The last thing Linda Loizzo ever expected was to be sued by the city that hailed her last day of work in 2007 as Linda Loizzo Day. Known as the “police officer’s officer” and called the “Dolly Parton” police chief for her dynamic yet ladylike personality, she was a trailblazer for women in law enforcement. There was no glass ceiling that Loizzo didn’t shatter as she ascended in rank from her days as a detective in the investigative bureau to become the first female police chief of the North Miami Beach Police Department in 2004.
Her stellar 33-year career was recognized by lawmakers and her former bosses — that is until now.
Three days before Christmas, the North Miami Beach City Council voted 6-0 to sue their Police and Firefighters Retirement Board and individually named Loizzo and two active policemen, Sgt. Leo Socorro and Sgt. Mo Asim, as defendants in the lawsuit. Council member Frantz Pierre was absent. Mayor George Vallejo and council member Beth Spiegel are the other board trustees but are not individually named on the lawsuit.
The reason: The three police representatives voted against abiding by the city’s pension ordinance passed in 2013. Feb 2 is the deadline for the defendants to file a responsive pleading.
“It’s very, very sad and it’s highly unusual,” said Robert Sugarman, attorney for the Police and Firefighters Retirement Board. “Here you have two active-duty officers who have volunteered their time to serve on the board, and you have Linda, a retired, 33-year former police chief. She never incurred a single complaint or disciplinary action. Now the city is saying these three people owe the city nearly $800,000 for not allowing the city to unilaterally impose the latest ordinance.”
Sugarman said they received a notification letter this week from the insurance company for the board that defense cost for the three named defendants and the Police and Firefighters Retirement Board has been extended.
At the crux of the matter is an interpretation of a ruling in December by the Third District Court of Appeal that determined changes made by the city to diminish benefits to the General Employees Pension Plan were lawful and that a vote by 66 2/3 of active members was not required to implement the changes. The three-judge panel upheld the city’s right to amend the pension ordinance by simply adopting a new one, which North Miami Beach did in 2013. It is that ordinance (2013-20) that city attorney, Jose Smith, said applies to the police members as well.
“It would be malpractice not to name them,” wrote Smith in a terse email memo to Marty Lebowitz, plan administrator for the union. Smith cited that the three police representatives were in “breach of their fiduciary duties” for failing to implement the ordinance.
But Sugarman, who also represents the city’s General Employees Pension Board of Trustees, said it is a different issue.
“It’s an honest disagreement. The General Employees Pension Board of Trustees had accepted to lower their benefits, but members of the police department never did,” Sugarman said.
Loizzo said she and the officers on the pension board were caught in the middle because if they voted to abide by the court ruling that applied to the public employees, they were at risk of being sued by the police union.
“The problem now is members of the police department are still paying for benefits that the city has unilaterally taken away. The police never agreed to that,” Loizzo said.
Loizzo said she understands first-hand how the pension plan really works. Thirty-five years ago, while on maternity leave, her husband, Carl Mertes, an officer for North Miami, was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. That tragedy compounded the grief she felt after the drowning death of her son, five years earlier. But despite the anguish she felt, six months later she was back at work as a detective. Soon after, she realized that her husband’s pension plan was “negligible” when it came to the financial demands of raising three young daughters.
“That’s when I became involved in pension issues because I saw what was needed,” Loizzo said. “I do understand pension reform very well, but this latest thing is horrifying. Where is the loyalty?”
Loizzo, who is retired and drives from her home several hours away in Jupiter to volunteer as a board trustee, said the city’s actions are very damaging for police department morale.
But if anyone wants to accuse the NMB council of aggressive tactics, city attorney Smith has made it clear that it was his sole decision.
“Under the City Charter, however, legal strategy decisions fall squarely within the purview of the City Attorney, not the City Council. And, for the record, NOBODY “instructed” me on WHOM to sue,” according to the email memo to Lebowitz.
The next public meeting of the Police and Firefighters Retirement Board will be 9 a.m Feb. 24 at City Hall.