When Coral Gables commissioners hired Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark to be the city’s manager last November, her job came with a checklist. At the top of that list: choosing a permanent police chief.
About nine months later, Swanson-Rivenbark took a shot at her to-do list. She privately briefed commissioners on her plan to appoint not one police chief, but two, who would split responsibilities.
The move would restructure the department’s executive hierarchy and Swanson-Rivenbark’s plan rattled the community.
Pressure built after word got out. Suddenly, a slew of high-ranking officers spoke up, some commissioners complained, and residents inundated City Hall with phone calls and emails.
City Attorney Craig Leen reviewed the Coral Gables code and discovered that Swanson-Rivenbark’s plan might be in violation of it. “The code calls for one chief of police,” Leen told the Miami Herald, adding that his analysis was done at the request of Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason.
The city manager abruptly backpedaled on her vision of appointing interim Chief Ed Hudak as chief of operations and Major Raul Pedroso as chief of criminal investigations. Both co-chiefs would report to Frank Fernandez, Swanson-Rivenbark’s newly appointed assistant city manager/director of public safety.
Swanson-Rivenbark reconsidered and named Hudak the sole chief — with a few conditions.
“The city manager plans to meet with interim Chief Hudak this week to discuss several issues of concern she would need addressed by him,” Leen said in a statement late Tuesday night. “If these issues are resolved in a manner satisfactory to the city manager, she would appoint Mr. Hudak as police chief under her authority in Section 21 of the City Charter. At that point, the city manager and police chief would address staff alignment to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the department.”
Swanson-Rivenbark said her proposed restructuring wasn’t in vain, but designed to fix a department she described as “dysfunctional.”
“There are too many factions, too many cliques and this is all counterproductive,” she told the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Tuesday.
She would not publicly disclose details with the Herald, but did so privately with elected officials.
“Cathy has some great concerns about what is happening over there,” Gables Commissioner Patricia Keon said. “Crime reporting is not sanitized; it hasn’t been very clear or precise; not an honest retelling of fact. That’s been a problem — the way the information is released to the public. Public information hasn’t truly reflected the seriousness of some of the incidents that have occurred. That is a big issue in protecting the community — full disclosure of accurate information.”
Keon believes the police department should have only one chief, but is not happy with the way things panned out. She thinks Swanson-Rivenbark’s rationale for the the changes should be heard and given a chance.
“The public believes that Ed has the support of the rank and file, but, in reality, the police department is very fractured,” Keon said. “Different groups want to see different people in place as their leader. It is no secret that Ed Hudak and Raul Pedroso do not get along.”
Numerous complaints filed
Pedroso and Hudak have each filed numerous human resource memos complaining about each other, records show.
Most recently, Pedroso accused Hudak of threatening to fire him in December. Hudak denied the allegation and said Pedroso took his remarks out of context.
Some months ago, Hudak filed a memo with human resources accusing Pedroso of insubordination. That claim is still under review.
Keon said the manager “still had some concerns as the ability of anyone there to really lead that police department and stabilize it and bring it together as one community for the public’s good.”
“Part of leadership is the ability is to reach across the aisle and work with people that you may not always get along with,” Keon said.
Commissioner Vince Lago on the other hand believes there’s only one answer to the equation: Hudak, who he credits for the steep hike in crime after a wave of residential burglaries hit the city last year.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, property crime in Coral Gables is down about 20 percent, comparing the first six months of 2014 to the first six months of 2015.
In recent weeks, the Herald spoke with nearly 50 veteran police officers — who asked not to be named.
Some veteran officers credit that decline in crime to Hudak, others credit the hike to Pedroso, who leads the uniform patrol division, while others say crime is difficult to measure because it fluctuates so frequently.
“There’s no way of truly knowing why crime is supposedly down,” one high-ranking officer told the Herald. “This is not a conversation about numbers and statistics but more about egos and a problem of power.”
The topic of police chief, and who should hold the position, has been an intricate one that has divided not only a community but a police department at its core.
A Gables police major at the time, Hudak became interim chief with a 5-0 vote on Sept. 11, 2014, amid a wave of burglaries and the abrupt resignation of the city’s then-chief, Dennis Weiner. At the time, Coral Gables hired a search firm to find a permanent city manager to succeed Pat Salerno. About two months later,commissioners chose Swanson-Rivenbark, then Hollywood’s city manager. She ultimately was charged with naming a new police chief.
Since then, almost a year ago, the city has been without a permanent police chief, and the mystery behind who would be made the top cop remained a mystery, creating major tension behind closed doors at the police station.
But the tension is not recent, officers say, who claim the position has been under “much strife for a very long time.”
“This department has been divided for 20 years,” one veteran officer told the Miami Herald. “If you’re seen being a supporter of one group, you will be retaliated against, no matter what ‘team’ you are part of. We would always joke that you had ‘Team A’ and ‘Team B’. The line is very clear; you know who you can talk to and who you cant. There’s no middle ground. ”
Nelson Quintana, a retired Gables officer, who now works as a federal investigator in South Carolina, says the culture “had a lot to do with me leaving.”
“There’s a very big division. It’s like an empire versus the rebels; like in Star Wars,” Quintana told the Herald. “I loved working there until it got messy with politics. For rookie officers, unfortunately they’ll end up having to pick a side. The division has completely destroyed the agency. These biases become deep-rooted over time.”
“We’re called the thin blue line. It represents brotherhood, camaraderie,” he said. “That message has been long gone in the city of Coral Gables. It’s all politics, backstabbing, talking trash. It’s terrible and embarrassing.”