Maria Kramer finds herself hesitating before announcing that she’s a Miami Lakes resident. She loves her community, but the town’s political drama — not so much.
“I want it to be over,” Kramer said. “I am tired of reading about Miami Lakes in a negative light. I love this town, but I hate having everyone talking, saying ‘What happened to Miami Lakes?’”
Recently, Miami Lakes has made headlines for everything from tense council meetings to employees resigning over clashes with the mayor.
This year kicked off with Mayor Michael Pizzi filing a reinstatement lawsuit against the town to regain the seat he lost as a result of a federal bribery sting. He won the case in April.
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Since being reinstated, Pizzi has been involved in a car crash that raised eyebrows over how it was dealt with, and been at the center of two resignations from his staff, one of which has resulted in the town council asking the state attorney's office to look into charter violations that may have taken place.
Pizzi and the town council just want to get to work. But in the meantime, everyone is dealing with the emotional and financial marks of the courtroom saga.
“My major concern has been getting to the finish line and getting the people’s business done,” Pizzi said. “Sometimes that’s not a lot of fun, sometimes that causes issues but what I am not going to do is be a do-nothing mayor who just cuts ribbons and sits at meetings in silence and never tackles difficult problems just so my colleagues like me more.”
The cost of the legal battle
It’s estimated that the legal tab for the entire reinstatement lawsuit will top the $1 million mark. That includes fees from Pizzi’s legal team, along with the town, former Mayor Wayne Slaton and Town Clerk Marjorie Tejeda-Castillo.
While the town has paid the $487,768 bill to cover the costs of parties on their side of the battle through money the town recovered from an audit, Pizzi’s fees are still up for negotiation.
Pizzi’s legal team has said that the town should budget no less than $750,000 for his legal bills.
Miami Lakes’ insurance company Brown & Brown is representing Miami Lakes in talks over the fees, and while Miami Lakes officials hope the insurance policy will cover all these costs, they have set aside $250,000 in the town’s upcoming budget in the event the money is needed.
As a result, Town Manager Alex Rey said the town’s 2015-16 budget will not include new beautification projects, capital improvements in the parks — other than projects already in construction — and additional policing.
And this is just for Pizzi’s reinstatement trial, not the federal case.
Pizzi has long said that the town could have avoided these legal charges had he been allowed to return to office once his suspension was lifted.
“It is a tragedy that this town council listened to [Town Attorney Raul] Gastesi’s horrible legal advice and voted to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars of hard-earned tax money that could have been spent to help the people and lower taxes,” Pizzi said. “The poor people are out this money because the town council and Mr. Gastesi violated the Constitution and engaged in what the courts have held was an illegal political vendetta.”
Gastesi says that Pizzi, who is also a municipal attorney, would have made the same call he did.
“Had Pizzi, based on the statute and case law, been in my shoes he would have done the same exact thing,” Gastesi said, adding that it was critical for the town to defend its charter. “Furthermore, if Pizzi were in Mayor Slaton’s shoes he would have done the same exact thing. It’s hard to accept my judgment being questioned by the person whose poor judgment started all of this in the first place.”
Costs associated with reinstatement don’t only come from attorney’s fees.
In May, the town council approved $56,925 in retroactive pay for Pizzi, to cover his time away from office. In addition, the town paid $10,575 to Cohen Publicity for crisis management public relations services and communications during the reinstatement trial.
War on the dais
Political wars have been brewing in the town as there has been palpable tension over issues such as limits on speaking time and items placed on the agenda.
Last week, town clerk Tejeda-Castillo tendered her resignation, effective Aug. 14, after Pizzi allegedly threatened on July 20 to sue her and Rey if two new business items on the town’s July 21 agenda were implemented.
The items had to do with not using the town’s resources for non-town sponsored events, and that the clerk be the only person who can call up residents to speak at town meetings.
Pizzi has since said that he didn’t make such threats, and that the situation was a misunderstanding, but Rey and Tejeda-Castillo are standing by their version of the story.
Both items ended up passing during the July meeting.
Meanwhile, the council agreed to ask the state attorney’s office to look into charter violations that may have taken place during that meeting between the clerk, manager and mayor.
Tensions on the dais could stem from different governing styles, according to Pizzi.
“I think some of my colleagues, during my absence, they kind of got used to having a mayor that wasn’t a strong personality,” Pizzi said. “And maybe they feel my strong personality and high profile takes away from their significance in being council members and what they’re trying to do.”
Councilman Frank Mingo says he notices a difference in leadership styles.
“I can compare from when Mayor Slaton was there and now with Mr. Pizzi is here and it’s an embarrassment because it seems he’s turned our town and our council meetings into a circus,” Mingo said. “It’s like a reality show the way I see it.”
Pizzi says he is striving to ease the tension and has asked the manager to reach out to council members to set up one-on-one meetings. He also would like to plan a retreat.
“I think we need to work to accommodate each other’s concerns,” Pizzi said. “I think the reason for the intensity and some of the clashes is that I’ve lost a lot of time and I want to get a lot of things done. And I get the feeling they want to send a message that they want me to respect how they want to get things done and not just do it my way.”
Despite the infighting, the Miami Lakes council has still been able to move forward with some measures to improve the town.
For example, when funding for senior programs was cut by Gov. Rick Scott, Pizzi called a meeting to find a solution and all the members of the council supported his item to find outside funding.
And on Pizzi’s desk is a list of 14 more items he wants to take on right away, such as drainage improvements, beautification projects and gaining grant money from the state.
Leaving the Job
As the council works to move forward, some have already left.
Aside from the clerk, a second employee resigned on Friday morning.
Lissette Molina, Pizzi’s assistant, resigned “due to the unfortunate work environment,” according to her email resignation email.
In a text message to the Miami Herald on Friday afternoon, Molina said she enjoyed her tenure with Miami Lakes and that the town’s staff consists of “exemplary public servants.’’
“It is unfortunate that due to the Mayor’s continued actions, I have resigned,” Molina said in the message. “My parents have instilled in me a strong work ethic, dignity and self respect. I am looking forward to continuing to pursue my career.”
Pizzi didn’t comment on her leaving, other than saying Molina is a “brilliant kid” and that he wishes her success.
And those are just the type of headlines Kramer and others are sick of reading.
“It’s very embarrassing to read about it,” Kramer said. “I know my neighbors feel the same way. Everyone is disappointed that a town with so much to offer is in the media for all the negative things that happen.”