The Miami Herald

Northwest Miami-Dade elected officials met to talk politics — privately

By the standards of Northwest Miami-Dade, it amounted to a political summit.

State lawmakers, a county commissioner, and current and former mayors and city council members of Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Hialeah Gardens gathered on a Saturday morning over coffee at a La Carreta restaurant in Hialeah.

Everybody was there — except the public.

The only way to know what the power brokers discussed is to take them at their word: They talked politics in an effort to turn vast Northwest Dade into a regional force.

“In unity, there are certain powers,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who called for the powwow.

But the hush-hush deal didn’t last. Unity crumbled. Someone blabbed.

Now, some question whether the meeting broke Florida law, which requires that public business be discussed “in the sunshine” — in advertised, public meetings. But Hernandez said the meeting was about politics only, not city policy.

Secret political huddles are nothing new in Hialeah, which has long run groups of candidates for office. Two weeks ago, the mayor and all but one council member backed the reelection bid Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

“If we didn’t have those conversations, you would never have slates,” said state Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican and former city council member who attended the meeting.

But this one, held in a side dining room at La Carreta , was more ambitious. It was the first one anyone could remember with politicos from across cities and governments, including Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz and former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina. The goal: to discuss how the cities and levels of government could work more closely together.

“When a water main breaks in the middle of Miami Lakes, it could affect Hialeah,” said County Commissioner Esteban Bovo, a meeting attendee.

The gathering was also intended to reach a political truce of sorts after a year of bruising campaigns. Hialeah municipal races last fall and Robaina’s hard-fought campaign last summer for county mayor — which led to two special elections in Northwest Dade, for county commissioner and state representative — created new political fractures in the region. It was in everyone’s interest, attendees said, for them to heal.

The truce was broken weeks after the La Carreta meeting, when several Hialeah council members denied agreeing to endorse state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez as part of a deal to back incumbents on the Aug. 14. ballot. And not everyone was happy that the supposed pact came about in the first place.

Tony Lama, a political newcomer running for Miami Lakes town council, said he lost the backing from officials who had pledged their support — or said they would stay out of his race against Council member Richard Pulido — after the meeting.

“I was told, ‘It’s well beyond you and I, this involves races at a higher level, and you shouldn’t be surprised by this type of stuff,’” Lama said. “I said, ‘How do you expect the residents to feel when they know that you guys in some back room are making decisions about who should and shouldn’t be a candidate?’”

Pizzi, the Miami Lakes mayor, said he left the meeting early because he wanted to chat with state lawmakers, not reach a political deal.

“This is a free country — I don’t believe in slates,” he said. He was “a little uncomfortable,” he added, that Miami Lakes town council members were there, too.

About a month later, several attendees met again — this time at the home of Hialeah Gardens Mayor De La Cruz — to reiterate their support for state legislative candidates. That meeting, said those who attended, was smaller, and more impromptu.

Joe Centorino, head of the county’s commission on ethics and public trust, said political matters are not usually tied directly to future votes. “That’s not specific enough” to trigger the Sunshine Law, he said.

But he cautioned that any private meetings involving members of the same board could give the appearance of impropriety.

Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said the meeting should be public because the public has the right to know about political deals that ultimately affect city or county policy.

“Of course it’s covered by the Sunshine laws,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think that this sort of discussion is not covered by the Sunshine laws.”

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