Miami-Dade County

Slaton, Pizzi both claim Miami Lakes mayoral post; court battle seems imminent

The dueling mayors of Miami Lakes, battling over which man is truly in charge, tussled again Monday in sloppily disjointed press conferences that were at times off the mark, but intensely theatrical.

First up: Mayor Wayne Slaton. Standing before cameras and constituents at Town Hall, Slaton defiantly declared he is the mayor of Miami Lakes and that Florida’s governor agreed — and then incorrectly argued that a similar case in Miami four years ago wasn’t similar at all.

With Slaton done, Michael Pizzi, the still-suspended mayor, held court in a baking parking lot, telling the crowd he had reclaimed his seat the moment a jury found him not guilty of federal corruption charges. Then Pizzi marched to the back door of Town Hall — but the door was locked.

With a pack of reporters in tow, and one woman booing furiously from the sidewalk, the mayor-in-limbo made his way to the front entrance, where he asked receptionist Laura Munoz to contact the city clerk and manager. For 20 minutes, Pizzi entertained the crowd with stories, including one about how as a child he would sing himself a lullaby when he was stressed out.

When the two hours of tit-for-tat finally ended, little had changed.

Despite the crush of television cameras and threats of arresting Pizzi, Slaton still occupied the mayor’s chair — his photo was restored to its spot at the entrance to Town Hall above the six sitting commissioners — and Pizzi still declared the post was his.

“I'm going to instruct my attorneys to go to court this week and get a court order, ordering staff to respect me as mayor,” said Pizzi.

“The governor believes in home rule and law and order, and so do I,” said Slaton. “His action was deliberate. I was elected in a special election to fill out the term until 2016.”

Late last week, a federal jury acquitted Pizzi of seven counts of corruption stemming from an intricate scam in which federal investigators posed as Chicago businessmen looking to pay off elected officials in exchange for their support of lucrative federal grants. The FBI said Pizzi was paid $6,750 in four installments.

Pizzi was suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott soon after the charges were brought last summer. The town charter called for a special election in September, which Slaton won.

When jurors acquitted Pizzi, the suspended mayor punched the air and took off to Town Hall to reclaim his seat. When he got there, his picture had replaced Slaton’s on the wall, and Pizzi’s belongings were back on his desk.

But to everyone’s surprise, Scott chose not to revoke Pizzi’s suspension, saying the town’s residents had already chosen a new mayor.

Pizzi’s attorneys have made it clear that state law supports their client. If an elected municipal leader is cleared of criminal charges, “the Governor shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore such municipal official to office,” the statute reads, going on to say the suspended official should also collect back pay and other benefits.

Scott’s stance is a complete reversal of the position he took in the case of suspended Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones in 2011. After Spence-Jones was cleared of charges, Scott revoked the suspension and she returned to office. She had been suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist amid corruption charges. During her absence, someone else won a special election for her seat.

Miami Lakes’ charter says that if a seat is vacated and the elected official had more than six months left in a term, a special election must be held to fill the seat. The charter is quiet when it comes to reinstating an officer who has been cleared or acquitted of criminal charges and has been absent more than six months.

The governor’s general counsel responded to Pizzi last week without mentioning the state statute, saying, “Mayor Slaton was elected to serve out the term of Pizzi’s replacement.”

The weekend brought more back-and-forth, with Pizzi saying he intended to show up at Town Hall on Monday, and city leaders issuing a letter saying Pizzi would be arrested if he entered private offices without consent.

On Monday, Slaton, with Town Attorney Raul Gastesi and four of the town’s six council members at his side, called Miami Lake’s home rule powers “the most precious powers in town.”

“Let me be clear, there was no temporary position that was created. A new mayor was elected,” said Slaton.

Slaton referred several times to the Miami case, incorrectly saying “Marvin Dunn” had been appointed to the commission seat after Spence-Jones was suspended. Marvin Dunn is a local historian. Richard Dunn was the commissioner first appointed to Spence-Jones’ seat, and later elected to it.

Unlike Slaton, however, Dunn left the seat amicably when Scott revoked Spence-Jones’ suspension.

Pizzi, meanwhile, fresh from his 32-minute meeting with Town Manager Alex Rey after Slaton had spoken, said the manager took the position that “the town is not going to permit me to do my duties.”

Before a mob of cameras just outside Rey’s office, Pizzi, a lifelong Republican, said he wasn’t sure why Scott had taken such a stance, but that it’s a “no-brainer, I’m the mayor under the [Florida] Constitution.”

“When I was arrested, the governor removed me in about 12 seconds,” said Pizzi. “That same state statute says once I’m exonerated I’m immediately returned to office. I’m going to go to court and have a judge reach a decision.”

To avoid a potentially lengthy court fight that is likely to include appeals by Slaton and the governor’s office, Pizzi said his attorneys are weighing whether they can bring the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court.