Coral Gables made a surprise hire Tuesday, picking up the city of Hollywood’s Police Chief Frank Fernandez to take on the position as the City Beautiful’s assistant city manager of public safety.
Fernandez abruptly resigned from his Hollywood position Tuesday. His last day will be May 16.
The decision to hire Fernandez was actually made by his former boss — former Hollywood City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark — who in December took the top job as Gables city manager. Fernandez is slated to fill the budgeted position, which has been vacant for almost five years under former City Manager Pat Salerno.
Swanson-Rivenbark said her eye has been on Fernandez since she arrived at City Hall.
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“I had the privilege of working with Chief Fernandez in Hollywood,” she said in a memo to city commissioners. “During his tenure there, he has developed and implemented a customized and successful Public Safety strategic plan for Hollywood involving all departments, other agencies and citizens; oversaw a rigorous and uncompromising recruitment strategy to insure only the best and most qualified are selected; incorporated cutting-edge technology that enhances, not replaces, public safety response; and mentored and empowered the next generation of public safety leaders.”
But the manager’s move did not go well with the people who will soon be under him — Coral Gables police officers. Cops fear that Fernandez coming in means interim Police Chief Ed Hudak is out.
That concern comes from Swanson-Rivenbark’s moves in Hollywood— she brought in Fernandez from the city of Miami to be her assistant city manager of public safety. Shortly after, she appointed him police chief. Officers are afraid she will do the same in the Gables.
City Commissioner Vince Lago said he is convinced that is not the case.
“I have the utmost faith in the city manager and in her ability to hire the most competent individual to perform city duties,” Lago said. “I also have the utmost confidence that the city manager sees that the past eight months of Hudak being chief has paid dividends. You can see it in the morale of the police force.”
Hudak was appointed interim chief in September after a perceived crime wave caused outrage in the community. Hundreds of residents showed up at City Hall, resulting in the resignation of then-Police Chief Dennis Weiner. Commissioners and residents called for Hudak to take on the role.
“That is a concern of ours. When Chief Hudak was made chief, it brought stability and morale increased,” said John Baublitz, the Gables’ Fraternal Order of Police union president. “With Hudak, officers understand that they will get a fair shake. He supports them. We feel guarded and want to make sure that we keep going in the direction that we’re going.”
Hudak has been with the city since 1988. He played football at the University of Miami before joining the department. He was also the longtime head of security for the school’s football team.
On Thursday, while meeting with police staff, Swanson-Rivenbark said Fernandez will make the decision on who will be the permanent police chief. Fernandez will mainly work at the police department with an office two doors down from Hudak.
“That’s something that they’ll have to work out,” Baublitz said. “But for now I’m taking the manager for her word.”
Fernandez didn’t comment on officers’ concerns, but rather said he was hired to assess the fire and police departments. He said that includes listening to complaints from both inside and outside the departments, to determine what should and can be fixed.
“The last two days have been very difficult for me,” he said. “But these opportunities don’t come around too often. They recruited me. I did what I set out to do in Hollywood. That mess has been cleaned up.”
Fernandez, who has been in Hollywood for almost three years, said he “came at probably one of the darkest times in Hollywood history,” when his staff was 48 positions short.
He said that he’s happy with the culture change that took place and that most of the positions have been filled. He’s cleaned up tracking issues that a federal audit attributed to Internal Affairs, and now has a department that is a model for keeping and tracking rape kits — a big issue in the audit that he’d requested.
“I”m pleased with the successes we’ve had. There’s more and better technology. There has been a complete turnaround in processing rape kits,” he said.
Fernandez, perched atop the senior command staff in Miami under Chief John Timoney, left the city after 25 years in 2010 when Miami voted in a new mayor, who hired a new police chief. Fernandez took a job at Miami Dade College as an adjunct professor before being hired in Hollywood.
He joined the department at a time of turmoil, with missing money and residents claiming some rogue cops were using abusive tactics. Fernandez immediately ordered a federal audit. His leadership calmed the ranks.
The audit found more than $100,000 missing from an evidence vault and instances of use of force that likely could have been avoided.
Generally reserved, Fernandez took a much more front and center approach during the recent disappearance and death of toddler Ahziya Osceola in Hollywood. After a day’s search in the boy’s Hollywood home and the surrounding neighborhood, authorities found the 3-year-old dead, his tiny body badly bruised inside two plastic garbage bags stuffed into a box in the home’s laundry room.
The child’s stepmother was charged with aggravated manslaughter and lying to police. His father was charged with neglect.
Fernandez’s salary in Coral Gables will be $168,000, plus benefits, a take-home vehicle and a city cellphone. He starts on May 18.