HIALEAH, Fla. – Local 10 News’ continuing investigation into Hialeah’s 911 call center has discovered that the city is now telling a councilman he’ll have to pay nearly $7,000 out of pocket to access documents he’s requested.
And the councilman says he’s just trying to do the job voters elected him to do. Hialeah’s mayor is describing his records request as an unauthorized investigation. And at stake? Public safety.
City records documented troublesome deficiencies, abandoned calls and answer rates below the state’s minimum standard.
“The minimum standard: 90 percent of all 911 calls have to be answered within 10 seconds; that is is the minimum standard, the city of Hialeah was and is not meeting that threshold,” said Hialeah councilman Bryan Calvo, who flagged the problems at a council meeting last spring. “(In) March of this year, when we had several 911 operators, the employees themselves, they came to a council meeting, it was three individuals, and they clearly said in public record, ‘We have a crisis in our department, we don’t have enough personnel.’ They even alleged, Look, we are answering calls in the bathroom, in the middle of our break, we need people, we need drastic action.’ That was quite shocking to me, I didn’t know there was an issue up until that point when they came to the council,” Calvo said.
A 2022 report commissioned and paid for by the city of Hialeah and performed by the Jorge Colina Group (Colina is a retired Miami police chief) found that the city’s dispatch unit is “woefully understaffed . . . five years ago, they experienced a mass exodus of 16 call takers and have not yet recovered.”
At the time of the report adding that: “The unit is budgeted for 21 call takers, but currently employees only six. The high stress, understaffed, chaotic environment has resulted in overtime rates, high turnover rates, and low retention rates.”
The report also noted equipment issues: “The phones, the radios, and the CAD system are all different and don’t talk to each other. The unit is grossly neglected and needs immediate attention.”
“I think that this merits an investigation,” said Calvo. “More importantly than pointing fingers, we need to understand what we are going to do about this.”
But the rest of the city council didn’t agree, he said.
“My goal was, let’s just solve the problem, forget about who is to blame, let’s just solve it,” said Calvo.
After he couldn’t convince the rest of the council to launch a related investigation, he asked for documents to try to identify solutions.
He wanted emails from over the past two years between the mayor’s office and 911 center that contained specific terms: “abandoned call, lack of personnel, missed calls,” generating about 10,000 emails.
“Initially, I met with the city clerk, with staff, and they said, ‘We are going to provide you the emails. There’s no problem just give us some time, so we can compile it, put it on a flash drive and give it to you,” recalled Calvo.
But then, citing labor costs to redact the documents, and the council’s decision not to formally investigate the documented 911 call center deficiencies, the city is now telling the elected councilman that it would cost him $7,000 of his own money to get the documents.
Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. said that the request is not city business, so he will have to pay out of pocket.
“The council has told him and actually shut him down. What he is doing, we would charge any other resident . . . “
Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez Sr. said that “public records are public records. Never in history has the city charged a sitting member of the council, doing their work, for public records,” he said.
The current mayor said that there is no issue with the 911 call center. “This is a dangerous narrative that creates a story that we are failing the residents of the city of Hialeah,” said Bovo.
Calvo also sees a “narrative” in the data: The numbers, he said, tell a story.
“The 911 department in Hialeah is not operating as required by the state, it is not meeting the minimum guidelines and essentially calls are being unanswered and people are being put at risk unnecessarily. The mayor is preventing me from acting upon the duties and the powers vested in me as a council member,” said Calvo.
David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that it doesn’t only boil down to a legal issue but it is a political issue.
“The people in the city are entitled to know how their 911 call center operates,” said Weinstein, who reviewed the court case the city cited in its legal opinion on this issue.
“It is a circuit court decision, it is not a court of appeals decision, and it is not a circuit court that is in our circuit, so while it may influence a judge in this particular circuit to come up with a decision, it is not binding on that judge,” said Weinstein.
Calvo said he’s just trying to do the job voters elected him to do by being informed on the issue.
“It is outlined in the city charter, clearly the powers and duties of this position, the voters elected me, and that duty includes to make inquiries, to make investigations into municipal affairs of the city when there is a good faith belief that there is something going wrong. I have to, in good conscience, follow through on it and figure out what is going on, and ask the tough questions. We know that there is a problem, the problem has been proven, the 911 department is not operating as required by the state, it is not meeting the minimum guidelines and essentially calls are being unanswered and people are being put at risk unnecessarily,” said Calvo.
He believes the situation raises a bigger issue about transparency in government.
Calvo believes that if he can’t get access to the documents, what can the public at large get?
“I think this is ridiculous. We live in a democracy. In the United States of America, you are entitled to public records and you should be able to have access,” he said.