Miami Beach

Stymied in effort to fill empty seats, North Miami Beach commission can't take a vote

North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo (center) gathers with his attorneys in court on April 10. Vallejo pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation as part of a plea deal worked out in advance and resigned from office.
North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo (center) gathers with his attorneys in court on April 10. Vallejo pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation as part of a plea deal worked out in advance and resigned from office.

A week after Mayor George Vallejo resigned and pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws, North Miami Beach scrambled to fill a vacancy on the City Commission so the elected body had enough members to function. Only four of the commission's seven seats were filled and it needed at least five members present to take any action.

The city secured a last-minute order from a judge late Tuesday afternoon allowing recently ousted Commissioner Frantz Pierre to return for an emergency meeting so the commission could appoint a new member.

But moments after City Attorney Jose Smith finished assuring a packed auditorium at Tuesday night's meeting that "the city is totally the opposite of dysfunctional" — despite newspaper headlines to the contrary, he said — the situation in North Miami Beach got even more complicated.

One of the city's four remaining commissioners, Anthony DeFillipo, announced that he couldn't participate in the meeting.

"Our city is entering into very dangerous territory tonight," he said from the dais. "The City Commission has been asked to vote on something that is legally questionable at best and an outright violation of our charter and the state's Sunshine Law at worst."

DeFillipo said he had doubts about the legality of the agreement allowing Pierre to vote on a replacement commissioner. Pierre had been removed from the commission in January after a medical condition kept him from attending all but one city meeting in person over a period of several months. His ouster was followed by the resignation of Marlen Martell, who left to work for North Bay Village, and by Vallejo's legal troubles. That left the commission with just four members when it needs five to vote on city business.

"I will not participate in this commission meeting until I have assurance and credibility from third parties that we are doing something that is legal," DeFillipo said Tuesday night. "This is where I take a stand on behalf of our residents of our great city."

With that, the commissioner marched out of the meeting, leaving a shocked commission exactly where it had started — one vote shy of the number needed to fill a vacant seat.

"What could be more dysfunctional?" someone quipped from the audience.

For a city struggling to return to normalcy and repair its bruised reputation, the outcome of Tuesday's emergency meeting was a serious setback.

Vallejo's resignation and guilty plea last week embarrassed North Miami Beach, in part because Vallejo was the second mayor in a row to face criminal charges. Vallejo was placed on house arrest after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations. Prosecutors believe Vallejo and his wife used straw companies to divert thousands of dollars in donations to pay their personal bills.

Faced with a potential crisis that would have left the city of 44,000 without a government able to pass legislation, North Miami Beach officials came up with a plan to name a new commissioner to Martell's seat.

The city's legal staff asked the four remaining commissioners to come to City Hall on Monday evening with the hope that they would be able to appoint a fifth member to serve until the next general election.

In a letter to commissioners, Smith said the city's plan was supported by Florida case law. "The Florida Supreme Court has held that when it is impossible to conduct the public’s business because of a lack of quorum, the City may take action, consistent with the Charter, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents," he said.

But before the city could appoint a fifth commissioner, Pierre asked a judge to block the proceedings as he fights in court to regain his seat. Residents who gathered at City Hall Monday night for the emergency meeting were disappointed when Vice Mayor Beth Spiegel told a packed auditorium that a judge had ruled the meeting couldn't go forward.

By Tuesday evening, however, both parties had reached an agreement allowing Pierre to attend the rescheduled emergency meeting and vote on a replacement for Martell's seat.

"Commissioner Pierre continues to serve and represent the interests of the citizens and business of North Miami Beach," his attorney, Benedict Kuehne, said in an email Tuesday evening announcing the judge's decision. "The operation of the City in furtherance of the interests of its citizens remains a priority for Commissioner Pierre."

Pierre never got a chance to vote. Instead, the remaining city commissioners found themselves in the position of apologizing to the crowd for a second night in a row and assuring residents that North Miami Beach would continue to operate.

"I want to take a moment to reassure our residents, our stakeholders, our bondholders, the people interested in doing business in our city and developing in our city, our city continues to function," Spiegel said. "We hope that you continue to embrace our city the same way that we have embraced you. We will continue to provide services to you."

It's unclear when, or how, a fifth member will be appointed.

The city remains able to employ its workforce and provide services to residents without five voting members on the commission.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report