The city of Coral Gables’ quest to name a new police chief got off to a chaotic start Thursday, with the city naming an acting chief in the morning, canceling that by the afternoon, and finally naming an interim chief by the early evening — all while angry residents decried how the police department was manipulating its crime statistics and not doing enough to stem a rising tide of high-profile burglaries.
“It was a Roman circus,’’ said Freddy Balsera, a Coral Gables resident whose home was broken into last week in the middle of the afternoon, describing Thursday’s nine-hour commission meeting in which residents lashed out at the police department, Interim City Manager Carmen Olazabal and Mayor Jim Cason.
In the end, the city commission unanimously named Maj. Ed Hudak, a 26-year veteran of the department, as interim police chief. Hudak replaced Dennis Weiner, who resigned Wednesday as police chief after three years on the job, effective 8 a.m. Thursday. Weiner, who made $162,679, came under fire recently by citizens upset over recent burglaries and their perception that the police department and the city’s elected officials weren’t doing enough about them.
“Thank you all for your confidence,’’ Hudak said. “From now on, we're going to step back and get better. Moving forward, I promise you this: We're going to balance and we’re going to communicate.’’
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And, he told the approximately 200 residents who attended the meeting, many of them burglary victims, that “statistics will never be used as an excuse.’’
Stapled packets of printed crime statistics provided by the police department were ripped to pieces by the residents, after police told commissioners crime rates were at an all-time low despite the rash of break-ins in the city.
Commissioner Vince Lago called the statistics “an insult to my intelligence," noting “statistics are in the room,” pointing to the dozens of residents in the commission chambers.
“Let’s be transparent, let's not try to avoid anything,’’ Lago said. “What ends up happening is that the individuals that are in this room feel that we are insulting them by telling them that crime is down. Crime is not down. Tell us, ‘Why is there an apparent discrepancy when we hear our stats and compare them to the FBI’s?’’’
Police representatives said the numbers compiled by the FBI are categorized differently. The numbers in the packet strictly reflected burglaries — not robberies, car break-ins or simple thefts.
Commissioner Frank Quesada requested the department provide new statistics that include larceny, robbery, petty thefts, smash and grabs — all categories the FBI uses to classify crime. "I want to see if it has gone up or down, so that we get a full picture," he said. “I direct this at management.’’
City administrators and police agreed to come back to the commission in two weeks with an “updated, reorganized and accurate set of data.’’
According to the statistics provided at the meeting, burglaries plunged from 391 in all of 2013 to 200 in the first eight months, through August, of 2014. Many of the recent burglaries have happened during the summer months and in September. In a three-day period earlier this week, at least five homes were burglarized.
Olazabal said she asked the FBI to audit the department’s statistics from Sept. 22-26.
Olazabal sent an email at 6:46 a.m. Thursday to commissioners, announcing that Maj. Theresa Molina, a 21-year veteran of the department, would be appointed as the acting chief: “During the period between when the Chief's resignation becomes effective (8 a.m. this morning) and the moment when an Interim Chief of Police is appointed, I appoint Major Molina as the Acting Chief. This appointment comes with all the responsibilities and duties commensurate with the job.’’
This caught commissioners by surprise, who had been told by Olazabal Wednesday evening there were two leading candidates, Hudak and Maj. Scott Masington, a 23-year veteran of the department.
Commissioners Lago and Quesada were upset Molina had been appointed without letting them know. Commissioner Patricia Keon sided with the city manager; Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk said he didn’t feel comfortable choosing either of the candidates without perusing their personnel files. Mayor Cason was silent.
Additionally, the Herald later learned Molina was being investigated by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. “The state attorney has not informed me about what the nature of the investigation entails,’’ her attorney, Brian Tannebaum, said Thursday evening, saying no charges have been filed against her. “It involved an arrest that was made a while back and the state had some questions about the arrest.’’ The prosecutor did not return phone calls Thursday.
Meanwhile, arguments ensued after a resident, Carlos J. Gimenez, brought a leaked memo to the podium. The memo, written by Assistant City Manager Cynthia Birdsill to Olazabal a day prior to Chief Weiner’s resignation, concerned Hudak’s prior disciplinary record. Jimenez accused the administration for circulating information in “secret.”
Keon yelled at Jimenez, saying he overstepped his boundaries.
“We are not hiding anything,” she said.
Lago snapped back: “This is exactly what I’m talking about. That should be addressed in public, in front of the lights, in front of the cameras, in front of the residents. This administration keeps playing politics. Stop playing games.”
City Attorney Craig Leen stepped in, clarifying Olazabal had the authority to appoint an acting police chief.
Keon defended the memo, saying it educated the commission. Jimenez disagreed.
“These are remnants of Pat Salerno’s administration that continues to lurk in the current administration,” he said of the former city manager, who resigned in April after a five-year tenure.
Olazabal said her decision to appoint Molina was only “to fill the gap until an interim is selected.”
“Enough. We’re going from resigned chief to acting chief to interim chief to permanent chief,” Lago said. “I don’t want four chiefs in three weeks.”
Quesada motioned to appoint Hudak as interim chief. Lago seconded the motion, but Cason, Kerdyk and Keon voted against it. Commissioners then took a 30-minute break and talked individually with Olazabal. During the break, Masington withdrew his name from consideration and Olazabal later deferred her decision to the commission.
That’s when commissioners unanimously appointed Hudak as interim chief. It was nearly 6 p.m., nine hours after the meeting began.
Gables resident Fernando Amandi was disappointed with the city’s conduct. Amandi serves on the president's council at the University of Miami.
“Hundreds of angry and frustrated citizens gathered here today, and yet we sit behind this governing body and wonder who is running the show? Upon getting here, there were no decisions made, no credible statistics, a commission arguing with each other about their own administration. It's disturbing to see them in such a mess regarding an issue as fundamental as public safety.’’
Balsera, sitting alongside his wife, Gloria Ordaz, a Channel 23 anchor, spoke directly to the mayor and city manager, calling Thursday’s presentation “pathetic.’’
Balsera runs a Coral Gables public relations and lobbying firm. Earlier in the week he paid about $2,000 for robo-calls directed to Coral Gables residents, urging them to stand up to the city over the crime issues.
“The fact that you would scurry over the last couple days and make that presentation really reveals your capabilities as a city manager. This is the presentation that you’re going to give to the city of Coral Gables?’’ he asked.
The audience applauded.
“And, mayor, I would have loved that you would have returned my phone calls, would have loved if you returned my emails,” Balsera continued. The mayor tried to interject, but Balsera told him that “excuses are tools of the weak and right now you’re showing weak leadership.”
Olazabal said the police department plans to get more patrols on the streets, create a new burglary task force and improve communication between the public and the commission.
Hudak concurred. “I hear them loud and clear. I intend on building on some of that,” he said, adding that he wants to evaluate the department’s resources. “I’m not going let the stats dictate us, rather we will use the stats to help us attack the crime problem.
“We’re going to hit the ground running tomorrow morning,’’ he said. “I will be briefed by internal affairs and meet with the senior team and start working on the direction that the commission has asked for. That product will be my vision and direction for the immediate future.”