A candidate for Hialeah mayor is accusing the city council of violating the Florida government-in-the-sunshine law that bans elected officials from communicating behind closed doors before making decisions on municipal issues.
At a press conference Thursday, Julio Martínez showed security-camera videos he obtained under a public information request, in which Hialeah council members, the mayor, the city attorney and other officials were shown going in and out of a reception hall during nearly three hours on Sept. 9 after 4 p.m., some of them carrying documents. The area is near the mayor’s office, a conference room and the office of the finance director.
At about 6:57 p.m. a group of council members left the place, followed seconds later by Mayor Hernández and his chief of staff, Arnie Alonso. Another surveillance video shows the group entering the elevator together.
“If they were discussing the budget behind closed doors, I call this an atrocious violation of the Sunshine Law,” said Martínez, a former Hialeah mayor, at a news conference on Thursday. “That’s why the budget was approved so quickly and with so many errors.”
The first session to discuss the city budget began minutes after the images shown by the security videos. The meeting lasted about 25 minutes and the $110 million budget was approved unanimously. The nearly 300-page long document contains a detail of the finances of the city’s 17 departments and 14 divisions. The budget was approved with errors at a first reading. Finance director Ines Breecher said the errors were minor and merely typographical.
Martínez said Thursday that he had the evidence to the state attorney’s office.
“I expect that everything will be investigated and clarified,” he said. “And that there will be consequences if the law was broken.”
Joseph Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, said Thursday that he had heard about the videos but had not seen them yet.
He said the intent of the Sunshine Law is to ensure that discussions by officials on public issues are carried out in public.
“Its purpose is to prevent elected officials from holding private conversations to apply a certain degree of influence or reach agreement outside the public scrutiny,” Centorino said.
On Thursday afternoon, Mayor Hernández called a press conference to reject Martínez’s complaint. Hernández said Martinez’s claim was a desperate attempt by his opponent to get media attention a month before the elections.
“This is a circus headed by Raúl Martínez”, Hernández said, referring to another former mayor. “Where is the evidence that at some point the council members met together?
The mayor gave El Nuevo Herald a tour of the area where the security cameras are located to show that there are sufficient spaces and offices “where people can wait to meet someone.” The space has two waiting areas.
Several council members said on Thursday that they went to city hall’s fourth floor from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for individual meetings with the mayor and Beecher or with city attorney Bill Grodnick. The council members said they had not broken any state public-government law.
“It was the day of the budget session and of course we had questions,” said Isis García-Martínez, the council’s chairwoman. “That is a normal process and it surprises me that Martínez would make such accusations when it was exactly the same when I served as a councilwoman under his term.”
Council vice chairman Luis González said Martínez’s statements offended him personally.
“It’s a ridiculous act of political desperation” González said, adding that Martínez “ has no moral authority to accuse us when, as mayor, he was nothing more than a bad administrator.”
Councilman Paul “Pablito” Hernández agreed. “I can’t believe that two incompetent former mayors are accusing us,” he said. “This is political.”
Julio Martínez denied any political motivation behind his complaint. He said no campaign material was shown during his press conference, which was also attended by former mayor and Hernández’s political enemy, Raúl Martínez, as well as private investigator Joe Carrillo, who last year exposed a scandal involving absentee ballots in Hialeah.
“I do this because I’m concerned about my city, currently being governed and destroyed by crooks,” Martínez said. “But if laws were broken there should be consequences.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story.