Hialeah voters got a look at how nasty the city's mayoral election may get Tuesday when former Mayor Raul Martinez -- still called Mr. Mayor by almost everybody, even Interim Mayor Carlos Hernandez -- challenged the acting boss and fellow candidate to tell him what the city's financial standing was.
The question remains unanswered. Not because Hernandez does not know, but because he wants to wait until later this week to let us know, promising figures Thursday or Friday, he said.
"We will have all those numbers in the next couple of days," Hernandez said, but Ladra is unsure if he is talking about the budget for 2011-2012 or the current state of the city, which is what has been asked over and over again. By me, by employees and by other journalists. If there's nothing wrong with the books, why can't anybody take a look? Hernandez has the huevos to say nobody's asking to. "All these people you are talking about, I don't see them," he told Martinez, even though I was sitting right there, two rows behind fire union President Mario Pico and the general employees' union President Barbara Hernandez. Close by were newspaper and television reporters who I'm sure asked for the same figures. But what Hernandez was doing was taking a shot at the front running candidate for the job he wants to keep.
"I only see people who are politically motivated," he said.
Martinez, being the savvy administrator and campaign king he is, reminded him that "the budget has nothing to do with the cash flow. Are the employees going to get paid? Because they are coming to me and they are worried."
Hernandez seemed to wince: "I'm glad they go to you now." Ouch.
"They come to me because they trust me," Martinez said, citing Hernandez's promotional "salary cut" (annual pay was $40,000 two months ago and is now $190,000) as an opportunistic campaign ploy, which is exactly what it is when you hear the acting mayor talk about him being a public servant and the people tiring of bloated salaries -- which he forgets to say he approved.
"Now you're throwing Julio Robaina under the bus," Martinez said, referring to the former mayor and defeated county mayoral candidate whose political future the council tied their trailers to.
Hernandez leaned on the dais and began to complain but I have no idea what he said because either it was incoherent or because I was still writing down the bus comment or because Isis Garcia-Martinez interrupted the two men and almost chided Martinez in a flirty mommy tone. "Yes, I know how good you are," she told him and Ladra would almost swear she saw a wink. Or did she just roll her eyes again? "In the past, when you wanted something done some way, it was done that way. You need to respect Mayor Carlos Hernandez," she told Martinez -- and she should have winked then but she said that with a straight face.
Hernandez punched back, raising the raises that Martinez gave himself as mayor from 2001 to 2005. And Martinez started to speak again, likely to raise the issue about how he lobbied for the city and worked full-time while the city now pays lobbyists and the mayor works out. Except that Garcia-Martinez, a kill joy who likes that little gavel that comes with council presidency, stopped both of them from talking over each other. "This is going to be a political match? Why don't we leave it to November," she said. Que aguafiestas.
But Martinez will not be shut up that easily. "The city council approved every single one of those raises and when I left the city, the city had $35 million in reserves. Where are the reserves now? You don't want to answer how much money you have in the bank?"
"I gave you my answer," Hernandez said, calm again, apparently referring to the tell-ya-later response.
"You're in trouble," Martinez said, head tilted, tiny sarcastic smile on his face. Then he left the podium as Hernandez said "no we're not."
"He sounds like Hugo Chavez," Martinez yelled as he went out the council chambers door.
Really, it may sound like I am but I am not making this stuff up.
So, en resumen, Hernandez's answer is that he will provide an answer later in the week. Look for it on Friday and late in the day, around 4 p.m. Because Hialeah politics is turning into a top-rated telenovela and you know they always wait to air the crazy plot twists and dramatic cliffhangers at the last minute of the last day of the week. Why? So they can promote it all week long, of course. And Hernandez -- who has a scant $1,000 in his campaign account from himself, and on June 10th (nothing else at all) -- is getting a good amount of free ink and free air time (read: campaign promotion) in the meantime so he can spin-say, over and over again, how and why he cut his salary, when he's really looking at a nearly 400% raise (which is how he spun it with TV reporters Tuesday). I am sure the employees who were forced to take an illegal 27 percent cut that was later changed to 17 percent after the city lost a PERC ruling, would love a "cut" like that instead.
But while Friday is drumbeat day, Tuesday's council meeting was still a great episode. After Martinez, Pico spoke about his lack of trust in the city's numbers. I'd be suspicious too after so many varying reports from an administration that has (1) once provided two different budgets to the union and (2) been dead wrong on budgetary justifications, such as in the case of the 16 fired firefighters -- swept out (coincidentally?) right before a union vote on concessions -- that the city had to rehire after an arbitrator said the city's financial reasoning was bogus.
"There have been errors and omissions in the past, and the concerns are still there," Pico said, adding that the fire union would pay for the audit. "All we need is that you openly participate with us. We pay. Let's both choose the auditor. I think at the end of the day, this is going to tell us how big a problem we have." Now there's a solution. But Hernandez can't see that. At first, Hernandez declined, and he took the opportunity to malign the union because they have not been able to impose cuts and because they had to rehire the firefighters and it cost the city more than $1 million between the overtime already paid and the $687,000 in backpay ordered by a binding arbitrator. (But Ladra thinks that the city is broke and has no intention of paying the firefighters for the five months they were illegally unpaid). "The firefighters union has not given up anything yet. Let's get to a table and we look at the numbers. Bring whoever you want," he said, knowing full well that is not what Pico meant by a forensic audit, where auditors sit in the city's finance office poring over numbers, looking for discrepancies you just know they will find. Again, Hernandez turned it into a campaign speech and said that Pico was playing politics. "I'm not going to spend for an audit," he ended. But he should take the wax out of his ears. Did he not hear the union say they were footing the bill?
Pico was undeterred and turned the interim mayor's argument against him. "The CAFRS [comprehensive annual financial reports] were delayed quite a bit this year and politically there were elections going on and I'm not playing politics. We are ready to absorb the costs," Pico repeated and stressed. "We just want it to be something the council participates in," he said, adding again that lingering financial questions cause concern about the requested $3.2 million in concessions. "We have heard and seen a lot of weird things. We have no confidence in the numbers right now. We don't want to make our sacrifices in the dark," Pico said, adding that firefighters are willing to take measures to increase savings -- but if the city is not squandering funds elsewhere and has a solid recovery plan. "I'm not going to be part and parcel to the political games and ineptitude of this administration," Pico said. That's right, he went there.
"I don't have a hidden agenda," Hernandez said. "I will tell the citizens of Hialeah where we are at."
The city attorney then rose to the interim mayor's defense. "Today we got a very nasty letter from Mr. Pico saying we are waiting for the mayor to sit down. We've been negotiating in excess of 27 months and the fire union has received two merit steps while other unions have sacrificed."
But those negotiations have not been made in good faith when time and again the city loses PERC rulings and arbitrations on illegal firings. And the letter, of which Ladra has a copy, was not nasty. It was, in fact, a response to a media alert issued by Hernandez announcing that five attempts to meet with the union have been ignored. Not only is that untrue, because they had a meeting attended by two reporters, in June. It's also just simply weird. Why would Hernandez issue that kind of press release unless he knew that the forensic audit was going to be suggested and he wanted to cast doubt on the firefighters intentions? It makes no sense at all. Especially since Pico can show that they met in June and said that Hernandez himself called after that meeting and asked to postpone any negotiations until after the county mayoral elections.
"Does the city attorney speak for you, sir," Pico asked the mayor, who answered something to the tune of that he did speak for him at that moment (hope he puts that on campaign literature). When the attorney continued to ask Pico to provide a date, the union president said he would do so in an email. "There has to be some very serious questions about those numbers that better be answered."
Garcia-Martinez tried being peacemaker again, saying "I think there's good faith here now." And maybe that was just the right amount of pressure, because Hernandez suddenly grasped that it would not cost the city a thing and agreed to the forensic audit. With a Catch 22, that is. "Within a time limit, sure, do it," Hernandez said. But he demanded negotiations begin next week and how likely is it that a forensic audit will be done before that?
But Ladra sure hopes we don't have to wait that long before the public can hear how much the city has in the bank, how much it owes and how much it expects to come in for this current year's cycle -- which, again, are numbers that the mayor or his gagged financial department heads should have at their fingertips but are refusing to provide for whatever reason they have. C'mon, just a ball park figure. Give or take a couple hundred thou.
My guess: It isn't good news. Because if they could just show we have this much and this coming in and it's enough to pay these expenses, it would be in the interim mayor's best interest -- and the best interest of his already struggling campaign -- to do just that.