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Judge: Miami Commissioner Spence-Jones can’t run a third time

Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who missed a chunk of time in office successfully battling felony charges, cannot run for a third term in November, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by long-time political foe the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II. He contended that an opinion from the city attorney that Spence-Jones could run for a third time because she didn’t serve two full terms was flawed and unconstitutional.

Dunn said he was “grateful” and “humbled” by the ruling, issued by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge E. Cueto. Then Dunn lashed out at the city attorney’s office.

“It appears the Miami attorneys were trying to find a loophole in the law to appease their boss,” he said.

City Attorney Julie Bru defended her position, and said the city will appeal.

“I continue to believe that the provision does have an ambiguity and that the opinion I issued is legally correct,’’ she said.

Spence-Jones’s attorney, Bruce Rogow, said she would appeal the ruling as well. The matter was argued at a hearing Monday.

“I’m impressed with the thoroughness and speed in which the judge acted,’’ Rogow said. “He did a good job of reading the charter and interpreting it, but it doesn’t mean he’s right.’’

In a 13-page opinion, Cueto relied on an amendment to the city charter approved by 73 percent of the voters in 1999. The measure imposed a two-term limit for the mayor and commissioners.

He said it was clear Spence-Jones was never disqualified from office at any point during the 21 months she was removed through suspension by the governor. He added that the drafters of the charter amendment purposely used the words they did to limit office-holders to running only twice.

“The drafters were free to use the phrase ‘elected and served for two consecutive full terms,’ but they did not. To the court, that the drafters did not use the latter phrase and instead used the phrase ‘elected and qualified for two consecutive full terms’ is telling and evidence of their intent,’’ Cueto wrote.

“Qualified’’ candidates are those who meet the requirements for running for office. For the city commission, that means paying a fee of $682, proving residency in the district for one year, appointing a treasurer and identifying a depository for campaign contributions.

Cueto rejected Spence-Jone’s argument that if there is “ambiguity’’ in the charter, it should be resolved by a public vote. The judge wrote that the charter is “clear and unambiguous,’’ and concluded that since the commissioner qualified for consecutive terms, “Spence-Jones is prohibited by the city of Miami charter from seeking a third consecutive term.”

In District 5, where Spence-Jones will serve out her term until November, a community activist and Spence-Jones supporter said he disagreed with the ruling.

Nathaniel Wilcox, president of the advocacy group People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, known as PULSE, said the city charter needs to allow extra time in office for politicians like Spence-Jones who are suspended without being found culpable of any wrongdoing.

“Mistakes were made when they pulled Michelle Spence-Jones from office,’’ he said. “She should have her time back as a commissioner.’’

Dunn has lost elections to Spence-Jones three times over the last eight years, vying to represent a district that runs from Overtown through Little Haiti and into Liberty City. Two other times Dunn has been chosen to fill out a city commissioner’s term while the commissioner fought charges in court.

Dunn filled Spence-Jones’s vacant slot from January 2010 through September 2011.

Spence-Jones, who remains popular in her district, was first suspended from office by Gov. Charlie Crist after a November 2009 election victory, when the state charged her with grand theft for allegedly trying to steer $50,000 in government grants to a family business.

She easily won a special election for the seat in January, only to be suspended again by Crist, that time after the state brought a felony bribe charge against her.

Spence-Jones beat one charge and the other was dropped, but was out of office for 21 months before being reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott. She regained her office and was awarded full back pay, including pension and other benefits.

Spence-Jones did not return a phone call seeking comment. Rogow, her attorney, said he spoke with her briefly and she was disappointed.

“She asked me what I thought she should do, and I said appeal. She understands the process,” he said.