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.
Though Vallejo says he tried to avoid the situation, his exodus leaves the city with only four of its seven commissioners standing — and laws require at least five commissioners in the same place and 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.
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Members of the city’s legal staff, initially vexed by the situation, believed last week that they’d found a solution. Expecting the blessing of a judge, North Miami Beach lawyers planned 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 complicated those plans.
Former North Miami Beach Commissioner Frantz Pierre
Before the city could move to appoint a fifth commissioner Monday, ousted commissioner Frantz Pierre asked a judge to block the proceedings, forcing the cancellation of the special meeting. His attorney, Benedict Kuehne, said in an interview that the planned meeting was "illegal."
Attempts to reach Kuehne and City Attorney Jose Smith after the hearing were unsuccessful Monday evening, so it was unclear exactly what happened in the courtroom. But Vice Mayor Beth Spiegel told people who showed up at City Hal to view the pending appointment and packed an auditorium that "the judge has taken it out of our hands."
"The judge has ruled that tonight’s hearing cannot go forward," she said.
Spiegel said there was a possibility "a settlement of sorts" would be reached with Pierre, enabling the city to hold a meeting on Tuesday and appoint a new commissioner. In the meantime, she asked anyone who was interested in being considered for the vacant seat to sign up with the city clerk. Roughly a dozen people lined up to put their names on the list.
Pierre — whom the Miami Herald has learned is himself under investigation but has yet to be charged in a public corruption probe separate from Vallejo’s — already convinced one judge this year to stop the city from naming his replacement until his federal lawsuit seeking to force his reinstatement is decided.
"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, Kuehne said Sunday evening. "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."
Vallejo told the Miami Herald Monday evening that he foresaw that his resignation would become problematic and tried to work with prosecutors to avoid the current crisis. He said he pushed months ago to appoint new commissioners, but couldn’t get the necessary support to do so.
"The truth of the matter is I foresaw that [my] resignation would create a charter crisis and tried to avoid it by raising the issue with the State Attorney’s Office and offering to work with them in any way to avoid it," Vallejo wrote in an email. "For whatever reason, they chose not to. "
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.
Former North Miami Beach Commissioner Marlen Martell
In the meantime, Smith said Sunday that the city’s plan to name a new commissioner was supported by Florida case law and unopposed by the county’s elections department. He also said a judge had 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 acknowledged 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.
Spiegel, who as vice mayor now assumes the duties of the mostly ceremonial mayor, said Sunday evening that she expected the city will have qualified people to choose from once they’re able to make an appointment. What she can’t say is when exactly that will be.
"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."