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Needless to say, Vidal's behavior in person didn't do much to discredit those comments.
My recent interest in Vidal, however, was sparked by his decision last month to demote Assistant County Manager Alina Tejeda Hudak, a move that angered several county commissioners and raised questions about his sensitivity to women.
Several hours after our encounter, the manager was forced to answer questions from commissioners regarding Hudak's demotion. Hudak has been with the county for twelve years, and an assistant county manager since 1993. But late last month Vidal stripped her of her title and placed her instead as director of the General Services Administration (GSA), the department responsible for, among other things, procurement, real estate acquisition, risk management, lease negotiations, and management of county properties.
Vidal said he moved Hudak to GSA because the department needed strong leadership and he felt she could tackle its problems efficiently. He also said he was attempting to trim the number of assistant county managers from six to five. The move, he claimed, had nothing to do with any lack of confidence in her.
Hudak, who is eight months pregnant, was reportedly devastated by the demotion but has publicly expressed support for Vidal. Others have not been so charitable. County Commissioner Katy Sorenson in particular was angered by the move. Although the county charter forbids county commissioners to be involved in most personnel decisions, there are exceptions, including the appointment of directors of major departments, which requires commission approval. Commissioners therefore expected to see Hudak's transfer on last week's agenda.
But Vidal, who clearly anticipated the criticism, did not place the issue before commissioners. He wasn't required to do so, he asserted, because the charter did not specifically list GSA as one of the county's major departments. (There's a simple reason for that, officials say: GSA did not exist when the charter was adopted more than 30 years ago, and the list of departments has never been updated.)
Throughout the commission meeting, Sorenson and her staff privately debated whether she should raise questions about Hudak's demotion, even if it meant possibly violating the charter. Sorenson finally decided that to remain silent would embolden Vidal and give tacit approval to his treatment of Hudak. As the meeting approached its conclusion, Sorenson used Vidal's appointment of a new parks director, which was coming before the board for approval, as a way to discuss Hudak.
"Alina has distinguished herself in many ways," Sorenson began. "She's been an outstanding employee. She has exhibited professionalism, hard work, diligence. She's gotten results." Vidal should have allowed her to retain the title of assistant county manager and put in charge of the GSA as part of a special assignment. "It is prohibited by the charter that commissioners be involved in hiring decisions, and I appreciate that," Sorenson continued, "but I have to say as a commissioner and on behalf of the women and the men of Metro-Dade County that this sends the wrong message, and that it really does not reflect the way I think we want to go.
"I just feel that it is important for us to be respectful of women in this government," she continued. "There are six of us now on this commission. We know that there is room at the top. There has to be room at the top in the management as well."
As Sorenson spoke, Vidal's face grew taut. He demanded to be recognized, and when he was, he hunched over his microphone and said, "I don't believe it is my role to get into the specifics as to Miss Alina Tejeda here on the public record." He also said he didn't think it was fair that Sorenson should criticize him for demoting a woman and not recognize that he had recently promoted several women. "Some credit should also be given to the manager," he said, citing recent promotions in the finance, audit, personnel, and parks departments. "If you are going to criticize on one side," he seethed, "I think you should present the complete record and give credit where credit is due." (Most of the appointments Vidal pointed to were only "acting" positions, with no guarantee they will be permanent, nor do they carry the same power or prestige as Hudak's former job.)
Commissioner Barbara Carey spoke next. Like Sorenson, she was upset with Hudak's new assignment. "I said to myself, 'Now, how do you take a bright, capable, woman like that and put her somewhere else and demote her?'" Carey said. "You can't do that. Yes, promote upward. But it is uncalled for to demote downward people who are doing their job." She then added with a smile and a small laugh: "The women here are looking and watching and we are not going to let you get away with the good-old-boy syndrome any more."
Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also praised Hudak, who was sitting in the commission chambers. "I just would like to state for the record that Alina Tejeda Hudak is one of the best public servants I have had the pleasure of serving with," he declared. "I say that without any qualifiers. Not one of the best women in the county. I'm saying one of the best period in terms of professionalism. I think we will expect and we will see Alina back in her rightful position as an assistant county manager sometime soon. I'm certain of that."