Miami-Dade County

Judge orders questioning of Miami over county courthouse

Miami-Dade’s civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is 86-years-old and under repair from the top floor to the basement.
Miami-Dade’s civil courthouse at 73 W. Flagler St. is 86-years-old and under repair from the top floor to the basement. Miami Herald Staff

A 40-year bureaucratic paper trail became the subject of a brief court fight on Wednesday. A lawyer allied with a campaign to raise taxes for a new Miami-Dade courthouse won the right for an emergency deposition of city officials over inspection documents for the county’s existing 1928 facility.

On Aug. 7, a Miami inspector posted a notice to “Repair or Demolish” the county-owned courthouse because it lacked a current building certificate required to be renewed every 10 years. The courthouse’s certificate apparently hasn’t been valid since at least 1976, when county and city records show a renewal attempt stalled without any final action.

Bob Martinez, a lawyer helping to pass the $390 million ballot item for a new courthouse, filed suit this week to obtain documents explaining the timing of Miami’s violation notice. He compared the notice to an “immaculate conception,” since Miami was unable to show him why it appeared when it did, weeks before the courthouse ballot item was approved by county commissioners on its way to voters.

“I’m frankly suspicious this [records] search was comprehensive,” Martinez, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, told Circuit Court Judge Marc Schumacher during a Wednesday hearing.

Miami-Dade owns and maintains the courthouse, which is administered by state judges. The building falls under Miami building regulations, and must obtain city safety and occupancy certifications.

In an email, Miami’s top attorney, Victoria Méndez, said Miami-Dade essentially flagged the certification lapse for the city, prompting the posting. “The County advised us that the 40 year cert was due and that is why the notice was issued,” she wrote in response to an inquiry by the Miami Herald.

Méndez said the county told the city of the issue in August, and county records show Miami-Dade was in the process of seeking bids to renew the courthouse’s certification.

The backstory behind the Aug. 7 violation is unlikely to alter the general consensus that the moldy, crowded courthouse is in disrepair. It leaks, entire floors are closed off, and support columns need about $25 million in work to ensure the structural safety of a building that once housed a trial of Al Capone.

But the issue of the city’s “Repair or Demolish” notice is ripe with political intrigue, given the players in the courthouse fight.

Leading the fight against the courthouse plan is Raquel Regalado, a School Board member and daughter of Miami’s mayor, Tomás Regalado. She’s already announced she won’t be seeking another term, and she’s widely talked about eying a run for either city mayor to succeed her father or county mayor to unseat Carlos Gimenez.

Advocates of the courthouse push have accused Regalado of trying to shield her father’s administration from any responsibility for the current disrepair of the courthouse. Regalado sees dragging the city into the debate as a distraction from her argument against what she calls a hastily crafted plan to win a tax increase.

“I asked the [county] commissioners to investigate what happened with that building,” she said. “If that means the city or my father is to blame, so be it.”

The morning of the court hearing, Jorge Luis Lopez, the County Hall lobbyist and lawyer leading the courthouse campaign, posted a message to both Regalados on his Twitter account that read: “Plenty of blame to go around; public records will soon reveal. Miami politics as usual, SAD!”

Wednesday’s hearing took place in the courthouse at the center of the debate, and the courtroom’s august wooden doors weren’t enough to keep out the din of people chatting in the sixth-floor lobby on the other side. Miami-Dade judges (but not Schumacher) have taken a lead role in the public push for a new courthouse, and the campaign is funded and managed by the county’s legal community.

Over city objections, Judge Schumacher granted Martinez’s request to depose Miami officials and ordered the questioning to start hours later. By 1 p.m., Martinez was in a city conference room questioning city inspector Frank Rodriguez over why he posted the courthouse notice when he did.

Rodriguez said a supervisor had asked him to check a city database to see whether the courthouse address showed a current certification. When the computer search showed that it didn’t, Rodriguez said the notice was automatically generated and he attached it to the courthouse as happens regularly for about 10 buildings a day throughout the city.

“I haven’t been inside the building,” Rodriguez said of the courthouse. When Martinez asked who was in charge of actually inspecting the building for compliance to code regulations, Rodriguez replied: “The owner.”

Martinez also deposed a city fire inspector over safety compliance at the courthouse. When Martinez asked Lt. Bob Barea whether the courthouse had received a safety inspection, he replied: “I can’t tell you,” because the inspector with responsibility for that part of Miami retired earlier in the month.

“The testimony from the fire department was astonishing,” Martinez said afterward. “There are no records indicating there was ever a fire-safety inspection.”