North Miami Beach council members abruptly fired their city attorney this week, six months after giving her a pat on the back, a new contract with a bonus.
Darcee Siegel, well-respected among her peers, was appointed as North Miami Beach’s first female city attorney in 2008 and had served as an assistant city attorney for nearly 17 years before that. She is also the chair of the city attorneys committee of the Miami-Dade County League of Cities.
Emotions ran high late Tuesday evening after Councilwoman Marlen Martell unexpectedly motioned to fire Siegel. Council members Anthony DeFillipo, Frantz Pierre, and Mayor George Vallejo, rounded out the 4-3 vote to dismiss Siegel. Councilwomen Beth Spiegel, Phyllis Smith and Barbara Kramer dissented.
Martell told the Miami Herald she had grown weary of Siegel’s “poor communication” and “overstepping her bounds.”
“I’m not political. I’m a straight shooter. I’m the type of person who takes it and takes it and that day, I exploded, ” she said.
The final straw that so angered Martell was a letter to the attorney from former city manager Lyndon Bonner regarding a dispute about benefits.
In September, the council did not renew Bonner’s contract after 15 months on the job. The late-August letter addressed to Siegel outlined Bonner’s position for accepting his severance and pension package. According to Martell, she had never seen the document until this week.
Martell said when she asked Siegel about the letter, Siegel blamed it on the new city manager, Ana Garcia.
“She said that it was the city manager’s job,” Martell said. “That’s not true. We rely on Darcee for all our legal issues. Our city manager wasn’t even on the job then.”
DeFillipo said he didn't know about the letter either.
"Personally I felt left out of the communication a lot of times,” he said. “When I asked her why she didn’t show us the Bonner letter she answered by asking me if I thought Bonner deserved the money. That’s totally unacceptable."
Spiegel disagreed with some of her fellow council members, saying Tuesday night that Siegel had done great work for the city in legal matters.
“In the end, the city was protected and everything was done correctly,” she said.
She also said the sudden dismissal sends the wrong message to any potential candidates for the job.
“Who are we going to hire next when the job is going to be dependent on pleasing every single council member all the time?” she said.
The council convened for another tense meeting Friday to discuss Siegel’s severance, appointing an interim and recruiting a new permanent attorney.
Siegel attended with her attorney, James Casey, who sent a demand letter to the city Thursday outlining what Siegel is owed according to her contract, including wages, a mandatory 10 percent cost of living increase she had deferred in 2009, and health insurance. Her annual salary was $188,000.
The council deferred the severance item in light of the letter so their legal department — now down a person — can address it.
Siegel told the Miami Herald she was “honored and privileged to have been able to serve the residents of North Miami Beach for nearly 22 years.”
“I’m hopeful that the city will honor all the terms and conditions contained within my lawful employment contract,” she added.
Regarding the reasons for her firing, she said she’d been in constant communication with each council member, and she hadn’t been approached about any issues.
Councilwoman Martell “never brought that issue to my attention,” she said. “In fact, that issue was never discussed with me by anyone on the council.”
Mayor George Vallejo refused to get into specifics about his reasons for wanting Siegel out after Friday’s meeting.
“I would say the relationship with the council is important to move the city forward, and it was time to make a change,” he said. “I wish Darcee Siegel the best. I really do.”
Assistant City Attorney Dotie Joseph, who joined the city in December 2012, will serve as the interim. The council weathered a heated debate before approving the creation of a five-person search committee to vet résumés for a permanent replacement.
The search committee will be: Mayor George Vallejo, Miami Beach City Attorney Jose Smith, Sunny Isles Beach City Attorney Hans Ottinot, North Miami Beach’s human resources director Rose Amberson and a representative to be appointed by Richard Cooper, executive director of the Miami-Dade League of Cities.
Spiegel said she could represent the city on the search committee because of her decades of experience as an attorney, but she was rebuffed by the Vallejo, who said the mayor “is the official representative of the city.”
Councilwoman Smith suggested having the entire seven-person city council sit on the search committee and holding its meetings in the sunshine. That too was met with little support.