In February, Lynda Bell persuaded her Miami-Dade County Commission colleagues to lift a decade-old ban on unsightly chain-link fences in front yards of homes in unincorporated neighborhoods. She pitched it as common-sense legislation to help residents of her South Miami-Dade district.
What she didn’t mention: Her daughter and son-in-law own a fencing company.
They established the business, Fence Assured, in March 2012, eight months before Bell filed her proposal — raising the question of whether the ordinance was intended to benefit the commissioner’s immediate family.
Absolutely not, Bell told the Miami Herald on Thursday.
“There’s zero personal gain for me and zero personal gain for my son-in-law,” she said. “It’s a 100 percent gain for the people of Miami-Dade County who want to put up a chain-link fence.”
Bell said any suggestion of wrongdoing stemming from the family connection, first reported by the Eye on Miami blog, was “ridiculous.” She would have kept the ban had she wanted to help her relatives, Bell argued, because chain-link fences are cheaper and less profitable for her daughter and son-in-law’s business.
But Robert Jarvis, a legal ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University, said Bell’s failure to disclose her family’s business ties could make the public wonder if she was hiding something.
“At the very least, it creates an appearance of impropriety,” he said.
“It’s probably true that you can’t prove that their business will in fact increase because of this change,” Jarvis added. “But I think that any commissioner who’s being completely honest and above-board would always reveal it, if for no other reason that that way nobody later could say, ‘You should have revealed it.’”
Bell’s ordinance was approved by an 8-4 commission vote, after some commissioners said bringing back chain-link fences to front yards could make neighborhoods look ugly. “We’ve been trying to persuade people to either remove them or to improve them with hedges, flowers, vines,” Commissioner Javier Souto said on Feb. 5.
Bell told the Herald that she had asked her son-in-law, Damian Mendez, if the county really prohibited front-yard chain-link fences. The commissioner said she learned about the ban from a constituent who approached her last year at the Winn-Dixie supermarket on Kings Highway in Homestead.
“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘You know, I can’t even put up a chain-link fence in my front yard,’” Bell said. “So I asked my son-in-law. He said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ So I did ask him and said, ‘Well, let’s see if we can change it.’”
When he answered a reporter’s call Thursday, Mendez said he was busy and would call back. He didn’t.
His wife, one of Bell’s three daughters, Jenna Mendez, is a Sweetwater police officer. At least one photograph on the Fence Assured website shows a chain-link fence — presumably installed by the company — on a city facility.
Since October 2012, Fence Assured has listed Lynda Bell’s home as the company’s principal business address in state records. Bell said her daughter and son-in-law have been living there as they rehab a foreclosed home they purchased.
On the dais in February, Bell said the idea for her legislation came from “hearing from different contractors and the different people who are putting up fences.”
“I’m just trying to make a difference for the people in my district,” she said at the time. “And a lot of people with the chain link, they don’t want a wood fence in their front yard. They want the chain link. It’s cleaner. It looks nicer. You can’t graffiti it. Nobody can hide behind it. It’s less expensive.”
Bell made no mention of her family, other than to note that she knew about the fencing business because her husband “used to put fences up, after [Hurricane] Andrew.”
Her husband, Mark Bell, lost in last week’s Homestead mayoral election runoff.
Elected officials may ask the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust to opine on whether they have a potential conflict of interest on a given matter. Lynda Bell did not ask for an opinion regarding the fence vote. She did request one last year for a vote related to Florida Power & Light, where another one of her daughters works.
In that instance, the ethics commission said Bell did not have a conflict because her daughter was not a high-level employee and Bell did not have a financial interest in the company.
She didn’t have a conflict with the chain-link fence ordinance either, Bell said.
“Everybody in Dade County knows somebody,” she said. “This legislation isn’t about fence companies. This is about helping people.”