, according to the report.
“I believe that every mayor is a 24-hour mayor,” said Regalado, whose daughter Raquel challenged Gimenez in the 2016 county mayoral race. “But if the ethics commission thinks they can make an exception, that’s their decision. I will follow what the original report said, and we will refrain from any use of the protocol service in the future.”
In Miami, the mayor appoints a city manager to run day-to-day operations. Miami-Dade eliminated its county manager in 2012 in order for the elected mayor to serve as the top administrative officer, a system shared by Hialeah and other cities.
Gimenez drives himself to county events and declines security escorts, and the mayor’s staff said he routinely waits in MIA lines like regular passengers. Only when Gimenez is facing time crunches involving mayoral duties on either end of a trip does he ask for help from the airport, a spokesman said.
“On very rare occasions,” Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said, “he has used the protocol service.”
The Gimenez addition came from commission chief Joseph Centorino, who said he received a call from a county lawyer contacted by the mayor’s office after the original report made headlines last month. The lawyer, Gerald Sanchez, talked about why the mayor was justified in using the Protocol office in the past but did not urge Gimenez be treated any differently under a new policy, Centorino said.
“He called and said, ‘Look, the mayor’s office would like some recognition that he was under some time constraints,” when Gimenez used escorts cited in the original report, Centorino said. “He was really under severe time pressure.”
Robert Steinback, the Ethics staffer who wrote the report, told board members Wednesday that most big-city mayors travel with police escorts that replicate the kind of speedy check-ins available from MIA’s Protocol Office. “The unique responsibilities of a mayor of a county this size often do require him to carve things very closely,” Steinback said. “To have a meeting here in Dade County. Catch a quick flight, and then have a meeting in Tallahassee.”
While endorsing Gimenez’s use of MIA’s Protocol Office, the Ethics Commission preserved its critique of the service that the county-owned airport says it originally created for ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries. The report said “it is difficult to justify the use of such resources to offer free VIP service to local officials not facing some urgent public necessity in the performance of their official duties.”
The original report revealed some personal use of MIA’s Protocol Office by local officials, including family members of county commissioners receiving the special treatment. But Ethics investigators determined 85 percent of the 324 protocol requests examined by the report were tied to county business, such as lobbying trips to Tallahassee or travel to a government conference.
I believe that every mayor is a 24-hour mayor.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado
Centorino said the commission is mainly urging Miami-Dade to create a policy governing use of the Protocol Office, which provides escorts to special checkpoints and golf-cart rides through terminals. “We’re not going to tell them what to do,” he said. “But they need to have a policy with some criteria.”
Asked if any other government officials — such as an executive mayor of a smaller city or the county police chief — should also be considered busy enough to avoid waits at MIA, Centorino said more exemptions could be justified.
“There are many people in the county and many of them travel,” he said. “Perhaps there are other people whose positions, and the amount of travel they’re involved in, may require something like that … If the director of the police department called [MIA], I imagine they would accommodate that.”
Hernández, the Gimenez spokesman, said the mayor’s office had the County Attorney’s Office reach out to Centorino because the draft report overstated Gimenez’s use of the protocol escorts. “We feel it’s five or less than five,” Hernández said.
After the lawyer’s call, Centorino wrote the two paragraphs excluding Gimenez from the report’s criticism, according to an internal commission email.
Because the county charter names Gimenez as both Miami-Dade’s “Chief Executive Officer as well as Head of State,” the passage reads, it would not be “unreasonable to make the service available to the County Mayor on a regular, unscheduled basis in view of the unique circumstances of the position.”