Miami-Dade County

A special election to fill a vacant Miami-Dade commission seat could cost $1 million

Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro during a 2015 meeting. He resigned his seat Saturday, and the remaining commissioners may call a special election this summer to replace him.
Former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro during a 2015 meeting. He resigned his seat Saturday, and the remaining commissioners may call a special election this summer to replace him. EL Nuevo Herald

With the early resignation last weekend of a Miami-Dade commissioner to run for Congress, the remaining board members have a $1 million decision to make.

They can appoint a successor to serve until county voters go to the polls anyway in August to decide other races, or call a special election earlier in the summer solely for District 5 voters to pick a replacement for Bruno Barreiro.

A few weeks on the calendar may separate the two hypothetical election dates for the Republican’s former District 5 seat representing parts of Miami and Miami Beach. But the cost spread is stark. A special election in District 5 held weeks earlier than the Aug. 28 primary would cost $500,000, and Miami-Dade would need to spend another $500,000 on a runoff if no candidate captured more than 50 percent of the first vote.

That price tag has critics calling foul on the move to quickly call a special election — with the County Commission scheduled to vote on the matter at an emergency meeting Wednesday morning.

It’s an accelerated pace seen as favoring the one likely candidate who was perhaps best positioned to anticipate Barreiro’s surprise move to leave his commission seat months earlier than required. The candidate: his wife, Zoraida Barreiro, a former contender for the Miami City Commission and a Republican who said Tuesday she’s interested in succeeding her husband at the county level.

“I’m considering running,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed public service.”

Juan Cuba, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party, said he sees the Barreiros’ political interests at work in the proposal to spend as much as $1 million to avoid deciding the District 5 race on Aug. 28.

“It would be a transparent political ploy to hold an election within 90 days,” he said. “I think it’s ridiculous. You should have an election when the most people are voting. And you have one of those coming up.”

Bruno Barreiro said the timing of his resignation had nothing to do with his wife. Instead, he wanted to eliminate speculation he might stick with his commission seat and abandon his bid to succeed Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a Miami congressional district that Hillary Clinton won by double digits.

“I want to put those things to rest 110 percent,” he said.

Barreiro resigned a day after Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation expanding Florida’s “resign-to-run” law to federal offices. The law requires office holders seeking other offices to give up their existing ones, but their resignations can take effect after the election.

If Barreiro had delayed his resignation to within 120 days of Aug. 28, Miami-Dade could have just folded the special election into the regular balloting, avoiding the $500,000 cost, county officials said Tuesday. If a runoff was needed, Miami-Dade would have needed to hold that before Nov. 6.

Raquel Regalado, who was required to resign her school board seat to challenge Gimenez in 2016, said she scheduled her departure so that Miami-Dade could avoid spending money choosing her replacement. “I resigned specifically so there wouldn’t be a special election,” she said. “You just time it that way.”

Avoiding a special election to replace Barreiro requires commissioners to appoint someone to the nonpartisan seat within 30 days, giving that person a vote on all commission matters until a candidate wins the seat. That would happen on Aug. 28 or — if nobody crosses the 50 percent mark — during a runoff held with the other elections on Nov. 6. The appointed commissioner would be free to run for the seat, too, giving that person the fundraising advantage and free publicity that come with a spot on the dais.

“You can say someone is only going to be appointed until Aug. 28, and it’s such a short period of time. But there are a lot of important things going on between now and then,” said Susan Windmiller, president of the Miami-Dade League of Women Voters, citing votes on 2019 property-tax rates, potential ballot items on changes to the county charter and the ongoing debate on Miami-Dade’s struggling transit system. “I think the voters should have a say in it.”

Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo noted he had to win his seat in a special election in 2011, called after the recall of then-commissioner Natacha Seijas. That year also saw Carlos Alvarez recalled as mayor, prompting then-commissioner Carlos Gimenez to give up his seat and successfully run to be the next mayor. Xavier Suarez succeeded Gimenez in a special election that spring, too. Commissioner Audrey Edmonson first took her current seat through an appointment in 2005 after the resignation of Barbara Carey-Shuler.

“My leanings are just to do the election,” said Bovo, a Republican. “You might pay a little … But we get it out of the way.”

Myriam Marquez, Gimenez’s new communications director, said the mayor wasn’t recommending one option over the other. “The mayor doesn’t have a strong position on this,” she said. “It’s the board’s call.”

Marquez said there are no funds set aside for a special election, so the dollars would have come from somewhere else. An agenda released Tuesday night for the 10 a.m. meeting in the Stephen P. Clark Center contains two competing draft ordinances: one to appoint an unnamed replacement for Barreiro and one calling for a special election on an unspecified date. Bovo said the Election Department is recommending late June for the special election date, allowing a runoff to be held in late July if needed.

If commissioners call for an election, would-be candidates would have 10 days to join the race before the filing deadline. Miami-Dade’s charter gives the board 30 days after a vacancy to call for a special election, and the hasty schedule had at least one county commissioner refuse to sign the petition calling for Wednesday’s session.

“Given the rushed resignation, I believe we need a longer period of public notice and opportunity for public input on next steps, including hearing from District 5 residents,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat.