A Times Insider Column by Patricia Mazzei: “Once a City Hall Reporter, Always a City Hall Reporter”

From a Times Insider column by Patricia Mazzei headlined “Once a City Hall Reporter, Always a City Hall Reporter”:

MIAMI — Ten years ago, I sat inside the over-air-conditioned chambers of the Miami City Commission for many long hours to cover a tense debate over the fate of a beleaguered police chief.

Recently, I did it again, returning to the same City Hall — to the same second-row seat — to report on a different commission discussing the future of a different official, Chief Art Acevedo, with a precarious hold on his job. Back then, I was a local government reporter for The Miami Herald, where I worked for 10 years. Now, I am the Miami bureau chief for The New York Times. Once a City Hall reporter, always a City Hall reporter.

My job on the National desk is to cover Florida and Puerto Rico, a wide-ranging beat that makes it impossible to attend every City Commission meeting or follow every bit of gossip. In the nearly four years since I have been at The Times, I have written about hurricane hunters, climate change and statewide elections.

But sometimes the story takes you back to the beginning. Knowing how City Hall works, and its bizarre and colorful history, has been essential to understanding Miami and translating its eccentricities to Times readers. Just as all politics is local, all news is local, too, and this is why I was back in my old seat.

City Hall reporters have a Spidey sense that tingles when drama is near. That is why I told my editor, Kim Murphy — herself a former City Hall reporter in Mississippi — that I planned to drop in on a recent commission meeting about Chief Acevedo, who was hired to lead the Miami Police Department six months ago. His arrival made a splash — a big-name hire for a city trying to establish itself as a player in big tech. He was chosen by Mayor Francis Suarez, who faces re-election and has grown his national profile over the past year. But the hype could not save either the chief or the mayor from the political entanglements of powerful city commissioners.

A majority of city commissioners were mad at the chief, in part because he had — jokingly, he said later — referred to the Police Department as being run by a “Cuban mafia.” (The chief himself is a Cuban immigrant.) In response, Chief Acevedo had written a long letter essentially accusing some commissioners of corruption.

Cops, corruption, Cuba: The day had all the makings of quintessential Miami political theater.

This, after all, is one of the best news cities in the country — not only for its well trodden Florida Man oddities but also because of its many local governments and their corresponding soap operas. Miami-Dade County alone has 34 cities. That’s a lot of elected officials, a lot of public employees and a lot of news, which The Herald and other outlets cover admirably, though there never seem to be enough local reporters to hold everyone accountable.

Becoming a national reporter was liberating in many ways. My time is no longer dictated by the whims of local officials. I can tackle a wider range of issues. I get to explore more of the country. But it is also more challenging to write for an audience that goes beyond local readers. Why would someone in another state or another part of the world care about a little Florida story? Sometimes it’s the stories that seem obvious to people living herethat make good national stories. Other times it’s the oddball anecdote that you find yourself telling friends about that demands a larger audience.

We chose to write about Chief Acevedo, and the machinations of Miami politics, in The Times because his story has elements that resonate in any big American city currently trying to bring reforms in policing, as it balances entrenched competing interests.

The city has gone through six police chiefs in 11 years, though not all their tenures have been as contentious as Chief Acevedo. The meeting to discuss his fate turned into something of a circus. In the afternoon, I got a slew of text messages from sources who had seen me on the meeting livestream, remarking on how wild it was….

A few days later, commissioners held another special meeting to further discuss Chief Acevedo. I was not, technically, covering the story. But I turned on the meeting and watched anyhow….

This week, the saga came to an end: The city manager suspended Chief Acevedo with the intent to fire him. His ouster, as expected, made headlines. But it is also be just another outlandish chapter in the history of the Magic City.

Patricia Mazzei is the Miami bureau chief, covering Florida and Puerto Rico. Before joining The Times, she was the political writer for The Miami Herald. She was born and raised in Venezuela, and is bilingual in Spanish.

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