The Hot Seat

Pepe Cancio faced big trouble on his first day as a county commissioner, but no one likes trouble

Supermix bills itself as "The On-Time Concrete Company." So it wasn't surprising that when company president and CEO José "Pepe" Cancio, Sr., was to be sworn in as a Miami-Dade County commissioner earlier this month, he wasn't just on time, he was early.

"I'm here alone," said 62-year-old Cancio, stating the obvious as he anxiously waited in the stripped-bare office of his District 12 predecessor Miriam Alonso, suspended from the commission after being arrested on felony charges relating to improper use of campaign funds (she has since resigned). "But as a businessman I am used to working alone."

Unbuttoning the jacket of his gray-green suit, the white-haired Cancio checked his watch and found that he still had 30 minutes or more before making his way down the stairs to the commission chambers. He sat, wedging his long legs under a small, round table, and mused aloud about exchanging the solid wooden office door for something glass. As a public servant, he wants to let the sunshine in. "You know," he offered, "I was on the community council in Doral, but between you and me, this is the big leagues."

Commissioner José "Pepe" Cancio may never be forced to vote for or against civilian review of county police
Steve Satterwhite
Commissioner José "Pepe" Cancio may never be forced to vote for or against civilian review of county police

If Cancio seemed a little apprehensive on what was to be his first day in office, the reasons were not hard to spot. With a slight turn of the head he could look through the glass wall behind him and see in the government-center lobby below a large group of county police officers, all wearing "Protect Our Citizens, Not Criminals" T-shirts and expressions of defiant resolve. Behind their bulldog leader, Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association president John Rivera, more than 200 cops were poised to pack the commission chambers in angry opposition to a proposal that would put before voters a referendum to create a powerful civilian investigative panel charged with reviewing police actions.

The measure on the commission agenda, similar to one approved last year by voters in the City of Miami, is a political grenade with the potential for explosive community consequences. Informed speculation had commissioners evenly split: six in favor, six opposed. So a few minutes before 9:00 a.m. on May 7, Pepe Cancio looked like a man who would rather hop a northbound cement truck than assume his seat on the county commission. "I read the papers every day," he said. "I know I could be the swing vote."

As it turned out, Cancio would not be the swing vote that day. When Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, the resolution's sponsor, did the math and saw that the votes he needed weren't there, he asked that debate be deferred. "I had not gotten the opportunity to bring forces from within the community to speak in the numbers I had anticipated," Rolle explained later. "It was like at [an earlier] commission hearing -- I felt like Custer, all by myself. This is a hot issue."

The hot issue was rescheduled for June 4, and Rolle predicted that his community forces would be there. Rivera and his troops would be back too. And then, as Rolle told his fellow commissioners in another Wild West metaphor: "We'll have a shootout at the OK Corral."

Miami attorney and civil-rights activist H.T. Smith calls the proposal -- put forward by Rolle but crafted by County Mayor Alex Penelas -- "a good first step" in giving a civilian panel real power in investigating police misconduct and questionable shootings. But it lacks specifics. That's why Smith and other members of the Justice Now! Coalition have been working behind the scenes to shape the language of any ballot measure and, if voters approve, how the investigative panel would work. The coalition favors granting subpoena power to the existing Independent Review Panel (IRP), the civilian board that investigates complaints against all county employees, including police officers. (Created in 1980, the IRP has nine permanent members. Five of the nine are nominated by community organizations and approved by the county commission. Those five then select four other members. The group can hold hearings and make nonbinding recommendations but cannot compel testimony.) "We want to put a little more meat on the bones, and come up with a civilian investigative panel that really has some power to investigate," says Smith. As for finding seven of the thirteen commissioners who will vote to put the controversial question on the November 5 ballot, Smith concedes, "It's a very tight schedule and we need the stars to align properly."

In fact, during Pepe Cancio's four-and-a-half-month interim appointment, heavenly convergence and Earth-bound politics may allow him to dodge the vote completely. "There may not be enough time [to get the measure on the November ballot]. I'll acknowledge that possibility," says coalition member Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The commission is still in a state of flux. But we believe it can happen."

The commission's state of flux is just one obstacle. While applauding Penelas for supporting the idea of a civilian investigative panel, Rodriguez-Taseff also expresses reservations. "The mayor's proposal falls far short of what we need," she asserts. "His push was too rushed and not thought out. The ACLU and the coalition understand this is an issue that both the community and the commission need to be educated on. We need to slow the process and build real consensus in the community so people know what they're voting for."

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