Miami-Dade County

The village commission removed him from office. Now a local court says that was illegal

Douglas Hornsby
Douglas Hornsby

After a year in office as a North Bay Village city commissioner, Douglas Hornsby was told he was ineligible for his post and removed. Citing 30-year-old felony charges that brought his voting rights into question, commissioners voted him out in January 2018.

Last week, a Miami-Dade circuit court found that his dismissal was illegal, saying he had been denied due process because he wasn’t given adequate notice of the meeting.

There is no open seat for Hornsby, who occupied an elected position that has since been filled. Instead, attorneys on both sides must meet with him to “determine what is fair treatment,” said Village Mayor Brent Latham.

“I’ll never outlive this,” Hornsby said. “It was just wrong.”

The ruling is the latest development in a multi-year saga of political scandals under former Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps in the town of 8,400 people.

Leon-Kreps was term-limited out in November 2018. Latham was elected to replace her. Now, said Latham, he and the current commission have “to clean up the mess that the previous administrators and commission made.”

Hornsby’s story begins in December 2016, when Leon-Kreps tapped him to fill an empty commission seat mid-term. Hornsby was a longtime friend of the mayor.

Leon-Kreps placed one condition on Hornsby’s appointment, he said: Fire city manager Frank Rollason. Though Rollason was also initially Leon-Krep’s pick, Hornsby said she told him Rollason was no longer living up to her expectations. (Leon-Kreps denied she set that condition.) Hornsby said he refused to agree to fire Rollason without reviewing his performance, and later determined that he was up to par.

In spring 2017, Hornsby received a letter in his mailbox he later called a blackmail attempt. The anonymous letter contained a record of his arrest and conviction for selling cocaine in Tennessee in 1989, as well as a question about his voter eligibility as a convicted felon. He said he saw the letter as an threat; if he didn’t fire Rollason, he’d be forced out.

Hornsby said he suspected Leon-Kreps or her friends left the letter in his mailbox. She denied any involvement.

Instead of waiting for someone else to expose it, he disclosed his criminal history to the commission, providing a note from a Tennessee court that said his voting rights had been restored. City attorney Robert Switkes advised the commission to allow Hornsby to continue to serve.

“I specifically confirmed with the elections department and with the [Miami]-Dade County Attorney’s Office that he was eligible to hold office,” Switkes said.

That only bought Hornsby seven more months in office. A group of residents — including Laura Cattabriga, who would later take Hornsby’s seat — filed a lawsuit to push the city to review Hornsby’s eligibility.

Meanwhile, Leon-Kreps moved to fire Switkes, saying she had lost confidence in him following his “bad advice” regarding Hornsby’s eligibility. A police detective began an investigation into the anonymous letter, and the probe was eventually passed on to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Memphis circuit court records show that Hornsby didn’t petition for the reinstatement of his full citizenship rights until after he received the letter with his criminal history. His voting rights were reinstated, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department, but not until eight months after he was appointed to the commission and two months after he informed its members of his criminal history.

In January 2018, under the advice of the new city attorney, Norman Powell, the commission voted to dismiss Hornsby in a special meeting called only three days before. If he was ineligible to register as a voter in Florida, he was ineligible to serve as a village commissioner, Powell said.

Hornsby filed suit. On July 24, the circuit court ruled that the special meeting violated the Village charter in not providing adequate notice of the meeting and failed to provide Hornsby due process.

The ruling did not address whether Hornsby’s initial appointment was valid, and the current city attorney — no longer Powell — did not respond to requests for information on what happens next.

Powell, the former city attorney who advised the commission to dismiss Hornsby, stands by his January 2018 recommendation, arguing that Hornsby, as an ineligible commissioner, was not entitled to due process.

Hornsby maintains that the ruling means he technically is still a commissioner, and that he had his voting rights throughout his term. A radiologist, Hornsby said the exposure of his criminal record caused him to lose a $36,000-a-month contract. More than the money, however, Hornsby worries his reputation has been irreparably damaged.

“Where do you go to get your name back?” he said.

Investigators closed the investigation into the anonymous letter, saying that because it did not contain an explicit quid pro quo, it could not be considered blackmail. They also found no evidence that Leon-Kreps was involved.

Cattabriga, involved in the suit, declined to comment for this article. Leon-Kreps could not be reached.

To Switkes, the other former city attorney, the July 24 ruling is vindication.

“He is absolved of any of the allegations against him which were cruel and totally politically motivated by greed and arrogance,” he said.

But Hornsby, who choked up when talking about the aftermath of the political affair, said he just wants order to be restored. He’s proud of the current administration, he said, which he thinks is doing a fair job.

“I just want my neighbors to be neighbors again,” Hornsby said.