The plot thickens like un tamal en cazuela on As Hialeah Churns.
When last we left our City of Retrogress, city officials and acting alcaldito Carlos Hernandez -- appointed by the lying, thieving former mayor, a political powerhouse that basically imploded in a battle of good versus evil when he tried to seek a higher office -- had conspired to tarnish the city's brave firefighters in an orchestrated smear campaign worthy of Machiavellian comparisons.
Well, maybe not that last part. Because, really, it's very mediocre, not Machiavellian. It is quite obvious to anyone who can string together the recent spate of strange and peculiar events and official statements that this cannot be a series of coincidences but rather a concerted effort to discredit the firefighters that have repeatedly asked for -- and have repeatedly been denied -- transparency and full financial disclosure from the city before they can relinquish $5 million in arbitrary cuts to benefits they have earned. They must be on to something. And Ladra bets that the mayor did not think we'd be on to him and his step-by-step, color-by-numbers, defamation-for-dummies effort. Oh, but we are, Carlos, we are.
The latest on his discount campaign "to do" list was a letter to the editor in Miami Herald that, at first, really riled me up and made me what I now call "Slick pissed", after one of my favorite handlers whose irate flare-ups are legendary. Because what Hernandez did -- or someone else, since, c'mon, everybody knows he is incapable of writing that letter himself -- was string a bunch of lies and half-truths taken out of context for political gain during an election year and target a 23-year veteran city firefighter whose honesty is unquestionable, whose demeanor is sort of like Winnie the Pooh and who is doing his best -- diplomatically, patiently, fairly -- to represent Hialeah's firefighters/paramedics under the most difficult circumstances.
But then I realized: Fire local union president Mario Pico must be making an impact.
And then I smiled: The interim mayor -- who won't return my calls or see me in his office and who shut down the press conference about the city's finances after I asked (still no answer) how much of the $6 million in the bank was in unencumbered funds not earmarked for specific expenditures and available to the general fund -- has given me yet another opportunity to publicly call his bluff.
Hernandez -- who complains about firefighter salaries while he makes $190,000 a year to waltz in late, take 90-minute lunches, go on the radio two or three times a week and campaign for re-election -- has to make the fire union a target and his short term scapegoat because he cannot engage with the other two candidates in the race, which are both political giants that will crush him. This gives him some busy work to avoid them while he pays "opposition researchers" -- including a former city cop -- to dig dirt on former mayor Raul Martinez and former State Sen. Rudy Garcia and plan his smear campaign against them. At the same time, he can try to deflect responsibility for the financial fiasco. And I say short term because his story -- if he even sticks to it because he flip flops more than his mentor, former mayor and county mayoral loser Julio Robaina -- won't wash for long when the administration is either forced to show its financial cards or replaced, whichever comes first.
Still, make no mistake that this letter -- which has media consultant spin written all over it, such as the use of certain repeated terms to subliminally embed the message -- is an orchestrated campaign to, well, boost the campaign since every poll has Hernandez in a far third position. And he needs all the free advertising he can get since his treasure chest may not be as big as before Robaina's big bust. That's also why he is using the bully pulpit and issuing press releases and media alerts about a redeveloped home for a senior citizen and an evaluation of take-home cars and cutting his salary and having a town hall meeting about cutting his salary (really? is anybody buying this?).
Since the Herald gave him this free advertising space for his campaign (that letter really should have had the paid for by disclaimer), the Hialeah reporters should follow up with Hernandez and take advantage of this chance to show what a hypocritical opportunist he is by askin him to back up the statements in this letter -- which, by the way was sent to the Herald the same day the administration entered into negotiations with the union fully intending to call an impasse, which the union president denounced. (The spin doctor working for him likely had it ready already, to try to pre-empt any complaint Mario would maketo the media). That is not negotiating in good faith, which is no big suprise since the city has lost three or four labor disputes in the past year or two at a cost of millions and millions. In fact, Ladra is quite sure they had already prepared the impasse document before going into the meeting (I think the city attorney brought it into the room with him) and had set the firefighters up a week earlier with a media alert -- a media alert!! -- from the mayor complaining that he had tried five times to get a date for negotiations with the union and had not gotten a response. Not only was this simply not true -- which Mario Pico was able to document, no wonder he's drawn such attention -- but it was also an obvious set up. It is not a common thing -- in fact, I would say it is quite rare, counterproductive and highly suspicious (hellooo?) -- for the mayor to issue an official "media alert" to whine that he could not get the union to talk to him. The union has been trying to talk to him since before he was named interim mayor and, in fact, has had several conversations with him. One of these was in front of TV reporter Jim DeFede and was recorded on video. The firefighters have been wanting to talk for months and were willing to keep talking last week when the city called impasse. Indeed, they are willing to make concessions if they need to preserve the quality of life for the residents they work for and save every day, which is something that the mayor fails to mention. They just don't want to make them in the dark. They have no confidence in the city's numbers. And with good reason. Last year, they were given two different versions of the budget. The official bounded budget. After Robaina illegally fired 17 firefighters, an arbitrator ruled the city had to rehire them and give them backpay because their figures did not support the savings they claimed to make and in fact the action seemed to cause economic hardship. Even a Robaina-for-mayor supporter and forensic auditor said that the books had many discrepancies and errors. And last month, Hernandez flip-flopped on the figures, saying at a press conference that there was a $7.8 million shorfall (blaming the lion's share on firefighters with yet another lie) and then he told reporters days later that there was no deficit (read: the spin doc read him the riot act after the first press conference because every time he says deficit, Martinez climbs).
As for the "such firefighter pay raises" line -- yeah, that's the one -- most of the firefighters have not had a raise since the 3% in 2008 that was the last of a three year increase agreed to in 2006 -- the same year the council members gave themselves a 10 percent increase all at one time. The mayor forgets to mention that, too. The merit increases are given only to the newest employees because it allows the department to offer a lower starting pay and it is in the contract. It could be discussed and negotiated -- negotiated, not just deleted -- at the table if the city had any intention of having any real give and take and not really be looking to just take, take, take. Because the impasse now allows the administration to impose cuts. They did it last year with the employees union. That's what Hernandez means by "absorbed" decreases in his letter. It was also one of the cases in which PERC ruled against the city, which had cut the general employees pay by 27 percent and then made that decrease 17 percent after the PERC ruling. The case is still pending and the city is about to be it with another grievance from the firefighters, if he imposes cuts like I am sure he will. And the city will lose that dispute eventually, as well. But, hey, maybe it's long enough to make payroll and keep the city operating until November.
It's pathetic that Hernandez is allowed this futile attempt to discredit a true public servant who has not once stooped so low during the protracted negotiations the city had no intention of honoring. Let's hope that it backfires on him and costs him votes. Ladra is working on it. Unfortunately, it will also cost the city more in legal feels for lost labor disputes, which is already adding up to millions and millions the mayor simply does not have in the bank.
His letter, however, won't cost Mario Pico one ounce of credibility. If anything, it raises his profile and makes him more relevant in the community.
I'll have to remind Mario to thank the acting mayor next time he sees him.