Miami Commission fires city police chief

Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito, who fought the mayor for more than a year and fought for his job in a hearing that stretched over three days, was fired Monday — but not before a sharply divided City Commission called for charter changes and cast a shadow over the future of City Manager Johnny Martinez.

After more than four hours of heated debate, commissioners voted 3-2 to uphold a decision by Martinez, who suspended Exposito last week for insubordination. When the vote was taken just before 2 p.m., reporters swarmed Exposito as he stood and hugged tearful family members.

"Elected officials have decided my service with the city must end," said the 37-year veteran, who began his career as a police public service aide. "What it all boils down to is family, and I'm very proud of mine."

As Exposito talked to reporters, Martinez, who took a battering from commissioners over everything from his judgment to the city's bulging budget deficit, retired to the relative safety of his upstairs office. Off to the side, Mayor Tomás Regalado — whose year-long feud with the chief led to his demise — spoke in the manager's support. "He thought it was the right moment" to fire the chief, Regalado said. "I don't think there was politics involved. The manager came to the conclusion he can't work with the chief."

In the end, Commissioners Wifredo "Willy" Gort, Michelle Spence-Jones and Francis Suarez voted to relieve the chief of duty, while Commissioners Frank Carollo and Marc Sarnoff voted to keep him in his job.

The hearing was prompted when Martinez suspended Exposito for disobeying an order not to demote three high-ranking police officers. The chief chose to reassign and strip the officers of their authority — though not their rank and pay — anyway.

The manager also suspended the chief for not completing a plan to cut down on skyrocketing overtime. But that argument fell short with four of the five commissioners, who instead cited the demotions as justification to fire the chief.

Spence-Jones, who emerged as the swing vote on the dais, said she was persuaded by an e-mail in which the manager told the chief to put off the proposed demotions. "The thing that stood out the most was the statement to hold off," said Spence-Jones, taking her first vote since being reinstated into office after a two-year suspension. "(Exposito) understood when you wrote that e-mail that the manager didn't want him to do anything."

She was referring to an Aug. 4 e-mail from the manager to the chief and Beverly Pruitt, the director of police employee relations, that said, "(P)lease hold off on the three proposed demotions by Chief Exposito until further notice. Thank you."

Four days later, the three officers kept their ranks and pay but were reassigned to desk jobs.

Carollo and Sarnoff took issue with an opinion from City Attorney Julie Bru that the city charter gives the manager control over all personnel in the city — including police. Carollo, a former cop, hammered at the definition of "demotion," reading it aloud from the Webster's and American Heritage dictionaries and from the city code.

"It's to reduce to a lower grade or rank, period," said Carollo, pointing out that that was not the case with Assistant Chief Roy Brown and Cmdrs. Jose Perez and Ricardo Roque.

Carollo blistered Martinez for not responding to questions regarding the city's $62 million budget deficit. Noting that commissioners were Martinez's boss, Carollo asked, "Shouldn't there be some type of reprimand for his actions?"

Then talk turned to commissioners overseeing the hiring of a new police chief, though the charter leaves that job strictly in the hands of manager.

Veteran Maj. Manuel Orosa, appointed last week by Martinez, remains the interim chief. A nationwide search, which has already attracted nearly 50 candidates, has been under way since this summer because Exposito was scheduled to retire early next year.

Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 reported late Monday that Maj. Alfredo Alvarez, the head of internal affairs under Exposito who testified on behalf of the chief in the hearing, submitted his resignation from the police department. It should be effective Thursday.

The disagreement over who has ultimate hiring authority prompted calls for charter reform. Pressing the point home, Carollo asked Martinez why he copied the mayor on emails sent to the chief.

Replied Martinez: "Because he's my boss."

Countered Carollo: "Oh, he's your boss? What about us? We up here, obviously, are not his boss."

Outside the mayor's office after the vote, Regalado promised to bring plans for a charter reform committee in October in hopes of having a public vote by the general election in November 2012.

Later in the day Regalado released a statement praising commissioners for supporting the manager.

"This has been a painful process for the city, but at the same time has demonstrated that our city demands that its employees respect their superiors and follow the charter," the statement said. "The authority of the city manager over the heads of departments should be clear and unquestionable. He is in fact ultimately responsible for their performance."

Monday's meeting followed a 17-hour meeting on Friday that recessed at 2 a.m. Saturday. That fiasco was filled with so much hyperbole and discussion on issues unrelated to the charges against Exposito that some commissioners said it left them searching for answers all weekend.

During the meeting, Martinez stumbled when questioning witnesses, commissioners interviewed the acting chief on his tactics and cops spoke of clandestine drug dens.

The lengthy hearing marked the end of a year-long battle between Exposito and administrators — particularly Regalado — that included a video-gaming machine ordinance pushed by the mayor that the chief opposed.

The two also battled over a series of high-profile arrests that went awry and caused a rift with the state attorney. And they disagreed over seven deadly police shootings of black men that still have Spence-Jones' constituents searching for answers.

Regalado backed the hiring of Exposito in November 2009.

Exposito, who was scheduled to retire in January, leaves the city after stints in the internal affairs and sex crimes divisions. The chief, who earned $196,000 a year, will walk with close to $900,000 in banked pension pay and unused sick and vacation time. He turned 57 on Saturday. When the clock struck midnight at City Hall, he received muted happy birthday wishes.

Miami Commission fires city police chief 09/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 1:26pm]

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