Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones’ bid to run for a third term was denied by the Third District Court of Appeal Wednesday, when it ruled that despite a lengthy suspension the commissioner had already been elected and qualified to run for two full terms.
The decision means the end of a lengthy and often turbulent ride for Spence-Jones in Miami’s District 5, where the commissioner was elected three times in four years — once while under suspension from the governor — and successfully fought a pair of felony charges brought by the state.
Despite her ups and downs, her popularity in the city’s poorest district, which runs from Overtown north to Liberty City, never waned. Even when suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist, constituents rewarded Spence-Jones with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Her next move remains unclear. The term-limited commissioner, who has overseen the revival of the historic Northwest Third Avenue corridor and recently inherited some of the coveted Upper Eastside in a redistricting battle, must leave office in November.
She could seek a county seat, but the one representing her district doesn’t open until 2016. She also could run again in Miami in 2017.
“I want to thank the City of Miami and its residents for your love, support and prayers,’’ she said in a prepared statement after the ruling. “I respect the court’s decision and I will continue my mission to be of service to my community. My family and I are looking forward to new beginnings.’’
On Wednesday, the Third DCA sided with the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, who is running for the District 5 seat, determining that City Attorney Julie Bru erred when she opined Spence-Jones could seek a third term because she didn’t complete two “full” terms in office. Spence-Jones missed 21 months of her second term while under suspension as she fought the criminal charges.
“We conclude Commissioner Spence-Jones was elected and qualified within the meaning of the charter to two full terms despite her temporary suspension. Accordingly, she is barred from seeking reelection for a third consecutive term,” said the decision.
The ruling ends a four-month battle between Spence-Jones and Dunn, who filed a lawsuit in April arguing Bru’s opinion didn’t hold water. A lower court had sided with Dunn, too, prompting Spence-Jones’ appeal.
Dunn, appointed to the seat during Spence-Jones’s 2010 suspension, could now be considered the favorite in November in a field that also includes Dr. Robert Malone Jr.
After the ruling Wednesday, Dunn said he was “grateful” and “humbled” by the decision. He said he will tackle crime in his district if he wins.
“But we have to be tactful and we can’t be overzealous,” said Dunn, adding that lowered crime statistics “will bring investment” into the struggling community.
Malone, Dunn’s opponent, used the court’s opinion to thank Spence-Jones for her leadership and ask for her backing. “Support me to make District 5 the best it can be,” he said in a prepared statement.
Dunn — who has been appointed by commissioners to fill a vacant District 5 seat twice — and Spence-Jones have been adversaries since she first made a name for herself at City Hall. After a stint coordinating concerts from Miami Mayor Manny Diaz’s office, Spence-Jones first ran for the District 5 seat in 2005.
That election and a subsequent loss in a runoff marked the first two of three elections Dunn would lose to Spence-Jones in less than five years.
She ran for a second term in November 2009 and upon her victory was immediately suspended from office by Gov. Crist. The state had charged her with grand theft, accusing her of trying to steer $50,000 in government grants to a family business. Those charges would eventually be dropped.
Even while suspended, Spence-Jones easily beat Dunn and others in a special election in January 2010. Once again Crist suspended her from office, after prosecutors charged her with attempting to solicit a bribe from Miami developer Armando Codina.
Spence-Jones was acquitted by a jury, after a lengthy court battle that led to the lead prosecutor eventually being transferred from the state attorney’s public corruption unit.
Before she returned in August 2012, Spence-Jones had missed 21 months in office. That was the basis for her argument that she should be permitted to run for a third term.
But the court disagreed.
“Even though suspended, she was ‘qualified’ to seek and obtain election. The term limitation cannot be read to permit a commissioner to seek election to a third consecutive term simply because, although elected and qualified for two terms, the commissioner failed to serve each day of those terms,” wrote the appeals court.
In December 2012, Spence-Jones filed a federal lawsuit contending State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado conspired to destroy her political career and reputation. In the lawsuit she accused lead prosecutor Richard Scruggs of fabricating evidence and misleading key witnesses, including Codina.
Rundle and Regalado have denied any wrongdoing.