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The City of Miami Commission has kicked the can down the road on one of the most consequential issues for Miami voters this year.

At Thursday’s public meeting, commissioners voted to defer a resolution that would’ve approved a settlement agreement with local voting rights groups in a contentious racial gerrymandering case that has already cost the city more than $1 million in legal fees.

The agenda for the city commission was published online last week, showing a prepared settlement agreement between the City of Miami and a collection of voting rights groups who sued the city for racially gerrymandering the city’s five districts in 2022. The settlement included a new map of city voting districts that would be in effect for next year’s local election.

Today, commissioners were meant to approve that settlement and put the issue to bed, but Commissioner Joe Carollo led an effort to defer that vote for two more weeks.

Carollo said from the dais that he did not receive a full briefing because he was not given a breakdown of the racial and ethnic makeup of the districts in the new map — a breakdown that was apparently given to Commission Chairwoman Christine King.

“If I’m going to be asked to vote on something I want to be able to know what the breakdown is so everyone knows it. And at the same time I’d like to compare it to the other two maps that we have,” Carollo said.

Commissioner Manolo Reyes agreed with Carollo, saying he did not feel comfortable voting on the resolution without a more thorough briefing.

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Aside from redrawing district lines to better match natural boundaries and reconnecting fractured neighborhoods like Coconut Grove into single districts, the new map has a substantive effect on Carollo himself: it moves his Coconut Grove property out of the district he represents.

The property came under scrutiny when the city’s 2022 round of redistricting carved the section of Coconut Grove containing Carollo’s house into the district Carollo represents, District 3.

Carollo had previously moved out of the home when he ran for District 3 commissioner in 2017 because the Miami city charter requires elected officials to live in the district they represent. The city’s map consultant, Miguel De Grandy, admitted during court testimony that he manipulated the map to put Carollo’s house in District 3 to “make him happy.”

A map of City of Miami voting districts drawn by plaintiffs who won a racial gerrymandering case against the city. The new map reunites neighborhoods that were previously divided, and sets boundaries based on major roads and railways. (Map/Plaintiffs In GRACE Inc., et Aal. vs City of Miami)

Carollo’s home is currently at the center of a legal dispute, as two men who won a federal civil judgment against the commissioner are seeking to auction the property to pay part of the $63.5 million in damages they are owed.

Next Friday, May 17, there is an evidentiary hearing set in Carollo’s civil lawsuit to determine if his house is exempt from seizure under Florida’s Homestead Exemption law.

Commissioners have been part of multiple private meetings with the city’s legal department and their outside counsel to approve the settlement behind closed doors. Commissioners Miguel Gabela and Christine King said from the dais that they thought everyone had ample time to consider the settlement.

“I thought that in our last meeting that we had come to an agreement and that this is a procedural item that captures what we all agreed to in the shade meeting,” King noted.

The fifth leader on the commission, Damian Pardo, was absent from the meeting. He is out of the country on a pre-scheduled vacation.

Carollo said he did not want to vote on the settlement without the full commission present. He called the resolution “the most important vote” the commission will take “in a long, long time.”

Reached by WLRN by phone, Pardo said he was surprised at this decision.

“My support for the settlement has been clear throughout,” Pardo said. “We didn’t want to continue this saga at the expense of taxpayers. I feel if people were acting in good faith, the settlement would’ve been supported and passed [today].”

Now that the approval of the settlement has been delayed, the city could face issues.

Voting rights groups — which include the South Dade and Miami-Dade branches of the NAACP, Engage Miami and Grove Rights and Community Equity, Inc. — sued the city in December of 2022 after commissioners redrew city districts to maintain a specific racial makeup: one Black district, one White district and three Hispanic districts.

As previously reported by WLRN, federal Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that the city’s map of five voting districts was racially gerrymandered. He ordered the city to conduct no further elections with the map because it violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“By sorting its citizens based on race, the City reduced Miamians to no more than their racial backgrounds, thereby denying them the equal protection of the laws that the Fourteenth Amendment promises,” Moore wrote in his filing.

Carollo said at today’s meeting that commissioners were “wrongfully” accused of racial gerrymandering, despite Moore’s ruling and an opinion from federal Magistrate Judge Lauren Louis last year, who also stated the map was likely racially gerrymandered.

Moore agreed to hold off on imposing any consequences on the city while it and the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Florida and Dechert LLP — worked out a settlement agreement. With the settlement now put off, the city’s own outside counsel warned them of possible repercussions.

Christopher Johnson, an attorney with the law firm Gray Robinson, told commissioners that Judge Moore may decide to force the city to use a map of his choosing or design. Moore may also call for special elections in the five city districts, which could shake up the entire commission.

The delay will also certainly increase taxpayers’ bill for the lawsuit. The City of Miami has already paid Gray Robinson more than $1.29 million in fees and costs to represent them in the lawsuit. If they have to take more time, that means they can bill the city for more money.

The settlement agreement also included a $1.58 million payment to the plaintiffs to cover their attorneys’ fees and costs. That number is actually a discounted amount that the city negotiated with the plaintiffs, who racked up $2 million in fees and costs in the year and a half of litigation.

It’s unclear if the plaintiffs will now ask for more money because of the delay.

Howard Simon, interim executive director of the ACLU of FL, said in a written statement that the organization is disappointed with the city’s decision to postpone the matter further.

“We hoped that after the ruling by the U.S. District Court the City would want to resolve this matter expeditiously and look forward towards the development of a new and racially equitable redistricting process,” Simon stated.

The city must report on the status of their settlement negotiations to the court by next week.

Joshua Ceballos

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.

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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.