Michelle Spence-Jones hopes to win reelection to the Miami City Commission. But first, she’ll have to win in court.
On Tuesday, Rev. Richard P. Dunn II filed a lawsuit against Spence-Jones, arguing that because the District 5 commissioner has already been compensated for two terms in office, she shouldn’t be allowed to run for a third.
“Term limits are for a reason,” said Dunn, who is also seeking the District 5 seat. “Even our beloved president can only serve two terms.”
But Spence-Jones has a key legal opinion on her side. In 2011, Miami City Attorney Julie O. Bru opined that Spence-Jones could seek reelection in 2013 because she did not serve “two full consecutive terms” as the charter allows. Spence-Jones was elected for a second time in 2009, but missed nearly half of that term while under suspension fighting a pair of felony charges.
In those cases, a jury acquitted Spence-Jones of bribery charges and prosecutors dropped grand-theft charges.
“I stand by the legal opinion of the city attorney that the citizens of Miami are entitled to have their commissioner serve for two consecutive full terms,” Spence-Jones wrote in a statement to The Miami Herald. “My second term was unjustifiably interrupted, which means I did not serve two full terms, according to the city charter. The issue is not compensation, but service.”
Spence-Jones announced her reelection bid late last month. At a January commission meeting, she asked the city attorney to reaffirm her 2011 opinion.
“Our charter prohibits a commissioner or the mayor for running for reelection after that commissioner or mayor has served two consecutive terms,” Bru said from the dais. “You are eligible to seek reelection because you did not serve two full consecutive terms.”
Spence-Jones and Dunn have long had a bitter political rivalry. Both ran for the District 5 seat in 2005; Spence-Jones won in a runoff.
When Spence-Jones was removed from office four years later, Dunn was tapped as her replacement. He said he has been preparing his lawsuit since Spence-Jones returned to the commission dais in 2011.
Dunn’s argument hinges on the $200,000 in back pay and benefits Spence-Jones received when she returned to the commission. Dunn argues that because she was paid for serving two full terms, she shouldn’t get another bite at the apple.
He also noted that the city attorney’s opinion enables Spence-Jones to serve two additional stints beyond her current term.
“Michelle could end up serving 16 years,” Dunn said. “That’s not in the spirit of the term-limit rules.”
In the complaint, which also names new City Clerk Todd Hannon as a defendant, Dunn asks the court to remove Spence-Jones from the list of commission candidates and prevent her name from appearing on the ballot.
Dunn also argues that he and the electorate will be “irreparably injured” if he is denied the “effective enforcement of the term-limit provision to the city of Miami charter that was overwhelmingly approved by the voters.”
Some community leaders have questioned the merits of the lawsuit.
At a press conference last week, Bishop James Adams of St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in Overtown said Spence-Jones has the right to run again because her second term was interrupted. She deserved the compensation, he added, because she was not found guilty of any crime.
“I see [the lawsuit] as a desperation move, because the sitting commissioner is popular,” Adams said.
The Rev. Dr. W. Edward Mitchell, Jr., the pastor at Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, raised questions about Dunn’s motives.
“The question is, who is backing this?” Mitchell asked. “Who is really behind it?”
Some in Spence-Jones’s circle have pointed the finger at Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. Spence-Jones recently filed a lawsuit against Regalado and Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle alleging the two conspired to destroy her reputation and career.
But Regalado says he has nothing to do with Dunn’s legal challenge.
“The last thing I want is another lawsuit,” the mayor said.
Dunn laughed when asked if Regalado was involved. He said two of his “friends” would be paying the legal fees, but declined to name them.
“These guys forget that I’m a former city commissioner,” Dunn said. “I can raise money [for the lawsuit] on my own.”
Dunn’s attorney, former state Rep. J.C. Planas, called the case “cut and dried.”
“In the eyes of the law, she has served two terms,” he said.