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."

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."

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."

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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