Paul Schwiep is suing Miami-Dade to regain his seat on the board overseeing the county’s half-percent transportation tax, claiming his ouster at the urging of Mayor Carlos Gimenez was a “political power play” to punish him for opposing a major highway extension.
The lawsuit by the Coconut Grove attorney comes weeks after a County Commission committee declined to take up a request by the transportation board to grant Schwiep a waiver for his role representing an environmental group opposing the extension of the State Road 836 toll expressway into Kendall.
A Miami-Dade rule bars any member of a county board from filing a lawsuit challenging county policy, and the County Attorney’s office cited that provision in declaring Schwiep had surrendered his seat on the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust.
This week Schwiep filed suit against the board’s director, saying the county misinterpreted its own rules. He asked a judge to reinstate him to the CITT board.
“The actions of the Transportation Trust violated due process of law,” Schwiep’s suit states, arguing the County Attorney’s Office “for political reasons wanted to punish Plaintiff for representing opponents of the tollway...”
Gimenez, the top advocate for the 836 extension, wrote commissioners on Dec. 12 urging them to reject the proposed waiver for Schwiep.
“I ask the Board to strongly consider whether a person who is actively engaged in a lawsuit against our County, regarding policy decisions that this Board has made, is in the best position to serve in an advisory position,” Gimenez wrote. The next day, the commission’s Transportation committee declined to consider Commissioner Eileen Higgins’ motion to grant Schwiep the waiver requested by his fellow board members.
Voters created the CITT board in 2002 as part of a referendum that also authorized the “half-penny” sales tax to fund new transit and transportation projects.
The CITT board can force commissioners to approve some transportation budget items by a two-thirds vote but has only used that authority once. That was earlier this year when the board voted to end authorization to spend the half-percent tax on routine transit operations. Miami-Dade commissioners have yet to take up the board’s action, a delay that preserves the current rules on spending the tax dollars.
A Gimenez spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit. Javier Betancourt, the transit board’s director, also declined to comment on the suit, which was filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
In the suit, Schwiep and his lawyers argue the administrative action he helped the Tropical Audubon Society file against Miami-Dade with state regulators does not constitute a lawsuit, and so wouldn’t trigger disqualification under the county rules.
He also said that as a lawyer, he shouldn’t be considered to have “filed” anything against Miami-Dade, since Schwiep isn’t the plaintiff. He noted he represented a different environmental group in a 2013 suit against Miami-Dade, and his board seat wasn’t an issue.
County lawyers say Schwiep’s ouster was triggered by his own inquiry about what role Miami-Dade rules allowed him to play as a lawyer in opposing the 836 extension, which Miami-Dade commissioners approved in September.
The $1 billion road project into West Kendall would be funded through tolls collected by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, an independent toll board led by Gimenez, who holds one of the appointed seats and serves as chairman.
In court papers, Schwiep said he was asking a judge to rule on his eligibility for the transportation-tax board because “no neutral arbiter has been involved in the process to date.”