Council rejects Pinecrest officers’ request to discuss their discontent

A Pinecrest councilman and more than a dozen Pinecrest cops were silenced at Village Hall Tuesday night after the majority of the council voted not to discuss a recent survey about workplace conditions in the police department.

Councilman Doug Kraft had proposed a discussion about the survey, which was completed by 83 percent of the department’s 41 officers in September. Officers are complaining that morale is low in the department and that Pinecrest residents aren’t receiving the highest level police services. All participants said they had no confidence in Police Chief Samuel Ceballos Jr.

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“When you have a survey and 100 percent of the participants who say that morale is low in the department, there is a problem, and we need to talk about it,” Kraft told the Miami Herald on Thursday.

But the other council members rejected a conversation, calling it was “inappropriate” and a “political tool” since the village is currently in contract negotiations with the police union. Among the issues under contention: take-home police cars, four-day 10-hour shifts and shift differential pay.

For the past few months, tension has escalated between the Village Council and the rank-in-file. Officers have been very vocal about their lack of confidence in their police chief. Last month, residents packed Village Hall demanding that the council do more about burglaries in Pinecrest, and accusing the police chief and his staff of downplaying its crime stats. That is currently being investigated by the deputy chief and Pinecrest’s internal affairs unit, according to village staff.

The most recent data show that burglaries are down at a rate of 15 percent from last year, according to Pinecrest spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree.

The village’s labor attorney, Jim Crosland, advised the council that the matters addressed in the survey should be addressed in collective bargaining.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for this body to be discussing this tonight, because that’s what the bargaining table is for,” Crosland said, adding that he believes council members should discuss the survey and what it says among themselves during executive session.

Vice Mayor James E. McDonald asked Kraft to withdraw the discussion from the agenda, because the village is currently at an impasse with the union and that a magistrate hearing will be held in early 2016 to give his or her recommendation.

“We know what’s in this survey, and we know who prepared it,” he said. “I think it’s inappropriate to have this public discussion at this stage in the game.”

The survey was conducted by a third-party political consulting firm at the request of the police department’s union, the Police Benevolent Association. McDonald was referring to the firm’s owner, Jim Spearing, a lobbyist for the PBA and a consultant who has represented Florida law enforcement for 25 years. Spearing also manages local and state political campaigns and issues campaigns on behalf of police and firefighter organizations.

Kraft, a retired firefighter, said the survey and the police contract were two separate issues, and that the Village Council “can’t keep ignoring how the officers feel about the environment in which they work in.”

“For a city to not let another council member speak blows my mind,” Kraft said, saying he had no interest in discussing the contract, but rather the outcry of police officers.

“What if what they’re saying is true, and we really have a load of officers who are unhappy and it has nothing to do with money?” he said. “It’s their environment; you can’t buy the environment. These are people we trust with our lives, that take a bullet for us, the people we trust to come in and protect us. Why are we ignoring them? Who cares who did the survey? We need to talk about this.”

Ceballos was not available for comment.

The council ultimately decided to delete the agenda item requesting a discussion with a vote of 4-1, with Kraft dissenting. More than a dozen officers shook their heads, got up and immediately left the chambers.

“The most important part of police work is having an administration that will support their officers with every decision they make on the road,” Officer Alexandra Martinez said. “We feel completely disconnected from our administration.”

In the survey, 50 to 70 percent of respondents said that Ceballos doesn’t operate in an open and ethical manner, that he isn’t in touch with the problems that officers and support staff encounter, that he doesn’t handle disciplinary matters within the department fairly, and that he doesn’t have the best interest of taxpayers and employees at heart.

Hammontree said it is untrue that the chief has a negative relationship with his officers, and shared 164 short letters of commendation that Ceballos has sent to police officers since he became chief in late 2012.

“They are written to show officers what he thinks about their performance, the impact of their performance in the community and to let officers know what the chief thinks about their commitment to the village,” she said.

Village Manager Yocelyn Galiano said the survey results comes as “no surprise.”

“I can tell you that this is very common when you’re dealing with the union, what they call a ‘no confidence’ vote. They do it on chiefs, on managers. It’s a tactic that they use when they are doing collective bargaining. It’s not a surprise that they did this. They come in and they give a list of wants and what they’re asking for. I’ve seen this rodeo before.”

But PBA President John Rivera said the union doesn’t take these surveys lightly. He said the union called for the survey after Pinecrest residents started flooding the PBA’s phone because Pinecrest police officials weren’t responding to their concerns about crime.

“Residents shouldn’t be calling us. We don’t do that. They weren’t getting help from City Hall,” he said. “This isn’t about their contract. It’s been a long time coming. It’s about the leadership and the chief’s relationship with the officers. He’s lost his troops. This isn’t something that the council can keep ignoring.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan