Power struggle between North Bay Village police and city hall gets ugly
It has all the intrigue of old-fashioned palace politics, with feuding guards, duels (albeit with fists, not swords), and eavesdropping informants. And there are crackdowns and revenge enough for a Jacobean drama. Except the power struggle is taking place in the present day in the small town of North Bay Village, where a civil war has erupted inside city hall.
It all began about a year and a half ago, when a group of cops revolted against the Dade County Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and persuaded two-thirds of the small three-island city's 24 police officers to switch to a rival union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Today, the cops who led the defection to the FOP are paying the price for their defiance.
"It is total mayhem over there," says Armando Aguilar, vice president of the statewide chapter of the FOP. "That place is a madhouse." Aguilar says City Manager Matthew Schwartz, City Attorney Joe Geller, and Mayor Oscar Alfonso have spent the past 12 months retaliating against FOP officers who have criticized controversial personnel decisions and budget cuts.
"When the FOP took over, it pissed off a lot of people," Aguilar says, "including Geller, the mayor, and the city manager."
Schwartz, whom the city commission hired in November 2008, vehemently disputes Aguilar's accusations. "That's just a load of crap," Schwartz says. "That is just ridiculous." Alfonso declined to be interviewed. Geller could not be reached for comment.
The tangled tale in North Bay Village illustrates the heavy influence the PBA wields over small police departments in Miami-Dade. While the FOP is a national organization, the Florida-based PBA has more members in the state, representing 30,000 law enforcers. Both unions are heavily involved in politics. Aguilar, who is also president of the Miami FOP, rallied his union brothers behind Tomás Regalado's successful campaign for Miami mayor. Dade County PBA President John Rivera has backed the campaigns of county Mayor Carlos Alvarez and several county commissioners.
But in North Bay Village, a city with a $3 million police budget and approximately 6,800 residents, the PBA has done more than simply help favored candidates seek public office. Its members have actively conspired with politicians to retaliate against perceived enemies.
In 2004, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office launched an investigation into then-Mayor Alan Dorne and two commissioners. The trio was accused of violating the Sunshine Law by meeting in private to discuss firing then-City Manager James Vardalis, who had initiated a criminal probe of then-Chief Irving Heller, a friend of Dorne's and a longtime PBA leader. Investigators discovered a PBA vice president and a lawyer representing the union accompanied Dorne and one of the commissioners for a private session with the man they wanted to replace Vardalis. Dorne and the commissioner were arrested and removed from office; they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.
Later that year, during the November election, the PBA helped Geller win the mayor's seat. And in 2008, the PBA supported Geller's failed run for state representative, as well as his successor in North Bay Village, Alfonso — an elected official who owes the IRS $223,886 in unpaid taxes and owes Miami-Dade County nearly $10,000 in property taxes from 2008 and 2009.
Village homeowner James Carter, who volunteered for Alfonso's opponent, claims he was constantly harassed by Lt. James "Steve" McVay, who sits on the PBA's board of directors and was the police department's union representative before the FOP took over. "McVay and another officer on several occasions followed us from house to house in an attempt to intimidate us," Carter says.
McVay hangs out with Alfonso daily, says a North Bay Village cop who requested anonymity because he fears retaliation. "Oscar calls McVay his best buddy," the officer says. "They have been seen numerous times eating lunch together and hanging out in Alfonso's city hall office. I think it is sort of unethical."
According to Aguilar, McVay, who earns $78,556 a year without overtime, is the reason a majority of the officers voted to go with the FOP in June 2008. "They dropped the PBA because they saw favoritism," Aguilar says. "If you weren't part of the club, you weren't represented."
During a phone interview, McVay defends his tenure as the police department's union representative. "I negotiated one of the best contracts in the state," he says. "I got the officers a 7 percent raise. The PBA did a very good job here." McVay also defends his political activism but denies he bothered Carter or any other residents: "This is just a couple of guys who got into trouble stirring things up."
The rift in the police department escalated in February 2009 when Chief Roland Pandolfi (who will resign later this month) announced McVay and two other officers who are PBA members would be promoted to deputy chief, commander, and lieutenant, respectively. The three cops would have received a combined $80,000 in raises at a time the city was docking one day's pay per month from each city employee to help close a $600,000 deficit.
FOP representative and North Bay Village Police Sgt. Kevin Beaty sent Schwartz an email criticizing the personnel moves. "The majority of lodge members do not feel that in these times of economic difficulty it is fiscally responsible to make unbudgeted and unnecessary appointments," Beaty wrote. Schwartz says he agreed the promotions were a bad idea and scrapped them. "It was a big uproar, and rightfully so," Schwartz says. "Whatever changes were proposed were never carried through."
Beaty also disapproved of the city commission's decision to hire Geller as the city attorney. He wrote, "It is a conflict of interest."
The same month, McVay scuffled with another FOP representative, Mark Weinstein, inside the police department's office trailer behind Treasure Island Elementary. According to an internal affairs investigation, a cop says he witnessed Weinstein attack McVay, who declined to comment about the fight. Weinstein claimed McVay choked him and forced him to the ground. Scwhartz suspended Weinstein for 90 days. McVay received three days off — not for fighting, but for failing to report the incident to superiors.
Beaty also got into hot water with Schwartz. Sometime in the fall of last year, another officer had accused Beaty and Officer Steve Brent of speaking publicly about an open investigation to patrons at Happy's Stork Lounge on the John F. Kennedy Causeway. To clear their names, Brent and Beaty secretly tape-recorded a conversation they had with Jean Pankey and her husband Brian Hawthorne, the alleged witnesses against them. On tape, the couple denied the accusations against Brent and Beaty.
When the couple learned about the tape, they threatened to sue the city this past November. A month later, Scwhartz placed Beaty on administrative leave following another incident with Hawthorne, who alleged the sergeant harassed him on a traffic-related matter. Beaty's lawyer Osi Rind says the city manager is using Hawthorne's complaints as an excuse to go after her client.
"Kevin is being singled out and retaliated against because of his affiliation with the FOP," she says. "The manager and the mayor support the PBA and are not happy the FOP is representing the officers."
Schwartz scoffs at those comments. "The assumption that this is being fueled by the PBA is ludicrous," he says. "I find it troubling that officers are freelancing investigations and getting involved in physical violence. I wanted to send a clear message that this will not be tolerated."
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