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Elian fallout: Mayor fires city manager

Miami's mayor wanted the police chief fired. The manager said no. Now he's the one out of a job.

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


MIAMI -- The Elian Gonzalez affair claimed its first political victim Thursday night.

Addressing a raucous City Hall meeting, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo announced he was firing City Manager Donald Warshaw, a 29-year-veteran of local government.

"This is not an easy thing for me to do," he said to wild cheers from Cuban-Americans in the audience. "But this can't go on any longer."

Carollo had demanded that Warshaw fire the Miami police chief because of the department's role in the federal raid that seized the 6-year-old Cuban boy and subsequent exile protests. Warsaw refused.

Carollo denied his decision to fire Warshaw was a direct result of the Elian raid. Instead, he accused the manager of disloyalty and spreading lies behind his back. "The manager has constantly been bad-mouthing me to my colleagues," Carollo said.

Long at odds over city government administration, Carollo and Warshaw have never seen eye to eye. Warshaw, a former police chief, has enjoyed strong support in and outside Miami for reining in city finances after years of notorious mismanagement and corruption.

Although Carollo denied Warshaw's firing was a response to the Elian raid, it clearly played a part.

Carollo and many in the Cuban exile community were angered that Miami City police Chief William O'Brien had been alerted by the Justice Department an hour before Saturday's raid, but did not inform the mayor. They were further annoyed by the presence of one of O'Brien's top assistants in the government van in which the child was taken away.

O'Brien has explained that Assistant Chief John Brooks rode in the van only to avert any possible misunderstanding between federal agents and Miami police officers outside the house.

Cuban exile leaders also allege police used excessive force in tackling the street protests after the raid. More than 350 demonstrators were arrested.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, the mayor made no secret that he wanted O'Brien fired. Under Miami's charter, only the city manager can fire the police chief. But Warshaw, who oversees the police department, has backed the chief's handling of the Elian crisis.

"If I was (O'Brien's) boss, I'd fire him," Carollo told reporters earlier this week. Instead, Carollo turned his sights on Warshaw.

The charter gives the mayor the power to fire the manager. The firing will take effect May 7, unless four members of the five-person City Commission vote before then to block it. It's unclear whether Warshaw has enough support to keep his job.

Cuban-Americans on the commission said they held O'Brien responsible for the alleged abuses by officers in Saturday's street protests.

In what some are calling an unfair search for scapegoats, the commission created a six-member investigative panel to examine the allegations of police brutality and the department's role in the Elian raid.

"We will get to the last bit of the bottom of what happened," Carollo said.

Despite his fine reputation, Warshaw watched his support on the City Commission crumble Thursday night. Under pressure from their Cuban-American constituents, some commissioners were demanding that heads roll.

"I am outraged about the things I have seen," Commissioner Tomas Regalado said. "The police have declared war on our citizens. O'Brien has lost the ability to direct the department. He should go, and he should go immediately."

Others were not so ready to fire Warshaw.

"There's a mob lynching going on," Commissioner Johnny Winton told reporters before the meeting.

He urged the mayor not to let emotions tear the city's fragile government apart.

"The mayor's job should be to provide leadership at large. Instead, it's like he's driving around the city in a gasoline tanker and spraying gasoline onto the fires," Winton said.

Outside City Hall, a crowd of several hundred Cuban-Americans shouted its support for the mayor, waving flags and banners. One poster read: "Pigs. Miami Police Abuse Department."

On the other side of the barricades, a handful of whites and blacks waved U.S. flags in support of the police. One group of U.S. war veterans marched away in disgust after the Cuban-American protesters waved a USA poster, with the letter "s" replaced by a swastika.

Inside the commission chamber, Warshaw and O'Brien were subjected to a stream of criticism without being given the opportunity to reply. Comments were frequently interrupted by cheers from the partisan audience. Insults and racial slurs flew when Arthur Teele, an African-American commissioner, suggested his Cuban-American colleagues were moving too fast to judgment.

With another large Cuban-American demonstration planned for Saturday, Teele warned, the city needed the stability of having its officials in place to ensure order.

"The eyes of the world are going to be on this city over the weekend," he said. "If we could pull back from any personnel decision until then."

"No! No!" the audience hollered.

Finally given a chance to speak, Warshaw sounded resigned. After 29 years serving the city, he said, "this is a painful thing to watch. I'd like to think I have done a lot of good."

Recognizing that the mayor had the authority to fire him, Warshaw hinted that he might put up a fight if enough commissioners supported him.

"It's very sad what is happening in this city," he said. "To see our city portrayed around the world as an unsafe and violent place."

Warshaw earlier had taken the unusual step of writing an article that was published in Thursday's Miami Herald in which he explained his sympathy for the pain and suffering felt by Cuban exiles. He described how his grandfather, Joseph Warshawsky, came to the United States in 1900 from Russia, "a poor, scared little boy, sent here all alone, on a boat, by parents who did not want him to live under . . . tyranny despair and lack of liberty."

But with the crowd outside screaming for him to lose his job, that may not be enough to assuage the current mood in Miami.

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