A dispute over a traffic circle in Horse Country during a meet-and-greet held by Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto resulted in a police report and the firing of Souto’s longtime aide for not backing him.
After 19 years of service, Margarita Gonzalez was terminated after refusing to support the account Souto gave police when he called them to report a constituent who he felt was verbally abusive at the event.
The constituent denies the claim.
Capping all the drama, the county has been forced to reach a legal settlement with Gonzalez, finding her a new job — at a public library — until she retires next year.
Souto, who has long been known for his impetuousness from the dais, has been left with the smallest staff among the county’s 13 commissioners. He has two employees.
The commissioner, who represents a wide swath of unincorporated West Miami-Dade, walked away from a Miami Herald reporter this week when asked about the 2-month-old incident with his former aide.
“It’s an internal matter,” Souto said, adding that he had nothing more to say. “I don’t talk about family matters — do you?”
The saga unfolded after a gathering Souto held in September at his mobile office at Concord Park. A constituent, horse breeder Diana Greenwell, complained that a traffic circle recently built by the county blocks horse trailers and other large vehicles from entering her five-acre farm in Horse Country.
She has had to pay to keep horses housed across the state because she can’t bring them onto her property, Greenwell said, and she is paying more than double for retail-priced hay because her commercial wholesaler cannot drive his trailer onto her farm anymore.
According to Greenwell, Souto would not let her finish explaining her concerns, “badgering” her, she said, as to why she was not part of a group of homeowners that apparently requested the traffic circle.
“I said, ‘Listen, I need to tell you what my issue is. May I please speak uninterrupted?’ ” Greenwell said. “And he said, ‘You are verbally abusive.’ I was just floored.”
Greenwell said she complained to two sympathetic staffers — Gonzalez and a part-timer no longer with Souto’s office — as Souto told her to take her complaint to Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The mayor’s office has not gotten back to her, Greenwell said.
She added that she was “aghast” by Souto’s response.
“I didn’t vote for him to be ruler of the fiefdom,” she said. “I don’t care if he doesn’t like my issue. He needs to hear my issue. He needs to understand what’s going on.”
Greenwell said she went to the car, where her boyfriend was waiting, and told him what had happened. The boyfriend, whom she described as a “big guy,” got out of the car but “didn’t even come within 15 yards of the commissioner.”
“The presidential debates were more heated, for God’s sake,” she said.
That’s not what Souto told a police lieutenant and the commission’s sergeant-at-arms, who arrived at the park after Greenwell had left. Greenwell found out police had been called from reporters who asked her about the incident.
According to the police report, Souto said Greenwell “became irate and began to raise her voice.” Her boyfriend, the report says, “attempted to approach [the commissioner] in an aggressive manner.”
A witness cited in the report told police that Greenwell and her boyfriend “were verbally loud and unhappy” with Souto, “but at no point made any sort of threat” toward the commissioner or his staff.
Gonzalez, Souto’s aide, does not appear in the report, which lists the incident as a “verbal dispute.”
But two days later, Souto wrote Gonzalez a letter informing her that she was being suspended without pay as a result of the incident. Souto wrote that Gonzalez, 61, witnessed “the disrespectful manner” in which a constituent addressed him.
“When I stated that you were a witness to her behavior towards me, you stated that you had heard nothing despite the fact that you were present during the conversation and were less than 5 feet away from me,” he wrote.
“Your conduct in refusing to acknowledge that you were a witness to the conversation was disrespectful to me and was untruthful. In doing so, you engaged in conduct unbecoming a County employee and conduct that was offensive to me as your supervisor.”
Three days later, Souto terminated Gonzalez’s employment. She declined to comment through her attorney, Michael A. Gonzalez.
News of the firing spread quickly among County Hall staffers and insiders, who expressed disbelief that a nearly 23-year employee — Gonzalez had previously worked for Commissioner Mary Collins — would be let go over perceived disloyalty.
But the story didn’t end there.
Gonzalez sought the legal advice of her son, an attorney. A month later, she and the county attorney’s office signed a legal settlement reinstating Gonzalez. She will be “on loan” from Souto’s office to work at the West Kendall Regional Library. Her base pay of about $88,000 will remain the same, she will receive back pay since the date Souto fired her, and she will be eligible for her longevity bonus this year.
In return, Gonzalez will voluntarily resign as of April 30, 2013. And she agreed not to sue the county over the temporary termination.