Coral Gables

Coral Gables commissioners to discuss crime

After a round of robo-calls paid for by a Coral Gables resident whose home was recently burglarized, city commissioners will discuss a perceived crime problem at Thursday’s commission meeting.

Commissioner Frank Quesada will be spearheading the item on the agenda, calling for Police Chief Dennis Weiner’s resignation after a rash of burglaries in recent months has stirred up residents.

Weiner has reiterated that the police department is combating crime, and that burglary stats are low. However at least two city commissioners and some members of the community disagree.

“Coral Gables has one of the lowest crime rates in Florida for violent crime,” Quesada said. “However when it comes to our department’s policing practices, I believe we’ve fallen short.”

Freddie Balsera, who runs a Coral Gables public relations and lobbying firm, paid about $2,000 for robo-calls directed to all Coral Gables residents, he said.

Balsera and his wife Gloria Ordaz — an anchor for Univision — were burglarized last week. Thieves broke into their Andalusia Avenue home at around 1:14 p.m. when no one was home. They took off with about $60,000 in personal items, police said.

“I’m an ordinary citizen that happens to have some level of resources. ... I’m doing this as a service to my community,” Balsera said. “I think that the commission has lost confidence in the police chief, and if they decide to terminate him or he resigns, I hope we can take advantage of the momentum that we’ve built.

On Tuesday, City Attorney Craig Leen said the city has “not received a resignation from the chief.” He added that “the city is looking at how to handle this situation.”

According to Section 23 of the City Charter, the City Commission and city manager “may direct or require appointments, suspensions, or discharges of city officers or employees,” making it possible for the commission to vote on whether or not to fire the chief.

On Tuesday, Weiner declined to comment.

But some residents say it’s unfair to blame Weiner for crime.

“Everyone is going after him because it’s an easy target,” said Molly Gail, who leads a crime watch in her neighborhood. “The administration needs to look at other causes on why we’ve ended up where we are, this going above the police.”

Gail added that Weiner “has been extremely supportive with each and every call. He is very responsive and very active.”

North Gables resident Peter Kouchalakos, 59, agreed. He said he drafted an open letter to city commissioners, asking them to expand the police department’s undercover Strategic Initiatives Team, use of real-time camera systems at entry and exit points, expand the number of unmarked and marked patrol cars per shift, and authorize the city manager to start negotiations with alarm companies to provide incentive packages to Coral Gables residents.

More than 100 residents signed the petition.

“It’s disingenuous to say that the chief is responsible for crime. We all have to be responsible for this. Anybody can shift the blame. It’s up to the police and residents,” Kouchalakos said.

“The problem is systemic. The City needs to take aggressive moves to create a disincentive for bad guys to be coming into our area. That means, increased patrol units and better crime suppression techniques.”

Quesada said he thinks the city needs an “outside consultant to give us the right strategies.” He noted that the crime issue has come at a bad time because the city is in “transition of selecting a new city manager” and is going into budget hearings.

He stressed that putting more uniformed officers on the streets is key.

There are currently about 180 police officers on the force, and about 12 to 22 officers on the ground per shift, police said.

“At Thursday’s meeting, we are asking for updated crime statistics and what police are doing about it so that the commission can be fully informed and so that the public can be fully informed.”

Balsera said he, along with dozens of other residents, are calling on Mayor Jim Cason to “act” at Thursday’s meeting.

“I have nothing personal against the police chief, or the mayor, who has been completely invisible during this process,” Balsera said. “He’s my mayor and I need him to act decisively. We need him involved in our efforts for safer streets.”

Cason did not return phone calls or voice messages left by the Herald on Tuesday.

According to residents, there were at least five burglaries on Monday and Tuesday. Anne Leidel, the mother of former mayor Don Slesnick, was one of the victims.

The 92-year-old said she was playing golf on Monday afternoon at the time of the incident. The thieves took off with her jewelry, Slesnick said.

Slesnick said he has been overwhelmed with the rise in property crime.

“If burglaries are the same as before, like the city says, then residents certainly kept quiet about it, and all of a sudden everyone is talking about it,” Slesnick said. “There is something happening here.”