The Hot Seat

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

The education campaign Rodriguez-Taseff envisions would cut through the confusion engendered by months of bickering. A majority of the nine-member IRP voted this past October to seek subpoena power, arguing that in too many cases county employees, including police, simply don't show up to respond to residents' complaints. Those arguments got louder in January, after Eddie Lee Macklin was shot and killed by a Miami-Dade police officer in Liberty City following a Martin Luther King Day festival. As community groups met to draw up a proposal, Penelas surprised them by announcing plans to ask voters to authorize the creation of a new police-review panel separate from the IRP.

In April County Manager Steve Shiver surprised Penelas by suggesting that allegations of police misconduct be investigated by the county's Office of the Inspector General. Penelas responded with a memo chastising Shiver for actions that "jeopardize this delicate issue by openly disagreeing with my policy."

Then Commissioner Joe Martinez weighed in, offering his own compromise proposal that would restructure the IRP and allow members to sit in on some official police briefings but deny the panel subpoena power. "It's a middle ground," says Martinez, an ex-cop. "It's not something everyone's going to be happy with."

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

None of that, however, achieves what the Justice Now! Coalition wants: subpoena power for the IRP, no interference by county attorneys, and the ability to carry out investigations simultaneously with the police.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to getting the measure before voters this fall is a lack of urgency. City of Miami voters in November overwhelmingly endorsed civilian review, but that city's police department has a history of questionable police shootings, not to mention fourteen officers currently under federal indictment on corruption and cover-up charges. In addition Miami's large Cuban population was receptive to the idea following intense skirmishes with police after the forced removal of Elian Gonzalez. The Civilian Investigative Panel the city commission created in February is one of only a handful in the nation with full subpoena power.

By comparison the Miami-Dade Police Department seems less troubled. That's the point Rivera keeps making. "Where is the problem?" he cried before the commission. "If we have a problem, let's fix it."

But politics is about counting votes. The four African-American members of the county commission -- Barbara Carey-Shuler, Dennis Moss, Betty Ferguson, and Rolle -- are likely to back the measure. Just as likely to oppose it are a majority of the commission's Cuban members -- Bruno Barreiro, Joe Martinez, Javier Souto, Rebeca Sosa, and Natacha Seijas. Commission chairwoman Gwen Margolis is officially uncommitted, but she is an announced candidate for a state Senate seat this fall. Not only would she be loathe to incur the political wrath of the police union, but the issue of civilian review is now seen as a matter of concern chiefly in the county's black neighborhoods, far removed from the Senate district in northeast Miami-Dade County where Margolis will be seeking votes.

Rolle, for one, rejects any analysis that says Margolis is a No vote. "Right now this is being depicted as a black thing," he says, "but it doesn't have to stay that way. At the June 4 hearing some other folks are going to come forward that could change that perception."

Even if Margolis ends up supporting Rolle's resolution, the votes of commissioners Katy Sorenson, Jimmy Morales, and Pepe Cancio will still be crucial. Sorenson, though, says she wants more time to study the issue. Morales says he is also undecided. "I hear rumors that it will be close," he reports, adding that he doubts the issue will be decided June 4.

But what about Cancio? Could he be that swing vote after all? He is Cuban, of course, having left the island in 1960. He is a Republican, a self-described "big fan of the Bush family" who was appointed to replace Alonso by Governor Bush. As a member of the Doral community council from 1996 to 2000, he promoted business, deplored unsightly telephone poles, and served as liaison with the county police.

During his short stint on the commission, Cancio expects his agenda to be modest. He says he would be happy to improve a couple of district parks, open up some construction-clogged lanes of SW 107th Avenue, and work for Doral's incorporation, a move Alonso also backed. Cancio, however, says he does not favor the tortured boundaries proposed by his predecessor, which described a gun-shaped swath of Doral, Fontainebleau Park, and the City of Sweetwater that came to be known as "Miriamville."

"The most important thing I can do for the district is to re-establish public faith in county government," he says. "But I am a designated hitter. I said I will not run for this seat, and you can take that to the bank." And how might he vote on the issue of a referendum to create a civilian investigative panel with subpoena power? "You will know when I push the button," he replies. "If I am the swing vote, I don't care. I don't take pressure from anyone except my wife. I am not here to make history, but if I have to be there, I will take a position."

Then the new commissioner adds one more thought. "In general," he says, "I am for more accountability and less government. And adding another group -- well, that sounds like more government."

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