Miami-Dade County

Commission denies Miami-Dade property appraiser’s request to hire outside attorney

The newly elected Miami-Dade property appraiser asked county commissioners a delicate question Tuesday: Could they please give him permission to hire an outside attorney to sue the commission?

No thanks, the board said.

“You want me to approve $50,000 so you can sue me?” Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera before voting no.

Lopez-Cantera wants a judge to weigh in on whether his office should be mostly independent from county government. He can’t press his case on his own because both he and the county are represented by County Attorney Robert Cuevas, who says the property appraiser is effectively an elected department head.

“There is an ambiguity, and the only way to get it answered is to go to the court system and have a judge decide what the law says,” Lopez-Cantera said.

He will now try to raise private funds to hire outside counsel.

Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa said when she agreed to ask voters five years ago if the property appraiser should be an elected position, she didn’t think his office would be independent.

“When we discussed the creation of this office, it was a department of the county,” she said, suggesting a new ballot question asking voters to clarify their intent. That idea did not get traction.

Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, who was also on the board in 2008, had a different interpretation of the property appraiser’s role. “I really thought that you were a lot more independent,” he told Lopez-Cantera, who took office in January.

But Diaz said he couldn’t support spending $50,000 in county funds for the property appraiser to retain an attorney. The commission voted 8-3 against Lopez-Cantera’s request.

Diaz, Jordan, Sosa and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Dennis Moss and Xavier Suarez voted against. Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Juan C. Zapata voted in favor. Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Javier Souto were absent.

Early on, Lopez-Cantera acknowledged his request put him in an uncomfortable position. “I recognize the awkwardness of this situation,” he said.