Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, saying he doesn’t have enough power over his office, wants to sue the county to gain more independence.
But there’s a catch: He needs Miami-Dade commissioners’ approval just to hire a lawyer, according to the county attorney’s office, which can’t represent both him and the county. If he gets that permission, the county would essentially be suing itself.
Lopez-Cantera wants a judge to rule on how much control, if any, commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration have over his office.
At issue are dueling views: Lopez-Cantera says voters meant for the property appraiser to be mostly independent when they decided to make the post an elected position five years ago. The county attorney says the appraiser is an elected department head with some extra powers.
“There’s really no direct control” for the property appraiser under the county’s interpretation, Lopez-Cantera said. “I really just want to do the job I believe I was elected to do.”
County Attorney Robert Cuevas said the question was settled in a 2008 lawsuit. Then-candidate Gwen Margolis, who won a plurality of the vote in the first round of the election, asserted that the property appraiser could win without a runoff, under rules that applied to “constitutional officers” enumerated in the Florida Constitution.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely, however, opined that the position was a local office under the county’s home-rule charter — effectively akin to an elected department head. Margolis, now a state senator, ultimately lost the runoff to Pedro Garcia. The ruling was never appealed.
“There’s no need” for Lopez-Cantera’s lawsuit, Cuevas said. “This has already been settled from the lawsuit we had five years ago.”
Before he can counter that argument, Lopez-Cantera has to find a way to hire the lawyers he wants to represent him, Dan Gelber and Jerry Greenberg. The property appraiser signed a contract with them last week, but the county blocked the $50,000 retainer payment. Lopez-Cantera’s office is represented by the county attorney and cannot hire outside counsel without commission approval, Cuevas said.
That leaves Lopez-Cantera, who said he is looking for other ways to pay for the lawyers, in a temporary legal limbo some six months after beginning his four-year term managing an office with a budget of about $30 million. Though the former state representative was elected to the countywide post last fall, he didn’t assume the office until January, per county rules.
Since then, he’s been trying to take charge, tweaking the appraisal process and renovating his County Hall offices to make them more customer friendly. But he’s run into obstacles to making other changes, he said.
For example: He needed prior approval before setting up an account to pay for minor employee perks — such as birthday cakes — funded by vending machines used by property appraiser workers.
He also prepared a leaner budget for next year that no longer requires the office’s 350-plus workers to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs. But he was told that was not his decision to make, as it would violate the county’s labor-union contracts.