The Circus Comes To Town Pitches Tent At Miami City Hall
Written by Michael Lewis on September 15, 2011
By Michael Lewis
If you liked watching the president and Congress run out the clock in raising the national debt ceiling with the resultant erosion of our nation’s credit, you really enjoyed the circus of Miami firing a police chief gone wild.
If, on the other hand, you’re even close to rational, you were equally embarrassed and disgusted by both.
Neither display produced heroes. They were the most unbalanced of circuses: no strongmen, mostly clowns.
And although Miami is treading the misguided path to become a gambling mecca, it’s not yet able to match the advertising slogan of Las Vegas: What happens here, stays here.
Miami’s embarrassment never stays local: the Wall Street Journal gave almost as much space to the fight in which mayor and police chief were protagonists as it did to the perils of its owner, Rupert Murdoch.
And because around the globe people equate the City of Miami with the entire region, all of South Florida was tarred as Miami went crazier.
Miamians on their own can’t fix a dysfunctional federal system, but we ought to be able to oust an insubordinate police chief easily enough. Failure on Friday to do the obvious in 17 hours, leaving the firing for this week, was preposterous.
The globe must wonder why we make it so hard on ourselves as we stumble to take the only possible correct step.
Other questions also arise:
What is it about the word "boss" that Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito couldn’t — or didn’t want to — understand? How could he ignore multiple orders from City Manager Johnny Martinez and think he could keep his job?
Yet how could the commission have debated the manager’s ouster of the chief for 17 hours without being able to decide what to do about an insubordinate employee who even sued to keep two commissioners from voting?
How could the manager have come to the hearing without counsel, stumble badly and then race out to find a lawyer partway through the day? And how could his judgment have been so dismal that the man he came up with on the spur of the moment was also representing gambling machine owners who are suing the police chief?
What is it about Banana Republic that has nothing to do with a clothing chain and everything to do with Miami city government?
This circus without a strongman also lacks a ringmaster to keep a semblance of order.
Mayor Tomás Regalado, who should be cracking the whip, instead set chaos in motion last year by axing Chief John Timoney, a class act with a national reputation who was running a well-disciplined department.
The reason for change seemed to be that Mr. Regalado’s predecessor hired Mr. Timoney. In Miami, that’s reason enough.
Mr. Regalado promoted Mr. Exposito from a third-string post to chief, then quickly fell out with him and found himself stuck with a far, far less than adequate top cop out of control.
The mayor is also to blame for anointing gambling machines for protection. The chief decided, with good reason, that bandit machines should go. Unfortunately, he also decided to ignore misguided city legislation protecting the machines, as he seemed to do with much his superiors decided.
Talk about out of control, Mr. Exposito behaved like "Chain of Command" was a group of fast-food restaurants.
How could government under successive managers fail to get rid of a top cop who allowed officers to go wild firing guns at black male targets in a city with a sordid history of violence against its black community? The ousted Mr. Timoney’s greatest strength had been his ability to enforce peace while keeping guns holstered.
Regardless of who started the tit-for-tat mayor-vs.-chief warfare that escalated into frivolous charges, lawsuits and name-calling, Chief Exposito had to go. How the commission could have debated that for more than five minutes is incomprehensible — unless you know the City of Miami.
After all, the swing vote was Michelle Spence-Jones, reinstated to the commission just last week because grand theft charges she faced could not be proved after witnesses waffled.
Commissioner Francis Suarez made a telling point clearly Monday just before the commission voted 3 to 2 to fire Mr. Exposito: in the process of hearing mountains of irrelevant evidence, he said, the commission had managed to put on trial its new city manager, the manager’s very new attorney, the police chief and, to some extent, itself.
Debate was so shallow that as commissioners tried to decide if the chief had demoted three officials against the manager’s orders, Commissioner Frank Carollo quoted from a key legal reference: "I have a Webster’s dictionary. As a matter of fact, I used it quite a bit during college."
Yet the bottom line was clear. It was not a question of who was right, because nobody was. It was not a question of what was wrong, because everything was.
Still, a police chief run amuck had to go for the sake of the city.
Left behind is plenty of national ridicule for all involved — including Miami’s good name.
What is it about "laughingstock" that Miami doesn’t get?