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When he resigned last week as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time and a criminal record, North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo may have saved himself at the expense of his city.
Vallejo didn’t just embarrass the coastal community of 44,000 by admitting to campaign finance shenanigans and becoming its second consecutive mayor to face criminal charges. He also left behind a potential crisis that could cripple North Miami Beach’s government and leave it unable to make basic financial decisions or pass legislation.
That’s because Vallejo’s downfall punctuated a tumultuous period in which the city has shed politicians faster than it can replace them. His exit followed the ouster of one commissioner booted for missing meetings and the resignation of another who left to work for North Bay Village — one of the few South Florida municipalities arguably more dysfunctional than North Miami Beach.
The exodus leaves the city with only four of its seven commissioners standing — and laws require at least five commissioners in the same place in time in order to vote and conduct city business. And in order to name a new commissioner, those same city laws require that the city commission meet and vote to appoint a new member.
See the problem?
The city’s legal staff, initially vexed by the situation, says it has a solution. Expecting the blessing of a judge, North Miami Beach lawyers plan to gather the four remaining commissioners at City Hall Monday evening and appoint a fifth member to serve until the next general election, saying old case law allows it.
But the city’s baggage could complicate those plans.
An attorney for recently ousted commissioner Frantz Pierre says the city’s plans are illegal, and that Pierre may seek to block the city from naming a fifth commissioner. Pierre has already convinced a judge to stop the city from naming his replacement until his federal lawsuit seeking to force his reinstatement is decided, part of the reason North Miami Beach is now in its current situation.
“Frantz Pierre is the fifth commissioner, still continues to serve and should be there at the meeting so they should have a legal meeting and can vote on a replacement” for resigned commissioner Marlen Martell, said Pierre’s attorney, Benedict Kuehne. “The failure to do that is frankly illegal and unconstitutional. I suspect the city attorney’s poor legal advice will come to haunt the city.”
City Attorney Jose Smith, whose office determined in January that Pierre automatically lost his job when a heart condition kept him from attending meetings in person for months, says the city is on solid legal footing. He says Pierre’s absenteeism ran afoul of the city’s charter and the city can’t legally reinstate him.
In the meantime, Smith says the city’s plan to name a new commissioner is supported by Florida case law, and unopposed by the county’s elections department. He also said a judge has indicated support for the plan, which was laid out in an emergency lawsuit filed last week against the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections in order to legally establish the city’s course of action.
“The Florida Supreme Court has held that when it is impossible to conduct the public’s business because of a lack of quorum, the City may take action, consistent with the Charter, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents,” Smith wrote to commissioners last week. “If there is a challenge to the City’s actions, such challenge would be adjudicated in the pending case. The court will retain jurisdiction to resolve any dispute on an emergency basis.”
Smith acknowledges that the situation is rare. He said his office needed more than 24 hours following Vallejo’s resignation to determine a plan, partly because the Florida attorney general’s office couldn’t offer guidance and the governor’s office wasn’t comfortable appointing a new commissioner.
“It’s very unique,” Smith said.
Monday’s 5 p.m. meeting was scheduled on an emergency basis, so the city doesn’t have applicants lining up for the job. But Vice Mayor Beth Spiegel, who now assumes the duty of the mostly ceremonial mayor, expects the city will have qualified people to choose from.
“Myself and the three remaining commissioners have every intent in operating in an honest and ethical manner and operating in the best interest of the city,” she said. “We’re going to move the city forward.”