By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Miramar’s city commission has agreed to pay $565,000 to settle a five-year-old lawsuit brought by a trio of senior white city police officers who claimed they were illegally denied promotions by a black police chief who wanted to “have his command staff mirror” Miramar’s majority minority population.
The city did not admit liability. The commission voted 5-0 to approve the deal on June 22.
City records show that Miramar decided to settle on May 12, the same day Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer denied the city’s motion that sought to toss out much of the complaint.
Under the terms of the settlement, former Majors John Savaiko and Jeffrey Levine and ex-Captain Ronnie Dimler will receive $150,000 each. Their lawyers at Fort Lauderdale’s Amlong law firm will collect $115,000 for fees and costs.
The city’s legal costs to defend the lawsuit were not made public. But City Attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks and her law firm receive an annual retainer of about $30,000, plus $200 an hour to represent the city in lawsuits. The firm, Austin, Pamies, Norris Weeks Powell PLLC, was awarded a five-year city contract in September 2019.
As part of the settlement, the city also agreed to “change credentials to reflect that John Savaiko retired as an Assistant Chief of Police and that Jeffrey Levine retired as a City of Miramar Police Department major.” Specifics related to Dimler are not mentioned in the settlement, but a police spokeswoman said he also is retired from the city.
Miramar is a rapidly growing South Broward city. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated its population at 137,077 on July 2, 2021. Blacks or African-Americans are the majority, accounting for 48.5 percent of the city’s residents; Hispanics or Latinos are 33.7 percent; non-Hispanic whites, 11.1 percent. More than half of Miramar’s residents – 51.8 percent – are women.
The 2017 civil complaint alleged that the trio of officers, ranging in age from 45 to 49 when the lawsuit was filed, “were pushed aside – notwithstanding service records that were both extraordinary and unblemished –” in what it implies was then-Chief Dexter Williams desire to please his bosses on “an all-black city commission.”
Williams became chief in March 2016 and retired in April 2021 after 27 years on the force, according to news reports at the time. He “immediately made promoting blacks, Latins and women a priority – at the expense of white males who had earned positions in the command staff following years of service,” the complaint says.
Major Savaiko “refused to resign, was demoted to sergeant, lost his take-home car and management benefit package and, after he filed a charge of discrimination, was exiled to a remote assignment in Miami-Dade County,” the suit says. Savaiko filed the discrimination charge with the Florida Commission on Human Relations on July 22, 2016 after he claimed to have been passed over for promotion to assistant chief “in favor of a black outsider and subsequently being removed as the major in charge of the Special Operations Bureau and being forced to revert to his civil-service rank of sergeant.”
The suit says that instead of promoting Savaiko, Williams named Leonard Burgess as assistant chief. Burgess, a black man, succeeded Williams as Miramar police chief last year.
“Burgess explained to Savaiko the approach to diversity that he had learned during his years with the Miami-Dade County Police Department: for each level of management, have one white, one black and one Latino. That is the model that Williams implemented at Miramar,” the suit says.
Through a spokeswoman, Burgess denied making that statement.
“Williams’s explanation to Savaiko was that although Savaiko had been ‘doing a great job,’ and ‘could be a chief anywhere,’ that Savaiko had ‘been here a long time,’ and that ‘it’s time for [Savaiko] to retire’ because Williams ‘need[ed] the money in [Savaiko’s] salary for developing other people,” the suit says.
Major Levine and Captain Dimler filed their discrimination complaints with the commission the same day as Savaiko. Levine asserted he’d been removed as the major in charge of road patrol. He later filed a second charge after he was demoted to captain the day after Chief Williams learned he’d filed his initial discrimination complaint.
REVERSE RACISM ‘COUNTERPRODUCTIVE’
Levine claims in the complaint that Williams explained that he was moving him out of road patrol “because the department was ‘going in a different direction’ as part of a ‘grand plan’ that Williams had, implying that the presence of Levine and other older, white, male officers who had reached retirement age but were in an eight-year Deferred Retirement Option Program, ‘DROP,’ was ‘stagnating advancement and growth in the department.’”
Dimler complained that he got no explanation when he was passed over for promotion to major in favor of three others – a Puerto Rican man, Jose Vargas, and two people with less seniority as captains, Shalida Smith, a 42-year-old black woman and James Dunkelberger, 38, who is white. Dimler was returned to road patrol as a shift captain.
For the last two years, Levine has worked as area security manager for Broward County Public Schools. Dimler is a detective in the school system’s Special Investigative Unit.
Savaiko, Levine and Dimler each claimed protection under the race, age and sex discrimination provisions of the state’s Constitution and the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992.
Savaiko and Levine also sued for retaliation.
Racial undercurrents have plagued Miramar at times in recent years, occasionally surfacing.
For example, in August 2019 when the city’s five black commissioners voted 4-1 to dump its longtime, largely white law firm, Weiss Serota Helfman Cole and Bierman, and instead hire the all-black firm Austin Pamies Norris-Weeks Powell PLLC.
This is what Miramar’s longest-serving Commissioner Winston Barnes had to say:
“I submit, as I have in the past, that it is counterproductive to even appear to be taking the path of reverse racism. I make no apologies for using those words. I have spoken to enough residents who have expressed that sentiment to me in the strongest of terms over the last many weeks. I am not going to be a party to a situation where we want to change our law firm simply because it is not black. Or, alternatively, simply because we have to get a black firm in here.”