Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade property appraiser plans to sue county over office powers

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, saying he doesn’t have enough power over his office, wants to sue the county to gain more independence.

But there’s a catch: He needs Miami-Dade commissioners’ approval just to hire a lawyer, according to the county attorney’s office, which can’t represent both him and the county. If he gets that permission, the county would essentially be suing itself.

Lopez-Cantera wants a judge to rule on how much control, if any, commissioners and Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration have over his office.

At issue are dueling views: Lopez-Cantera says voters meant for the property appraiser to be mostly independent when they decided to make the post an elected position five years ago. The county attorney says the appraiser is an elected department head with some extra powers.

“There’s really no direct control” for the property appraiser under the county’s interpretation, Lopez-Cantera said. “I really just want to do the job I believe I was elected to do.”

County Attorney Robert Cuevas said the question was settled in a 2008 lawsuit. Then-candidate Gwen Margolis, who won a plurality of the vote in the first round of the election, asserted that the property appraiser could win without a runoff, under rules that applied to “constitutional officers” enumerated in the Florida Constitution.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely, however, opined that the position was a local office under the county’s home-rule charter — effectively akin to an elected department head. Margolis, now a state senator, ultimately lost the runoff to Pedro Garcia. The ruling was never appealed.

“There’s no need” for Lopez-Cantera’s lawsuit, Cuevas said. “This has already been settled from the lawsuit we had five years ago.”

Before he can counter that argument, Lopez-Cantera has to find a way to hire the lawyers he wants to represent him, Dan Gelber and Jerry Greenberg. The property appraiser signed a contract with them last week, but the county blocked the $50,000 retainer payment. Lopez-Cantera’s office is represented by the county attorney and cannot hire outside counsel without commission approval, Cuevas said.

That leaves Lopez-Cantera, who said he is looking for other ways to pay for the lawyers, in a temporary legal limbo some six months after beginning his four-year term managing an office with a budget of about $30 million. Though the former state representative was elected to the countywide post last fall, he didn’t assume the office until January, per county rules.

Since then, he’s been trying to take charge, tweaking the appraisal process and renovating his County Hall offices to make them more customer friendly. But he’s run into obstacles to making other changes, he said.

For example: He needed prior approval before setting up an account to pay for minor employee perks — such as birthday cakes — funded by vending machines used by property appraiser workers.

He also prepared a leaner budget for next year that no longer requires the office’s 350-plus workers to contribute 5 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs. But he was told that was not his decision to make, as it would violate the county’s labor-union contracts.

Though Lopez-Cantera is bound by the collective-bargaining agreements, an ordinance does give the property appraiser — in a hybrid role — more leeway than other department heads in several matters. The appraiser can enter into third-party agreements without commission approval and without competitive bidding, as long as the expense falls within the office’s budget.

The budget requires commission sign-off, after it has been approved by the Florida Department of Revenue, which oversees the spending plans of all of the state’s property appraisers.

Miami-Dade was the last of Florida’s 67 counties to make the appraiser an elected post. It’s one of three that does not categorize the appraiser as a constitutional officer.

Both the commission and the state agency would still have to OK the budget of an appraiser considered a constitutional officer. But a more independent office probably wouldn’t require the county’s finance department to approve its expenditures, as occurs now.

Gelber and Greenberg, who along with Lopez-Cantera met with the Miami Herald’s editorial board this week, disagree with the circuit court’s 2008 opinion.

Instead, they pointed to the January 2008 ballot language approved by voters that converted the position from one “appointed and supervised by the mayor” to one “elected and subject to recall by the voters.”

Said Gelber: “What is the purpose of being an elected department head?”

In April, Lopez-Cantera obtained an informal opinion from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office saying “it would appear reasonable” to conclude that the appraiser became a constitutional officer when voters reinstated the elected position. Previously, the property appraiser’s powers had been transferred to the county mayor’s office by the 1957 home-rule charter.

But the issue is not clear cut. Gerry Hammond, a senior assistant attorney general, wrote that he could not “conclusively determine” an answer, and his informal memo would likely have less legal weight than a judge’s ruling.

The 2008 referendum did not expressly refer to the property appraiser as a department head. Yet it also did not expressly create a constitutional office or set the framework for how one would operate. The section of the charter amended by the vote is titled “administrative organization and procedure” of all of county government.

And the county could note that Garcia, Miami-Dade’s first elected property appraiser, was able to carry out his duties for four years under the existing system, which Lopez-Cantera did not challenge before holding the office.

“I hadn’t realized in practicality what it would mean,” Lopez-Cantera said.