Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade to transit critic: You’re off our transit board. He claims ‘retribution’

Miami-Dade’s Metromover system, a free elevated train that connects downtown Miami with Brickell, is fully subsidized by the county’s half-percent sales tax, a revenue source overseen by the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust.
Miami-Dade’s Metromover system, a free elevated train that connects downtown Miami with Brickell, is fully subsidized by the county’s half-percent sales tax, a revenue source overseen by the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The oversight board for Miami-Dade’s transit tax may see its most outspoken advocate expelled for opposing the county’s transportation policy.

County lawyers recently informed Paul Schwiep he had disqualified himself from membership on the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust by serving as the lawyer for a legal action filed against Miami-Dade by the Tropical Audubon Society trying to block a planned highway expansion.

In a letter to Schwiep, a Miami-Dade attorney cited a local ordinance barring anyone from serving on a county board if they file a lawsuit challenging County Commission policy.

Paul Schwiep.jpg
Paul Schwiep is a longtime member of Miami-Dade’s Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, a board that oversees the county’s half-percent sales tax.

Schwiep, a Coconut Grove lawyer, claims the county attorneys are acting improperly in trying to decide who can be a member of a board created by voters in the 2002 referendum that launched the half-percent sales tax. It’s a panel that’s increasingly in the center of transit fights, including a recent effort to force Miami-Dade to stop using the “half-penny” tax to subsidize existing bus and Metrorail operations at the expense of new projects.

And Schwiep argues that because he filed an administrative complaint, not a lawsuit, the ordinance doesn’t apply.

Miami-Dade’s lawyers portray the action against Schwiep as a requirement, sparked in part by Schwiep’s own inquiry on the rule. Schwiep sees it as an effort to punish him for his role as a leading critic of the county’s transportation agenda.

This summer, Schwiep failed to persuade Miami-Dade commissioners to approve a Metrorail expansion in South Dade instead of the rapid-transit bus system proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. He remains a leading critic of another Gimenez initiative, expanding the 836 toll expressway about 13 miles into West Kendall.

“It’s really about our independence as a voter-created trust,” Schwiep said during a Nov. 15 meeting of the transportation board last week, when he took his seat even though lawyers said he was no longer a member. “Our independence is being challenged.”

Miami-Dade lawyer Annery Alfonso declared Schwiep off the board in a Nov. 7 email to Javier Betancourt, the board’s executive director. The action was first reported Nov. 14 in a critical blog post by Elaine DeValle, a political consultant and commentator on Miami politics.

In the email, Alfonso said Schwiep was aware his role as a lawyer in the action against the county would end his more than 10 years on the transportation board, including three as chairman. “We informed Mr. Schwiep that his filing of a legal action against the County which challenges a policy set by the [County Commission] would result in him relinquishing his seat,” Alfonso wrote.

The email also noted that Commissioner Joe Martinez, a top advocate of the State Road 836 extension, asked about the county ordinance governing legal actions by appointees to boards when the commission voted Oct. 2 to grant Schwiep another four years on the transportation board. At the time, the action against the 836 hadn’t been filed but was expected.

Schwiep said he asked about the provision to see if he could be an attorney on a related lawsuit against Miami-Dade over the 836 extension, filed by Friends of the Everglades. Given the county’s answer, Schwiep said he opted against working on that suit and instead represented the Audubon group in an anti-836 action that isn’t a lawsuit.

He’s the lawyer in an administrative complaint filed with Florida against Miami-Dade. It seeks a reversal of state approval of the project, which was also endorsed by the County Commission in September.

“The County Code recognizes the difference between lawsuits and administrative actions,” Schwiep wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to Alfonso. He said the action against him “appears to be no more than a pretext for the Administration’s retribution for my advocacy on the Trust and on issues of great concern in the County, including the extension of SR 836.”

In an interview days later, Gimenez said he was familiar with the potential ouster of Schwiep from the board but that he wasn’t aware the county lawyers were actually pursuing his removal. “The lawyers have informed him of that?” Gimenez said Nov. 15 when asked about Schwiep’s removal from the board.

Representatives of the mayor’s office and the county attorney said the Schwiep action originated from the commission and Schwiep’s own inquiries, not from the mayor’s staff.

While the clerk for the trust did not call Schwiep’s name during roll call at the Nov. 15 meeting, the matter hasn’t reached an official end. At that meeting, the other board members voted to ask the County Commission to waive the rule in question. It takes a two-thirds vote by the 13-member commission to waive it for any appointed board member.

The transportation-tax board worded the resolution to sidestep whether to accept the county attorney’s ruling on Schwiep’s ouster. Schwiep took his seat on the dais during the transportation board’s meeting and was not challenged by Miami-Dade lawyers.

Schwiep maintains he should still be considered a member of the board, but that he would be happy to have the County Commission end the controversy by granting a waiver.

“If they accept the trust’s recommendation, I would be grateful,” he said Monday. “And that would end the issue.”