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The South Florida Roundup

A police chief's federal lawsuit, continued search for superintendents and restoring The Everglades

art acevedo.jpg
Miami Herald
Art Acevedo was Miami chief of police for six months. Now he is suing the city and four top city officials.

Miami’s former top cop accused commissioners of corruption, leading to an investigation. And he’s suing. Miami Dade’s school board narrows its superintendent candidates to three. Plus, how will almost $1.1 billion be spent on Everglades restoration?

In October, police chief Art Acevedo was fired, but not before he wrote a memo to the mayor, city manager, federal and local prosecutors accusing three city commissioners of interfering with internal police matters. He claims that they were using their office to target personal enemies, and they were interfering with his efforts to shake up the police department.

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Acevedo referred this to local and federal prosecutors, including the Miami-Dade State's Attorney Office, which ended up passing on the case. According to Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas, that was because of a potential conflict of interest.

“Prosecutors with the office of Katherine Fernandez Rundle in Miami-Dade did launch a criminal investigation, and quickly discovered that a potential key witness to the criminal activity alleged by Acevedo is the brother of one of the top attorney’s in Fernandez Rundle’s office,” said Nehamas.

They asked Gov. Ron DeSantis if they could reassign the case, which he did. He gave the case to prosecutors in Broward who are now running their own probe. The governor’s December order was confidential. The Miami Herald learned about this earlier this week.

In addition to that, this week the former police chief also filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Miami and four city officials: city manager Art Noriega and city commissioners Joe Carollo, Alex Díaz de la Portilla and Manolo Reyes. Acevedo claims that they violated his First Amendment rights and that he was retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

In his lawsuit, he claims he achieved whistleblower status when he filed his eight-page memo, and he was fired shortly after.

“It’s an interesting legal case. You don’t often see an official as prominent and high up in the city as a police chief claim whistleblower status,” said Nehamas.

The commissioners named in the lawsuit have denied all allegations since the beginning. According to Nehamas, they say that Acevedo is trying to cover up for his incompetence and inability to run the department by blaming them.

Interestingly, Mayor Francis Suarez, the one who played a key role in bringing Acevedo to Miami, has been the most quiet.

“He’s made very few public statements, didn’t appear at city hall meetings to discuss this, and didn’t respond to comment for our story,” Nehamas said.

The lawsuit will proceed as normal, with the defendants having to be served before filing their response. The case will be heard by a judge at some point.

Acevedo made a request for public records he believed could help his lawsuit after he was fired and was quoted a figure of $2.3 million, Nehamas said.

"It's worth noting his request was very broad and produced 10 million documents," Nehamas said. "But it is a fact of life that city officials in Miami, [and] state officials around Florida will often quote exorbitant figures for public records requests and it can make it very difficult to meet the spirit of Florida's very broad public records law."

Searching for superintendents at super-speed, and slower

The two largest public school districts in Florida, which are two of the largest in the nation, are both looking for new bosses.

Broward County Public Schools has been without a permanent superintendent all school year. Broward spent weeks weeks accepting applications and assessing candidates.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools will be without a superintendent early next month. It accepted applications for one week and has already cut down the number of qualified candidates to three.

Both school boards have public meetings scheduled for next week, as they've been operating on very different timelines.

The Miami-Dade County School Board really wants an educator to be in charge of the nation's fourth-largest district, according to Kate Payne, WLRN education reporter.

"They're looking for teaching experience in a public school, but also somebody with an advanced degree — a master's or doctorate. But they also wanted somebody who's been a principal, has district-wide experience, administrative experience," Payne said. "Another key factor is really finding somebody who understands the diverse community in Miami-Dade and the needs of students."

Despite criticism that the board is rushing the process, they provided a mostly united front in selecting their new superintendent quickly, Payne said.

The Miami-Dade County Public School Board is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon and could select a new superintendent at that meeting.

WLRN senior editor Jessica Bakeman described the three candidates as "an internal candidate, an external candidate and a Tallahassee candidate."

Jacob Oliva is the "Tallahassee candidate," currently with the Florida Department of Education where he works closely with Education Secretary Richard Corcoran.

He is originally from South Dade and served as a superintendent in Flagler County. And he's getting backing in unusually overt political terms, in a television ad airing on Spanish-language television.

Oliva would "approve and promote the law of Governor Ron DeSantis" including teaching about the dangers of communism and banning critical race theory, the ad says. It's presented by Cuban-American attorney Marcell Felipe, with the logo of the Inspire America Foundation, founded by Felipe.

"This is an acceleration and a continuation of what we've been seeing, which is a greater politicization of education policy," Bakeman said. She said there were also some parallels to the search for a president of Miami-Dade College when longtime Eduardo Padron stepped down.

The "internal" candidate is Jose Dotres. He worked his way up in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, from teacher to principal to high-level administrative positions before leaving to become deputy superintendent in Collier County.

The "external" candidate is Rafaela Espinal. She's an assistant superintendent at the New York City Department of Education and has been a teacher, librarian, principal and regional superintendent. She is also a finalist for the Broward superintendent position.

The Broward County Public School Board meets on Tuesday. Candidates there include the interim superintendent, Vickie Cartwright. Espinal is also a finalist for that job.

River of Grass receiving an infusion of spending

This week, the White House announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend almost $1.1 billion on restoration and preservation in the Everglades this fiscal year.

The White House calls this "the largest single investment to restore and revitalize the Everglades in Florida." The money is part of the $1 trillion-plus Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, approved by Congress and President Joe Biden in November.

The money will go toward five projects that "need to be knitted together to make the overall system work," said Jenny Staletovich, WLRN's environmental reporter.

The projects include: two small reservoirs to deal with pollution in the Indian River Lagoon basin, restoration and cleaning of sheet flow in the western Everglades where polluted water is now entering Miccosukee and Seminole tribal lands as well as the Big Cypress National Preserve; a plan to clean water in western Broward; and a pump along the Tamiami Trail that would allow water to get up and over the dam formed by the roadbed; and planning to provide clean water for South Miami-Dade and Biscayne Bay.

Staletovich said the projects are part of the original Everglades restoration plan from 2000 and the money fully funds these projects, a requirement of the legislation.

A different reservoir, more than 11,500 acres of storage and 6,500 acres of treatment, will cost about $2 billion and is being done incrementally, Staletovich said.

The five fully funded projects will help with flood control and clean up pollution, Staletovich said.

"The pollution in the past did not get addressed. Now we're racing to catch up with that and that's why you see these problems in areas like the Indian River Lagoon and Biscayne Bay," she said.

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Natu Tweh is producer of The Florida Roundup and The South Florida Roundup at WLRN.
Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.