During a heated and politically-charged meeting, Miami Commissioners voted Thursday not to immediately fire embattled City Attorney Victoria Méndez but only to extend her contract to give them more time find a permanent replacement.
The city will now create a committee to immediately seek out candidates and ultimately select a replacement for Méndez by the end of the five-month period. Méndez will continue in her role during the “transition” period.
The suggestion not to terminate Méndez immediately came from Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who said he didn’t want her unceremoniously fired after two decades of service to the city.
“People who have been in the city for 20 years deserve certain deference,” Reyes said from the dais. “I agree there is bad blood and we have to start fresh and new.”
Reyes’ resolution to delay terminating the city attorney passed by a narrow 3-2 vote. She will stay on the job until June.
Reyes, along with Commissioners Joe Carollo and Commissioner Christine King voted in the majority. Newly elected commissioners Miguel Gabela and Damian Pardo voted against it.
The push to fire Méndez came primarily from Gabela, who sponsored the agenda item to terminate her. He wanted Méndez removed sooner from the top post.
Gabela said Thursday that he could not trust Méndez and does not feel she was fairly representing him as a city commissioner, citing a lawsuit the city had filed against him claiming he did not qualify as a candidate. The city pursued the case even after Gabela was elected and sitting on the dais, and a court affirmed Gabela’s candidacy.
The two got into a heated argument during Thursday’s meeting, in which Méndez said Gabela was trying to fire her for “doing [her] job.”
During the public comment period, several speakers came to support the call for Méndez’s termination, including local documentarian, Billy Corben.
‘The reason why I’ve lasted over ten and a half years is because of my integrity,” Méndez responded in a heated exchange with Corben.
Calls for Méndez’s ouster from outside City Hall came on the heels of numerous scandals involving the city attorney, her family and her legal advice to City of Miami leaders.
Last March, WLRN reported on decades worth of questionable real estate transactionsbetween Méndez’s husband, Carlos Morales, and the nonprofit Guardianship Program of Dade County.
The City Attorney also came under fire after Commissioner Joe Carollo was hit with a $63.5 million civil verdict in federal court last summer. Little Havana businessmen William Fuller and Martin Pinilla successfully sued Carollo for using city power to harass the pair’s businesses with code inspections and police raids because he had a political vendetta against them. As part of the trial, former Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez testified that Méndez gave him a list of Fuller’s properties to inspect and research on behalf of Carollo.
Méndez also caught heat when it was revealed that Miami taxpayers were footing the bill for Carollo’s attorneys fees in the lawsuit — fees that had run up to close to $2 million by last April. Méndez asserted that Carollo as a public official was entitled to legal representation at the public’s expense, although federal appellate courts opined that Carollo’s alleged actions went beyond the scope of his duties as a City Commissioner.
More recently, the City of Miami had to hold an emergency budget meeting because of a precarious position they were placed in owing to legal advice from Méndez that contradicted state government guidance. The state required the city to have a unanimous five-member commission vote to approve the budget at the tax rate they had set, but they only had four votes after the arrest and suspension of former Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla for alleged money laundering and official misconduct. Méndez issued a legal opinion that the city could still pass the budget with only four votes, but that turned out to be incorrect.
The commission had to meet on Dec. 11 to reapprove the budget to avoid the shortfall, and the newly elected commissioners pushed through a $25 million budget cut — but not without taking jabs at Méndez.
“Respectfully, I have asked for your resignation,” Gabela told Méndez said at the December meeting. “Because every time something happens in the city of Miami — there’s a hurricane — you seem to be caught right smack in the middle of that hurricane.”
Méndez has worked in the city since 2004, and has held the position of City Attorney since she was first appointed in 2013 after her former boss stepped down. She is paid a salary of about $300,000.
This was the second attempt to unseat Méndez in her 13-year career as Miami City Attorney.
Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigative team. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.