In the wake of a federal court ruling that Miami-Dade County had broken the law by demolishing a soldier’s home, a county commissioner tried to add another safeguard to prevent something similar from happening again.
But Rebeca Sosa’s effort — which would have required a court order before the bulldozing of private property that the county deems unsafe — was rebuffed Thursday by some of her own colleagues, who called the proposal overly burdensome.
It was the first time commissioners and building officials spoke at length in public about the case of Army Sgt. First Class Jesus Jimenez.
In 2011, the county razed his house at 1488 NW 103rd St., kicking out his family and most of their possessions. The Jimenezes had ignored repeated eviction orders and, according to Miami-Dade, failed to make urgent repairs that threatened the family’s safety. At the time, Jimenez, a father of four, was training in California for his second deployment to Afghanistan.
On Thursday, members of the commission’s Land Use and Development Committee and building division administrators within the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department acknowledged that an “error” had taken place.
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola ruled in July that Miami-Dade should have accepted Jimenez’s request to delay an unsafe-structures hearing in November 2007, while he was in Iraq conducting training to defuse improvised explosive devices. A federal law protects active-duty soldiers from judicial or administrative proceedings while they’re at war.
The county attorney’s office had advised the building department that the law didn’t apply because Jimenez was cited before he was on active duty.
Miami-Dade settled with Jimenez and his wife in October, paying them $350,000 in damages. Jimenez is now stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas.
Sosa, the outgoing commission chairwoman, said in an interview with the Miami Herald that she had hoped her legislation would not only protect families like the Jimenezes, but also shield the county from exposure to costly legal entanglements.
“That’s a way to give due process to those who live in those homes, and at the same time to protect taxpayer dollars,” Sosa said. She added that she was “respectfully disappointed” in the committee’s decision.
It’s unusual, though not unheard of, for commissioners sitting in committee to say no to legislation sponsored by a lawmaker who is not present. Sosa did not attend Thursday’s meeting; an attempt by Commissioner Xavier Suarez to delay a vote until next month was short-lived.
Jimenez’s attorney, Brad Winston, said Thursday that a court order probably would not have prevented his client’s home from being demolished, unless the hearing for the order somehow touched on the fact that the four-year process should have been put on hold when the soldier asked for the delay.
However, Winston added, “I do believe that due process actually requires” a court order for a demolition.
No one mentioned Jimenez or his family by name at Thursday’s meeting. But Lourdes Gomez, deputy director for the regulatory department, said the county’s existing rules weren’t to blame for the razing.
“The error was not with our procedures in that case,” she said.
The problem came in not following federal law, which Commissioner Barbara Jordan suggested could be prevented by writing clearer administrative rules — not by requiring a court order before any demolition.
“We’re trying to take a situation where there was an error — one error — in terms of demolishing a property, where procedures were not followed,” she said. “I just don’t want us to take a situation that occurred and make the entire county pay for it when we could have a much more simple solution.”
Obtaining a court order could add three to six months to most demolition cases, said Juliana Salas, Miami-Dade’s building official, citing an estimate from the county attorney’s office. Two attorneys from cities within the county said they worried the requirement would infringe on municipal power and slow down existing cases.
Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the committee chairman, praised Sosa’s good intentions but said the county couldn’t afford to delay demolitions, especially in cases of fire hazards and “crack houses.”
“I think she was trying to be responsive,” he said. Of the Jimenez case, he added: “But the way the department explained it to me, the way I think it was handled, I think it was done appropriately.”