As the city of Miami’s top attorney, Victoria Méndez has battled the weak and powerful alike, jousting with the federal government, Florida Power & Light, property owners and activists with the same zeal.
Sometimes she wins. Sometimes she loses. Usually, her decisions and opinions are heavily scrutinized.
But just shy of her third anniversary on the job, Méndez now finds herself in a different kind of fight with a different kind of foe. This time, her opponent is one of her bosses, and it’s her reputation that’s on the line.
Over the last two weeks, Miami’s embattled city attorney has been attacked and accused of improperly using her position to help developer Palmcorp cut red tape around a controversial residential project and hiding her involvement. Commissioner Ken Russell moved unsuccessfully to fire her Sept. 8, then promised to return Thursday with a proposal to hire an independent attorney to review her actions.
As news spread of Russell’s allegations, so too did praise from some of Miami’s disenfranchised, who have argued for years that the city works for special interests and against its own citizens, particularly when it comes to real estate and development. But Méndez, a highly-regarded former assistant state attorney, says Russell’s dispute is political. And while defending herself against her own client is an unenviable spot, she has staunch supporters who are now using Russell’s emails to question his motives in fighting Méndez and Palmcorp.
“We want scrutiny. We want the appropriate scrutiny,” said Hector Lombana, a past president of the Cuban American Bar Association who over the last two weeks pulled emails and text messages involving Russell’s staff. “We’re trying to make sure everything gets pulled out. There’s more to it than they want to say.”
Russell says the case is clear-cut: Méndez helped Palmcorp evade public scrutiny by leaning on the city’s zoning administrator until he changed a previously unwavering position that would have required the developer to seek a special permit subject to appeal by neighbors in order to split a large lot into five parcels and build five homes in Coconut Grove. Then, when Russell inquired about what happened, he says Méndez withheld emails from his office that detailed how she worked on behalf of the developer, whom he says by law should have been required to go before a public board in order to challenge a zoning administrator’s position.
Russell’s case speaks to concerns that the city is improperly allowing over-development in the Grove, as well as long-held allegations from some activists that the city keeps important information from the public and even elected officials in order to ensure controversial projects are passed by the City Commission and shielded from scrutiny. The issue has been pounded so often that commissioners agreed in July, despite Méndez’s protests, to call a November referendum that would grant “Miami citizens” legal standing, or the explicit right to sue the city, when it comes to alleged charter violations.
“This isn’t about one case. This is about a pattern of behavior that needs to stop,” Russell said Wednesday.
But opponents of the standing proposal believe it’s a way for disgruntled City Hall critics to govern by litigation. And in support of Méndez, who has asked the Miami-Dade ethics commission to investigate the allegations against her, some supporters who say they are acting on their own have pulled emails that they believe show some of the city’s most aggressive litigants are helping Russell go after the city attorney.
Specifically, Russell’s staff was asked to turn over communications with Stephen Herbits, a former associate of Donald Rumsfeld and Miami resident who spent roughly a decade fighting Flagstone’s controversial planned hotel and mega-marina project on Watson Island. They were also asked for correspondence with Grant Stern, a vocal opponent of the planned Midtown Walmart, who like Herbits has sued the city for public records.
Some of the communications show Herbits emailing Russell’s staff on Sept. 8 to give advice on points to argue for an independent investigation of Méndez. Russell aide Leah Weston, who last week was awarded almost $10,000 in attorney’s fees stemming from a brief time she spent representing Stern on his public records lawsuit before joining Russell’s staff, also turned over texts with Stern.
Another email on Sept. 8 from chief information officer Kevin Burns to his own supervisors raises questions about whether Eleazar Meléndez, Russell’s chief of staff, went around the city attorney by filing detailed requests for her emails and asking Burns to keep Méndez in the dark.
“I thought his request was unethical, or at least bordering upon being unethical,” Burns wrote.
Meléndez said he asked Burns to provide him records directly early this month only to expedite their production as a Sept. 8 vote swiftly approached on Palmcorp’s project. He said Burns never told him of any concerns.
“We have hundreds of pages of evidence showing the city attorney withheld documents that we very clearly and specifically asked for, and there’s no defense to that,” Meléndez said. “So of course their defense is going to be to attack the messenger.”
In an interview, Stern laughed about a “citizen conspiracy to purge corruption from city hall.” Herbits, who has publicly clashed with the city attorney, said he had nothing to do with Russell’s call for her head.
Regardless, with Russell planning Thursday to seek the services of a private attorney, commissioners will once again consider Palmcorp’s oft-delayed request to re-plat its property in order to build five single-family homes.
The proposal remains controversial. And Méndez still has a job to do.
“It is unfortunate that we have come to this point,” she said. “I respect the commissioner and appreciate the position he is in vis a vis his constituents. However, I disagree with his characterization of the facts.”