BY NADEGE GREEN
A note to prospective municipal employees: If you’re looking for a way to help out beleaguered colleagues, casting a spell on your boss is probably not the way to go.
Two North Miami Beach employees — one a police officer, the other a department office manager — are in hot water after trying to enlist some supernatural aid in the form of what they believed to be a Santeria practice.
Their alleged target: City Manager Lyndon Bonner, whose plan to slash the police budget prompted protests and union outrage this fall.
Their mystical material: handfuls of birdseed which, according to an internal affairs report, they hoped to scatter in and around Bonner’s fourth-floor office at City Hall.
But when they tried to recruit a janitor to sprinkle the seeds, she balked — and turned them in.
Officer Elizabeth Torres told investigators she meant the manager no harm: “I want to clarify, that it’s nothing malicious and nothing intended to hurt that person.”
She was told last week she faced termination over the August incident, which took place against the backdrop of a contentious budget season. Unionized city employees must go through an appeal process before they can be fired.
Office manager Yvonne Rodriguez, who is not a member of the union, was fired last week for her role in the plot.
While Santeria practitioners have argued that their practice constitutes a legitimate religion and bristle at depictions of the practice as black magic or witchcraft, they acknowledge that public displays of their traditions can spook non-believers. And both adherents and experts say that the Afro-Cuban religion, itself an amalgamation of Catholicism and African spiritual traditions, does not count malice — such as casting harmful spells — as one of its principles.
“Santeria is a very loose term that we on the outside use to generally characterize Afro-Cuban religious expressions. Santeria is not black magic. In fact, true practitioners of Santeria will tell you they are good and would never harm a person,” said Albert Wuaku, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at Florida International University.
Although a city press release sent out Wednesday said both women had been “terminated,’’ a city spokesperson said Torres had not been officially fired and was scheduled to meet with Bonner on Monday to plead her case.
Torres, a 24-year department veteran, told investigators she was motivated in part because she couldn’t attend union protests over budget cuts due to her work and school schedule. She said she does not practice Santeria but said she was familiar with the religion through family members, according to an internal affairs report released Wednesday.
The report found the women violated city rules with conduct that is offensive toward a fellow employee, conduct unbecoming of a city employee and conduct that brings the department into disrepute or reflects discredit on the individual employee.
Torres told police she had a joking conversation with Rodriguez about using birdseeds to get Bonner to “leave the police department alone.”
Torres said she knew the birdseeds would work because her son and daughter moved out of her home after she placed birds in a cage with birdseeds on her front porch.
North Miami Police Chief Larry Gomer has recommended a formal letter of reprimand for Torres and a 240-hour suspension. But in a letter to Torres dated Tuesday, Bonner wrote, “I believe the charges against you are extremely serious and I am considering terminating your employment with the city.”
Torres said she regrets if she possibly made Bonner, who recently came to the city from a post in Okeechobee County, feel vexed — or hexed.
“As misguided and ridiculous as it may seem, this idea popped into my head and I thought, ‘Well, it can’t hurt anybody,’ ” Torres told investigators. “I do regret that it came to the city manager’s attention and may have made him nervous or afraid.”
Rodriguez initially told investigators she did not know what the birdseeds were for, but in a subsequent interview, admitted she was involved.
At one point, investigators found, Rodriguez attempted to reassure the janitor “that nothing bad would happen to [Bonner].”
Torres is the second North Miami Beach officer to face termination over actions related to the fall budget hearings.
In October, Officer William Hobbs was fired after an investigation found he used a city-issued computer to compose a blog post that listed the addresses of two outspoken city activists who supported the police budget cuts, inviting criminals to pay them a visit. Hobbs, hired in 2009, was in line to get a pink slip when he sent the note to a resident’s blog.
The clash between Santeria and local government is not a new issue — at least not in South Florida, where botánicas are a common sight in strip malls from Little Havana to Hialeah.
Veteran Miami-Dade firefighter Adolfo Perez, a Santeria priest, plead guilty to a felony trespass charge in 2006 after it was discovered he had dumped animal remains on private property. The conviction got him a formal reprimand from the fire department.
And most famously, there was the case of a local Santeria church that clashed with Hialeah officials — and which ended with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the church’s right to perform animal sacrifice within the city limits.
Ernesto Pichardo, who holds the religious title of obá and who spearheaded the historic challenge to Hialeah’s zoning laws, said he suspected city officials may have a cultural bias against Santeria, noting that they may have had a different reaction had the women employed different spiritual expressions.
“If they would have been plotting to spray holy water or holding a crucifix in their hand outside the manager’s office, would their bosses instantly feel the intent to harm? Would they have felt intimidated? They probably would have not.”
But he acknowledged the employees may have used poor judgment — both professionally and spiritually.
“In this case, her plan would have backfired,” said Pichardo, with a laugh. “The only thing I’ve ever heard birdseed being used for is the for the purpose of prosperity.”