During a 12-hour Miami-Dade County Commission hearing a year ago, Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa spoke for about five minutes, on the dais but away from the microphones.
That conversation has become a focal point in a legal dispute between the county and its police union, which contends the two elected officials broke the law when they spoke privately during a public meeting.
A hearing officer for Florida's labor appeals board ruled last week that the Dade County Police Benevolent Association could subpoena Sosa and Gimenez to compel them to disclose what they talked about. The Dec. 5, 2013, hearing ended with commissioners voting to eliminate an unpopular worker healthcare contribution.
In her Dec. 18 order, Suzanne M. Choppin of the state's Public Employees Relations Commission, opined that the conversation is relevant to the PBA's case -- and that only the politicians who took part are in a position to disclose what was said.
"It is evident that, in this unusual case in which it is a private off-the-record- conversation between two high-ranking government officials that is at issue, the best and only reliable evidence on that crucial issue is the testimony of the participants in that conversation," Choppin wrote.
The county had argued in an earlier filing that the conversation was irrelevant to the union's complaint because it took place hours after the PBA was addressing the county commission -- and because Sosa ended up voting to eliminate the healthcare concession, as the union wanted.
Miami-Dade also argued the PBA should not be allowed to subpoena elected officials without first exhausting every other option. For example, the union could have compelled the mayor's then-deputy chief of staff, Alex Ferro, who was sitting next to him during the conversation with Sosa, to testify.
"Mr. Ferro is a lower ranking official who appears on the video as a person who may have knowledge of the conversation at issue," Candela wrote Dec. 16. "Notwithstanding, the PBA did not take even the most basic of steps to determine whether Ferro had knowledge of the alleged conversation."
Choppin dismissed that argument, saying Ferro was too far away from Gimenez -- and apparently not paying attention to the mayor's discussion with Sosa -- to be a likely source of accurate information.
The union is pursuing an unfair labor practice complaint against the county over its handling of the collective-bargaining impasse that resulted in last year's vote.
Miami-Dade plans to appeal last week's order, Assistant County Attorney William Candela said Monday.