Why Can't We All Just Go for the Jugular?

The dogfight over the Independent Review Panel proves that you might unite the community, but you'll never unite the Dade County Commission

A stack of pamphlets entitled "Citizens Guide to County Accountability" sits on the desk of Eduardo Diaz, executive director of Dade's Independent Review Panel (IRP). The brochures explain how this little-known agency uses fact-finding and dispute resolution to reconcile complaints against Dade County departments or employees, including Metro police officers.

Forged from the fires of the 1980 McDuffie riots and a perceived need for more oversight of police, the IRP was created by county commissioners "to promote confidence in county government and to improve community relations," the handout declares. The IRP accomplishes its mission through investigating complaints, and, if warranted, making nonbinding recommendations for disciplinary action or changes in policy. Despite registering a total of 1123 complaints in 1995-96, it operated in relative obscurity until Diaz's tenure. For the first time in the panel's sixteen-year history, the new pamphlets make information available in three languages: English, Spanish, and Creole -- part of the Cuban-born director's efforts to get the public's attention.

When the printer delivered the brochures on September 16, Diaz rejoiced. His plans to bolster the panel's autonomy, increase its size, and raise its profile were moving apace. Following his appointment on May 13, 1996, by Chief Circuit Judge Joseph Farina, Diaz politicked and cajoled the county commission to pass ordinances enlarging the panel from five to nine to better reflect Dade's racial, ethnic, and gender balance; and removed the county manager's designee to the panel as a conflict of interest.

Diaz even found an ally in Mayor Alex Penelas, whose recent slash-and-burn budget only nicked five percent off the IRP's annual allotment. Diaz, a 46-year-old psychology Ph.D. and former division director of crime prevention services for the county, envisions the IRP as a vital forum to empower citizens, a goal he believed was imminently obtainable as he strode to the county commission's budget meeting with a pocketful of new brochures.

After midnight, during a commission meeting that would stretch past dawn, Bruce Kaplan turned Diaz's dreams to nightmares. Among a laundry list of items he proposed should be cut from Penelas's budget, Kaplan added, "I would also include in the motion that the IRP be eliminated as we have an ethics commission that covers substantially the same ground." After questioning by the commissioners, Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg conceded there might be an overlap, but to what extent he couldn't say.

At the conclusion of 40 minutes of debate, the commission instructed the county manager to undertake an analysis of where the two agencies replicate each other. Kaplan berated his fellow commissioners for their lack of courage and failure to save taxpayers "400,000-plus dollars" (the IRP's actual budget is $370,000; Diaz's salary is $81,495.) "I don't think it's a good policy to decide willy-nilly," countered Commissioner Dennis Moss, capturing the majority's mood.

The request for a report sent county bureaucrats scurrying to study the two agencies anew. Dade County voters had approved the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust on March 12, 1996, in a referendum sponsored by Penelas, who was a commissioner at the time. A reaction to widespread allegations of corruption in county government, the ethics commission carries a mandate to enforce county ordinances covering ethics and conflict of interest, and serves as a watchdog over lobbyists. Penelas staff member Joe Ramallo queried Eduardo Diaz during its creation to see if he believed it duplicated the IRP. "I didn't think there would be an overlap," Diaz remembers telling him. "The ethics commission focused on politicians and lobbyists at that time."

Some county commissioners resisted the new agency. Despite an approved budget of $280,000 last year, they didn't vote to fund the ethics commission until July 8, 1997. One of its fiercest detractors was Kaplan, who has battled allegations of ethics violations on several occasions. Money earmarked for the ethics commission in 1996-97 ended up being diverted to drainage programs, according to county budget staff. Under the latest budget, it has $277,000 to play with, even though two of its four board members (mandated to include one retired judge, one former prosecutor, one law professor, and one member chosen by the Dade County League of Cities) still need to be appointed.

What the ethics commission does have that the IRP does not is enforcement power. The commission holds the authority to levy fines of $250 for a first violation and $500 and/or 30 days in jail for subsequent transgressions. It also commands the ability to subpoena witnesses.

Assistant County Attorney Gerald Sanchez acknowledges there is some congruency between the two agencies. For example, in a hypothetical case of police brutality, the individual directly affected could make a complaint of "exploitation of official position" to the ethics commission, according to Sanchez, who cautions that it is impossible to predict how the agency would respond to such a case. But according to one of the ethics commission's strongest proponents, Commissioner Jimmy Morales, the agency was never expected to take on cases of police brutality. "We were thinking about bribery, conflicts of interest, illicit gifts from lobbyists," says Morales. "We were not thinking about police brutality. I wouldn't want to see the ethics commission involved in that game."

The ethics commission's emphasis on punishment through quasi-judicial hearings is what really separates it from the IRP. Diaz argues that the IRP is more concerned with policies and procedures, whereas the new commission will concentrate on individual cases. For instance, based on the complaints it receives, the IRP makes suggestions that should either strengthen oversight or reform flawed procedures. Past IRP investigations have led to improved handicapped accessibility in county jails and the separation of police internal-affairs investigators from discipline decisions for officers they investigate, among other policy modifications. All of the IRP's investigations are also public, whereas the ethics commission's work will only be revealed once it arrives at the hearing stage. In addition, the IRP performs mediation and complaint-prevention training for county departments.

But rather than Diaz's lofty vision of a place to construct social harmony from creative conflict, what could ultimately save the IRP is an ordinance passed right before he took office. On March 5, 1996, county commissioners endorsed what is commonly known as the Whistle-Blower Ordinance. It specifically gives the IRP subpoena power to investigate on behalf of county employees who feel they have suffered retaliation for disclosing the wrongdoing of co-workers and supervisors. County employee unions insist that all such cases be referred to the IRP. "There was a real concern by unions that this would be another mechanism by which employees could be hounded," explains Morales. "I think they saw [the IRP] as the poison you know rather than one you don't."

The IRP has only completed one whistle-blower case since the ordinance passed last year. The incident involved a vendor at the seaport who accused another vendor of trafficking in stolen goods, and alleged that he lost his job for his efforts. After mediation by the panel, the vendor accepted a monetary settlement from the seaport of several thousand dollars. Diaz vows that more cases are forthcoming and hopes to double the number of total complaints the panel investigates. "There is more opportunity than ever before to address justice issues in this community," he insists. But in a perilous time of budget cuts, he fears he might never get the chance to unleash the flood of whistle-blower and local government complaints he believes are out there.

Commissioners gave the county manager 30 days to report back on the IRP and the ethics commission, at which point the IRP's opponents could try to eliminate it again.

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