Miami commissioners select new city attorney

09/12/2013 12:34 PM

09/12/2013 6:49 PM

A divided Miami commission chose a candidate from within City Hall to replace retiring City Attorney Julie Bru, despite acknowledging concerns about how the powerful office has been functioning.

Victoria Méndez, a deputy city attorney, received the backing of Chairman Marc Sarnoff and Commissioners Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez. Vice Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Michelle Spence-Jones supported outsider Lynn Dannheisser.

“I will not let you down,” Méndez told commissioners when she thanked them. “I will make sure that I represent this office with the utmost character and respect it deserves.”

After the 3-2 selection vote, commissioners agreed unanimously to appoint Méndez next month, once Suarez negotiates her pay and benefits package on behalf of the board.

Méndez, 39, asked for an annual salary of $235,000 in her application. She currently makes about $120,000 a year, the application says. Bru makes $228,000.

Commissioners congratulated Méndez but cautioned — without detailing their specific concerns — that she will have her hands full in her new job.

“I don’t think your office is functioning extremely well,” Sarnoff said. “It was not easy to pick someone from within.”

Gort, noting that commissioners only get to hire the city clerk, auditor and attorney, bluntly told Méndez that he has a “problem” with the way the attorney’s office has been running.

“I think a lot of changes need to be done,” he said. “So you have a big, big responsibility.”

Bru, the city attorney since 2008, was not at the commission meeting. She is retiring after 24 years working for Miami.

Méndez has worked for the city since 2004. She specializes in land use and environmental, building and zoning law and serves as counsel to Miami’s planning, zoning and appeals board and to the Downtown Development Authority. She received her law degree and a master’s in public administration from the University of Miami, according to her application.

Méndez beat out four other candidates: Dannheisser, the former Surfside town attorney; Raul Aguila, a chief deputy city attorney for Miami Beach; Warren Bittner, a deputy city attorney for Miami; and Tyrone Williams, a senior legal advisor for the Miami-Dade corrections and rehabilitation department. Seventy-two people had applied for the position.

One resident — Grace Solares of Miami Neighborhoods United, which represents homeowner groups mostly on the city’s east side — praised Méndez’s selection at the meeting. Solares called her “someone who listens, who with honesty goes through the issues.”

Offering strikingly direct advice, Sarnoff reminded Méndez to comport herself in her personal life in a way that won’t embarrass the city. He asked her to think about “how you walk, how you speak” and how her life in a “recreational sense” could reflect her position.

He urged her to transform the attorney’s office.

“One wrong decision by you can cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “Who you surround yourself with, who you keep and what changes you make will define you for the next six years of your life.”

Noting the demands of the job, Suarez advised Méndez not to fear asking commissioners for more time to provide legal opinions.

He said he would pray for her.

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