September 24, 2021
Mayor’s veto means debate over how Miami should hire its top cop will have to wait
 
 
By Joey Flechas
 

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has moved to block Miami voters from deciding whether the city should change the way it selects its top two public safety officers — a referendum on the way Police Chief Art Acevedo was quietly recruited by Suarez and hired this spring by City Manager Art Noriega in a pursuit kept quiet from the public and commissioners.

On Friday, Suarez vetoed a city commission resolution to hold a referendum that could give commissioners a larger role in deciding who leads the city of Miami’s police and fire departments. The city manager has the sole discretion to hire and fire the police chief, but some commissioners want the power to name a search committee that would narrow and control the manager’s list of candidates.

Even though the referendum was approved in late July by a 4-1 veto-proof majority, Suarez’s veto likely wipes the question off of the Nov. 2 ballot. The deadline to submit ballot questions to Miami-Dade’s elections office looms, and the commission does not meet in August, so a special meeting would have to be called to consider overriding the veto.

Suarez’s veto is the latest clash borne out of the secret courting of Acevedo, who was recruited to lead Miami’s force while he was still Houston’s chief. Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who sponsored the referendum, was particularly miffed because Acevedo had not applied and participated in public interviews by a search committee overseeing a national search, a process abandoned when Noriega unexpectedly confirmed his hire on a Sunday night in March.

Reyes insisted Monday that his proposal wasn’t intended be a knock on Suarez, Noriega or Acevedo, but he also criticized the mayor’s opposition and suggested Suarez simply doesn’t want to lose the power to influence the decision.

“I don’t know what he’s afraid of,” Reyes said of Suarez. “Let’s have a very transparent process where we will be able to recruit the best candidates within our department and in the U.S.”

THE VETOED BALLOT QUESTION

Reyes’ proposed change would tweak a separation of powers in city government by allowing commissioners to appoint a search committee that would recruit and recommend candidates when there are vacancies for police or fire chief. The city manager would have to select one of the committee’s three recommendations. The manager could reject the recommendations, but the search committee would again have to provide names.

Suarez argued in his veto memo that hires such as Acevedo, an outspoken chief with a national profile, would be impossible under the proposed new process.

“The desire to refine this process is commendable but this legislation will likely reduce the pool of qualified candidates for consideration,” Suarez wrote. “For instance, a current police chief or fire chief from another jurisdiction will be placed in a tenuous position: what would happen with his/her current employer if everyone knows that he/she is applying for a new job, and what would happen if he/she fails to land the new job?”
 

Suarez also called the amendment “poorly drafted” and a “clumsy approach to selection of the police chief and fire chief.” He wrote that limiting the city manager’s choices to those on a committee’s list “opens the possibility of an undesirable vacancy by failure to reach a meeting of the minds between the city manager and the selection committee.”

Acevedo arrived in March with much fanfare from Suarez and Noriega, but the splashy hire triggered a debate. Noriega, not bound by any process in the city’s charter, had set up a search committee that vetted dozens of candidates, conducted public interviews and created a shortlist for him to consider — the kind of process Reyes wants to make permanent. 

After the public interviews, Noriega let weeks go by without a decision before the manager announced Acevedo’s surprise hire late on a Sunday night.

On Monday, Reyes told the Miami Herald he was not interested in calling a special meeting, echoing earlier comments that there was no rush and he would not mind seeing the measure on a future ballot. He said he was as displeased with the veto as he was with the way the police chief search committee’s work was abandoned in favor of making the unexpected hire, adding that it was “a total lack of respect for those citizens who gave a lot of their time.”

In previous debates regarding the charter amendment, Commission Chairman Ken Russell had said that headhunting was difficult, and he understood the concerns around recruiting currently employed chiefs. Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla had initially said he was torn because the Reyes’ approach could politicize the process. Díaz de la Portilla, Reyes and commissioners Joe Carollo and Jeffrey Watson eventually voted to put the question on the ballot. Russell was alone in voting against the resolution.