Three weeks after filling the vacant city attorney position, North Miami has hit the reset button on the search process.
Mayor Smith Joseph called a special meeting Wednesday night to either accept a contract to hire the recently selected attorney candidate, Valria Screen, or to fill the position some other way.
The meeting was almost immediately contentious and boiled down to a brief war of words between Joseph and Councilman Scott Galvin after the City Council voted against approving Screen’s contract.
Joseph indicated he had been meeting with other attorneys and going over résumés in the weeks since the council selected Screen. Galvin interrupted and pointed out the council hadn’t given Joseph approval to meet with other attorneys for the position and that he wasn’t a strong mayor.
North Miami has a council-manager, weak-mayor form of government. The city manager runs the city’s operations and the council members represent one vote each and set policy.
“You say you want to return stability to the city of North Miami, but with tonight’s motion you undermine that,” Galvin said. “You undermine the public’s trust in us by playing these games.”
Joseph’s motion was to hire Jeff Cazeau, an attorney who serves as the city attorney for Florida City, who did not apply for the position. That item failed 3-2 with Galvin, Vice Mayor Keys and Councilman Alix Desulme voting no and Councilman Philippe Bien-Aime voting yes with the mayor.
The mayor and Bien-Aime argued that when the council chose to select Screen instead of one of the four finalists selected by their attorney search committee, they moved outside of the process. Joseph said he was tired of being the “laughingstock in Miami-Dade County” and wanted to bring permanence to the position. The search began in June when former city attorney Regine Monestime’s contract was terminated.
“I’m sick and tired of having interim managers, interim city attorneys, that sends a message that we are not a stable city,” Joseph said.
After voting against hiring Cazeau and hiring Guilene Theodore, a Tampa-based attorney suggested by Desulme and among the four finalists, the council voted to reject the selection of Screen and to restart the process.
Also at issue for the council was the contract negotiated by Screen, Interim City Manager Arthur Sorey and Interim City Attorney Roland Galdos. The contract contained language that mirrored the contract for Monestime.
Screen would have a three-year contract for $180,000 including 20 weeks of severance pay if she was terminated and 60 days written notice if the council intended to fire her.
“That contract was a terrible contract. It was not fair for the city and there were clauses in there that I cannot, representing my constituents, agree to,” Keys said.
Sorey also said he wasn’t comfortable with the council members voting without meeting with them individually to discuss the contract details. He said staff was preparing the item for the Jan. 12 meeting.
After attempting to discuss the number of candidates the council would consider moving forward, Joseph adjourned the meeting and he and Galvin swiftly left the dais.
The meeting briefly continued after that, to allow for public comment, and Screen thanked the council for their consideration and said she was “speechless” after their decision.
“I will remain faithful to the city of North Miami because it is my home,” Screen said.