Eight years have passed since Michelle Spence-Jones was elected to the Miami City Commission.
She isn’t willing to leave just yet.
Spence-Jones — who was charged with bribery and grand theft in 2009, suspended from office, acquitted and reinstated to her post — is seeking reelection, she announced Friday. She represents District 5, which includes Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City.
Whether Spence-Jones could run again has been the subject of much debate. The Miami city charter limits commissioners to two terms and Spence-Jones has twice won election. But City Attorney Julie O. Bru opined that Spence-Jones could run again because her second term was interrupted by the suspension.
“Our charter prohibits a commissioner or the mayor for running for reelection after that commissioner or mayor has served two consecutive terms,” Bru reaffirmed to Spence-Jones at a City Commission meeting Thursday. “You are eligible to seek reelection because you did not serve two full consecutive terms.”
Spence-Jones’s opponent isn’t buying it.
“The bottom line is, Michelle is term limited,” said the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, who held the commission seat in Spence-Jones’s absence. “She received financial compensation for the time she was away and she was fully vested in the pension. Are the citizens of Miami going to pay her twice?”
Dunn plans to file a legal challenge “immediately,” he said.
Spence-Jones wants the additional term, she said, “to finish what I started.”
She pointed to the improvements she’s spearheaded along Northeast Second Avenue in Little Haiti. “We cleaned the place up, repainted many of the buildings and recreated a Caribbean feel by adding steeples,” she said.
The ultimate goal, Spence-Jones said, is to make Little Haiti a destination for tourists akin to Little Havana’s Calle Ocho. She has a similar vision for Overtown, which was once the cultural hub of Miami’s black community. To that end, Spence-Jones pushed for improvements to Northwest Third Avenue and provided grant money for local businesses.
“Now we’re going to move forward with a marketing campaign and build relationships with cruise lines and tour operators,” Spence-Jones said. “But these sorts of things take time.”
Other big projects are in the works.
Earlier this year, Spence-Jones pushed through a $50 million bond issue for improvements in Overtown — the largest investment the blighted community has seen in decades. The money will go toward affordable housing and some retail projects.
But Spence-Jones takes an equal amount of pride in some of her smaller initiatives, including a project that brought Hollywood director Robert Townsend to Overtown to film an independent movie. Students from the University of Miami and several local high schools had the opportunity to serve as interns. The film will debut this summer.
She plans to focus future efforts on Liberty City. She is already laying the groundwork for a program that will train residents to become laboratory technicians. A second program will help people with criminal records pursue careers in the automotive industry.
Spence-Jones’s tenure has been somewhat of a rollercoaster. After being elected to her second term, she was charged with bribery and grand theft in two separate cases and removed from office by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Jurors later acquitted her of bribery, and prosecutors dropped the grand-theft charges.
A vindicated Spence-Jones returned to City Hall in August with newfound political heft.
Spence-Jones is now suing Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, accusing them of conspiring to destroy her political career via the prosecutions. She declined to talk about the suit, saying only: “I’m going to let my lawyers fight that battle.”
She may have another legal fight ahead.
Dunn believes the city attorney’s opinion giving Spence-Jones the go-ahead to run again won’t withstand a legal challenge. He says Spence-Jones has served two consecutive terms because she was paid for two consecutive terms.
Dunn also criticized the city attorney, saying she likely felt pressured to give that opinion because Spence-Jones is her boss.
“If it stands up in a court of law, I will respect that,” said Dunn, who attended Thursday’s commission meeting and took notes on a legal pad. “But I’m not going to be whitewashed by a city attorney’s opinion that’s biased by her boss’s posturing position.”
Dunn, who also sat on the commission in the mid-‘90s after Commissioner Miller Dawkins was removed from office, pointed to his own accomplishments as a commissioner. He said he helped secure funding for Gibson Park,and quelled racial tensions after Miami police officers shot and killed seven black men in 2010 and 2011.
“Michelle Spence-Jones does not own that seat,” he said. “It’s owned by the people of District 5.”
No other candidates have announced they are running for the post.