The long running controversy over the mayor’s office in Miami Lakes appears far from over.
During a special meeting Friday night, the Miami Lakes Town Council agreed to pay outside lawyers to defend the town, current Mayor Wayne Slaton and clerk Marjorie Tejeda-Castillo in a lawsuit filed this week by former Mayor Michael Pizzi, who has been fighting for months to regain his old job after being acquitted of federal bribery charges.
Town council members agreed to have town attorney Raul Gastesi defend the town’s interests, at a rate of $200 an hour. In addition, it agreed to pay the Akerman Law Firm $375 an hour to defend Slaton and the law firm Gelber Schachter & Greenberg $375 an hour to defend Tejeda-Castillo, who is named in the suit in her official capacity.
“This firestorm is all as a result of Mr. Pizzi’s unethical behavior,” said Slaton. “Neither I, nor the town council caused this, and the circumstances are extremely unfortunate.”
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To avoid any conflict, Slaton removed himself from the dais after calling the meeting to order. Councilman Tony Lama was not present during the special meeting, which drew a crowd of town residents. Pizzi, accompanied by his attorneys, also attended and spoke at the meeting.
“My name is Michael Pizzi and I am the mayor of the Town of Miami Lakes,” Pizzi declared. “I was elected mayor by about 70 percent of the voters, in the largest turnout in the town’s history.”
After the meeting, Pizzi told the Miami Herald that “what the town is doing is unprecedented in the history of democratic society” and he blasted Slaton and Gastesi. “[They] want to use taxpayer money as a personal bank to finance an illegal political coup.”
The messy Miami Lakes mayoral controversy began in August 2013 when Pizzi, who was then completing his second four-year term as the town’s mayor, was arrested on federal bribery charges. He was cleared in August, and has been fighting for reinstatement ever since.
Slaton, who took office in a special election held in October 2013, has refused to step down from the mayoral post — saying he was elected to be Pizzi’s permanent replacement.
In December Gov. Rick Scott revoked Pizzi’s suspension, following a decision by the Florida Supreme Court. Neither Scott nor the high court reinstated Pizzi to the mayoral seat, as Pizzi never asked to be reinstated as mayor.
In his lawsuit filed earlier this week, Pizzi contends that he should be immediately reinstated into the mayoral post and remain until his term in office expires in November 2016.
“We believe that the law is on our side,” said Ralf R. Rodriguez, one of Pizzi’s lawyers, after the meeting. “Mayor Pizzi should be recognized as the current mayor, now that he’s been exonerated, and the suspension [has been] lifted.”
The town’s position is that Slaton is the rightful mayor of Miami Lakes, according to Gastesi, who says the decision to reinstate Pizzi must come from a judge.
“As a result of his merit-less lawsuit, it’s going to cost the citizens of this town a lot of money in attorneys fees,” said Gastesi after the meeting. “His problem is with the governor, not with the town, the town cannot reinstate him.”
Dozens of residents flooded the town hall to speak in support of Pizzi and Slaton.
“You should vote against spending any money on this frivolous defense which is destined to fail,” said Eladio Jose Armesto, who backs Pizzi. “And when it does you will be hard put to go out and explain your position to this community, because you are not defending the charter.”
“It’s turning Miami Lakes into a circus,” Paula Mark Hagen, 72, a Miami Lakes resident who supports Slaton, said after the meeting. “If he really cared about Miami Lakes, [Pizzi] would not sue the town and respect the town charter, and run in 2016.”