The County Bully

Seven years ago, while working at a daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington, I met Damon Chapple. He stood only five feet nine inches tall but he weighed 200 pounds -- all of it muscle. Chapple was a fighting machine, as perfect a creature of destruction as either Heaven or Hell could produce. He had just been released from prison after serving a sentence for various violent offenses and had stopped off in Spokane, he said, to visit relatives on his way to Atlantic City, where he supposedly had a job waiting for him: sparring partner for heavyweight contender Michael Spinks.

But Chapple never made it to the Jersey shore. He and I crossed paths after he'd been arrested for strangling a 70-year-old woman, raping a second woman at knifepoint, and robbing and beating to death a local drug dealer. According to a witness, Chapple killed the drug dealer by squeezing him in a bear hug until he fell unconscious from lack of oxygen, then dropping him to the ground and kicking and stomping his head until it resembled an overripe eggplant.

I wrote several stories about Chapple, and interviewed him in jail. He wasn't thrilled with my coverage and promised that someday he would track me down and kill me. With time off for good behavior, his earliest possible release from prison would come sometime in the year 2072. He would be 112 years old. I would be a spry 110.

Chapple came to mind recently because he was the last person to physically threaten me owing to something I had written. The last person, that is, until Dade County Manager Armando Vidal vowed to beat the crap out of me if I ever again mentioned his wife in this newspaper.

The manager made this promise last week, during a recess in a county commission meeting. Vidal took advantage of a break in the commission's agenda to stroll over to the nearby press booth and schmooze with Miami Herald reporter Joseph Tanfani. When Vidal saw me sitting there as well, he uttered a couple of snide remarks. He seemed to be joking. I ignored them.

Turning his attention to Tanfani, Vidal launched into a critique of the reporter's recent county government stories, a practice he apparently engages in from time to time in an attempt to browbeat reporters into seeing things his way. I then told the manager about a story I had just finished, which was going to be published the following day. It concerned problems in the county's corrections department and the fact that the blame for the trouble ultimately rested not with department director Donald Manning, who many view as incompetent, but with Vidal, who had promoted Manning for political reasons.

Vidal was condescending in his response. He would expect that kind of story from me, he said. Then he added that he really didn't care what I wrote as long as I never mentioned his family again.

He was referring to a cover story I had written nearly two years ago, after he had been appointed county manager in a racially and ethnically charged selection process. As part of the story, titled "Dade Divided," I had leveled some criticism at the Herald's coverage and noted that neither the Herald nor El Nuevo Herald, in their respective profiles of Vidal, mentioned that his wife Maria worked for both newspapers, running a branch of their accounting departments. I contended it was appropriate for the papers to disclose that fact. Following publication of my story, I never mentioned the matter again.

Evidently Vidal had been upset by what I'd written, and he hadn't gotten over it in two years. When he brought it up last week, I told him I thought he was crazy to let it bother him still.

"If you ever mention my wife again, I'll kick your ass," he responded coldly.

I couldn't help but laugh.
"I'm serious," he said, glowering at me. Apparently he was annoyed at my cackling.

As I tried to protest that he was overreacting, he said he didn't want to discuss it any further, changed the subject, and then left.

Now, I know for a fact that I'm not universally loved in this town, and that there are a number of people who would like nothing better than to pummel me into fine German schnitzel. But I was amazed at Vidal's conduct. You simply don't expect the Metro-Dade county manager, the man responsible for 28,000 employees and a four-billion-dollar budget, to make such an ass of himself. After all, could Armando Vidal be so dimwitted as to think he could threaten a reporter -- especially one from New Times -- and not later see it in print?

What made the incident all the more remarkable was Vidal's timing. He didn't know it then, but I had already interviewed several people for a story about his management style.

Vidal is very popular among most commissioners. He is considered bright and articulate, and under his leadership the county has been able to trim its budget and slightly decrease property taxes while not severely affecting services. Criticism of the county manager often centers on his attitude and demeanor. Former county commission chairman Art Teele often found fault with Vidal for behaving more like a politician than an administrator. Indeed, quite a few people wonder if Vidal doesn't view himself as the fourteenth commissioner on the dais. Before he even set foot in the press booth last week, he had been described to me by a number of county employees as a strutting, arrogant bully who elicits obedience not through loyalty but by intimidation. They said he is vindictive and that he holds grudges against people he believes have slighted him, no matter how innocuous the infraction. He does not take criticism well, they contended, and can become irate over the most niggling of issues. "He's very abusive when things don't go his way," one employee confided.

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."

Careful not to overtly criticize Vidal, Diaz de la Portilla added, "Ultimately he makes the right decision." Translation: Vidal screwed up with this move, but he'll eventually make it right by promoting Hudak back to the level of assistant county manager.

Other commissioners, including James Burke, Bruce Kaplan, and Natacha Millan, said that they also liked Hudak but did not feel it was appropriate to second-guess Vidal's decision. And Millan noted that she had not received one phone call from women's groups upset about Hudak's demotion.

Sorenson also lambasted Vidal for not taking more action in general in support of the county's female employees. This past May the Metro-Dade Women's Association published a report highly critical of the county. Based on a comprehensive survey of county government, it noted that women are "hired less often in the executive ranks of county government than males" and that the salary gap between male and female executives is widening, with men earning anywhere from $5000 to $27,000 more than their female counterparts in the same job categories.

In July the county commission unanimously passed a pair of resolutions demanding action and requiring the county manager to form "an autonomous task force" to implement recommended solutions proposed by the women's group. But five months later Vidal hadn't done anything. When Sorenson asked why, he feebly responded, "I'll have to find out and report back to the commission."

"We need to have that established immediately," Sorenson chided. "We need to deal with these issues."

Vidal said he would look into it.
No doubt. He'll have that task force up and running real soon. Probably right around the time Damon Chapple gets out of prison.

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