Coral Gables

Chief decision: Coral Gables city manager to shake-up police department hierarchy

Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark.
Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark.

After nearly a year of not having a permanent police chief, Coral Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark told commissioners on Friday that she plans to revamp the department’s hierarchy.

The new structure will have not one police chief, but two — one chief overseeing operations and another overseeing criminal investigations. It will also include an assistant chief overseeing administration, Swanson-Rivenbark said.

All three executives will report to Frank Fernandez, Swanson-Rivenbark’s newly appointed assistant city manager/director of public safety.

“How many layers of overseeing are we going to have?” said longtime resident Maria Cruz.

Swanson-Rivenbark said the changes would be good for the city.

“I really believe strongly in the positions that I’ve identified,” she told the Miami Herald. “This alignment allows us to focus on what the most important resources need to be. What I like about this is that we have a great department, full of very dedicated and well-trained officers. This will provide a higher level of service and efficiency to our community.”

▪ Ed Hudak, a former major and 27-year veteran of Gables police, has served as interim chief since September 2014. He is slated to become chief of operations in charge of traffic, increasing coverage, visibility and patrol units; marine patrol; crisis management; and field officer training.

▪ Major Raul Pedroso will be named chief of criminal investigations, including property, civil and criminal.

▪ Assistant Chief Michael Miller will continue in that newly created role, in charge of administration, finances, records, communications and technology.

Salaries have yet to be discussed. Funding for the new positions will come from already-budgeted jobs that have been vacant for a while, Swanson-Rivenbark said.

“It’s all hands on deck,” she said.

Having Hudak and Pedroso be co-chiefs is a curious decision, considering their recent history together.

Pedroso and Hudak have each filed human resource memos complaining about each other, records show.

In December, Pedroso accused Hudak of threatening to fire him. Hudak denied the allegation and said Pedroso took his remarks out of context.

Hudak then alleged that Pedroso kept secrets from him about the patrol division. An investigation concluded privately with Swanson-Rivenbark and was quickly forgotten.

Recently, Hudak filed a memo with human resources accusing Pedroso of insubordination. That claim is still under review.

Swanson-Rivenbark now plans to put Fernandez in charge of both men.

Many residents, along with the police department’s rank and file and city commissioners, have been very vocal about wanting Hudak to be named permanent chief. Others support Pedroso.

Hudak became interim chief 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.

“That’s what she was hired to do,” said Vice Mayor Frank Quesada, who last year made the motion to appoint Hudak as interim chief. “We didn’t make that final decision because we were scared it would turn off city manager applicants.”

Quesada said Swanson-Rivenbark’s decision to hire two chiefs is “putting me in a very difficult position.”

“I have to disagree with Cathy on this one,” he said. “I believe Cathy is doing a tremendous job but I would like to hear more on her rationale on why these changes need to be made. We have always typically had three or four majors under one chief. So when you change our system, what you’ve just done is re-title the positions.”

Commissioner Vince Lago said “the proposed structure will potentially be disruptive and undermine the ability of both proposed chiefs to attain our common goal, which is to provide public safety.”

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.

With the recent drop in crime, police officer morale is very high, according to Officer John Baublitz, chairman of the Coral Gables Fraternal Order of Police. He adds however that things have changed since the hiring of Fernandez in late May.

Baublitz said he is “in shock” that Swanson-Rivenbark wants to risk staff morale problems by restructuring the department.

“With a 20.1 percent overall reduction in property crime and a 4.4 percent overall drop in violent crime, why would you make these changes when things have been going in such a positive direction for almost a year?” Baublitz said.

In recent weeks, the Miami Herald spoke with nearly three-dozen veteran police officers — who asked not to be named. Many said the department restructuring “goes beyond efficiency and service.”

Some officers agree with Baublitz and say “morale is at an all-time low” since May. Another group of officers said they disagree, that the “changes in the flow of the department were heavily needed.”

Fernandez had been a senior police commander in the city of Miami when he left there in 2010 to take a job at Miami Dade College as an adjunct professor. While she was Hollywood city manager, Swanson-Rivenbark hired Fernandez as an assistant manager overseeing public safety. She eventually promoted him to police chief.

Three months ago, Swanson-Rivenbark brought Fernandez to Coral Gables.

Now, several Gables officers say they resent Fernandez’s influence in the police department.

“Officers no longer want to come to work,” one policeman told the Herald. “There is intense favoritism in the department. Morale is at its lowest. What we worked so hard to achieve over the last year has been ruined.”

“Fernandez is fixing this department,” contends a second police officer. “He is creating a new department — one with less politics, less drama. He has come to clean up the place.”

Fernandez did not reply to several requests for comment on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Records show the city this year is budgeted to employ 18 additional patrol officers, but they have not been hired. Each officer would be paid a starting salary of about $45,000 per year plus benefits.

“Nobody new has been hired since May and officers are drained from doing so much overtime,” said a third police officer.

The police department this year budgeted $297,258 for overtime expenses, but so far the city has already spent $441,236, records show.

Swanson-Rivenbark told the Herald that she wants to hire new officers, but that they must be of “the highest caliber.”

The recruitment process, which Fernandez recently changed, will now make it more difficult for applicants to be accepted. For example, new police applicants can have no more than five moving violations on their total driving records or three in the last five years.

Swanson-Rivenbark’s plan for restructuring the department is not uncommon in other cities, where several police majors are put in charge of different divisions.

What’s rare is having those responsibilities split into “chief roles,” said former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms, now a national police and security consultant.

“Doesn’t sound, quite frankly, like there is a legitimate justification for the changes,” Harms said. “Why the hell do you need an assistant city manager over police and fire? The manager’s problem isn’t so great that she cannot reasonably supervise [several] chiefs ... She is not inundated with major problems. Coral Gables has a good income; it’s not plagued with excessive crimes, not too many ghettos. It’s nice, smaller community. It’s not an inner city where the infrastructure is old and not properly protected.”

Harms said that having “two chiefs and a public safety director is absolutely stacking the deck.”

“It’s common for departments to have several assistant chiefs, or a number of majors who would be responsible for certain divisions. But two chiefs? In reality, the assistant city manager over public safety takes the chief’s role if you look at the job description. They report to him.”