Earlier this year, Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez resigned in order to run for Congress. Now that Rosen Gonzalez is out of the race, however, some residents are asking city officials to put the commissioner back in office.
It’s an unusual situation created by a recently expanded resign-to-run law that forced Rosen Gonzalez to choose between her city post and a long-shot congressional bid. Rosen Gonzalez submitted her resignation in April, after losing a lawsuit to block the state from applying the law to her candidacy, but she doesn’t officially step down until Jan. 3. She is now out of the congressional race for the seat vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen after finishing third in the August Democratic primary.
Rosen Gonzalez’s resignation leaves the Miami Beach commission with two options: appoint a replacement or hold a special election to let the voters decide on an interim commissioner. The new commissioner would serve the remainder of Rosen Gonzalez’s four-year term, which ends in November 2019.
Although the City Commission can’t vote on a replacement until January, some Miami Beach residents have already started campaigning for a third option: Allow Rosen Gonzalez to stay in office.
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At least one neighborhood group, the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association in South Beach, passed a resolution last week urging the commission to reappoint Rosen Gonzalez to her soon-to-be vacant seat. A number of politically influential Beach residents, including former Mayor Matti Bower and longtime activist Frank Del Vecchio, are also advocating for the reappointment.
Pollsters have been calling Beach residents this week to ask their opinions on a possible reappointment, along with a host of other questions about city issues. It’s unclear who is paying for the polling, but Rosen Gonzalez insists that it isn’t her.
Even with resident support, however, it will likely be a challenge for the commissioner to convince her colleagues to vote for her reappointment. Rosen Gonzalez has few allies on the commission, where she would need to get four of the remaining six votes in order to retain her seat.
Supporters of the idea argue that the City Commission should honor the wishes of voters, who elected Rosen Gonzalez in 2015 before the state law was amended to force elected officials to resign in order to run for federal office. The resign-to-run law, which previously covered only state and local races, was expanded this year in part to save taxpayer money. The special elections triggered when an elected official wins a congressional seat and resigns, creating the need for a replacement, can cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now that Rosen Gonzalez is no longer in the congressional race, supporters argue that she should be allowed to continue serving as a city commissioner.
“For me it’s a no-brainer that the duly-elected representative should be the one appointed to that seat because the reason for her resigning no longer exists,” said Mark Needle, a member of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. “She’s eligible to serve. She was chosen by the voters. I see no reason for some of the commissioners to substitute their judgment for the voters’ judgment.”
Supporters also say that they’d like Rosen Gonzalez to remain on the commission because they can count on her to challenge her colleagues on the dais. The commissioner, who is often critical of major development projects, has garnered the support of a contingent of Beach voters concerned about the pace of development on the island.
“She’s been an independent voice willing to challenge authority,” said Del Vecchio. “I think she can be counted on to be outspoken and raise the issues.”
That outspokenness has sometimes gotten Rosen Gonzalez into trouble, however. In an e-mail sent to the city manager after a 2017 shooting in South Beach, for example, Rosen Gonzalez argued that Miami Beach should stop its body camera program and “give the cops back their bullets.” She was also the subject of an ethics complaint last year alleging that she used her official position to intervene in the police investigation of a political supporter. The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics scolded Rosen Gonzalez for a “lapse in judgment,” but ultimately cleared her in the probe.
Nothing in Miami Beach’s charter or the state’s resign-to-run law would prevent the commission from reappointing Rosen Gonzalez.
Florida Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, one of the sponsors of the legislation that expanded the resign-to-run law, said he didn’t think that reappointing a commissioner would violate the spirit of the law. Hutson had hoped that voters would be able to elect replacement candidates at regularly scheduled elections in August or November, but said that if a city charter didn’t allow that, he didn’t see a legal problem with a reappointment. Hutson’s intentions in expanding the law, he added, were to save taxpayers money on special elections and to create more “clarity and transparency” in the process of replacing officeholders.
“We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last couple of years for people to seat jump,” he said.
But even without legal hurdles, Rosen Gonzalez faces an uphill battle.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who often clashes with Rosen Gonzalez, said that he wouldn’t vote to reappoint his colleague because he feels that she “abandoned” her job as a commissioner while running for Congress.
“She routinely misses meetings, she blows off agenda reviews and she’s really not been a constructive member of the decision-making of this body these last two years because she’s been busy running for Congress,” Arriola said. “We should give it to someone who really wants to do the job,” he added.
Rosen Gonzalez missed a number of meetings during her congressional campaign, including meetings to discuss the city’s budget and a proposed general obligation bond program. The commissioner noted that she had attended “every meeting where there was a definitive vote,” however.
Rosen Gonzalez’s closest ally on the commission, Michael Góngora, said he would “feel comfortable” with reappointing Rosen Gonzalez or with appointing “a qualified resident — most likely a former Commissioner — to fill out the short term provided they agree not to run for re-election.”
“If the city commission does not reappoint [Rosen Gonzalez] then we set aside the will of the voters in 2015 who elected her to the Group IV seat for four years,” Góngora said in an e-mail.
The other commissioners declined to comment on the possibility of reappointing their colleague.
Rosen Gonzalez insisted that she hadn’t instigated the push for her reappointment and said she was “touched” by residents’ efforts to keep her in office.
“When I ran for Congress I was hoping to represent Miami Beach at a higher level,” she said. “I love the city and would love to keep serving if it’s possible.”
The commissioner wouldn’t say whether she plans to run for another four-year term in November 2019. “Whether I remain in electoral politics or activist politics will be a decision I will make in the future,” she said in a text message.
Rosen Gonzalez’s immediate political future will be decided early next year. The City Commission will have a month to appoint someone to fill her seat after the resignation takes effect on Jan. 3. If commissioners “fail or refuse” to fill the vacancy, according to the city’s charter, Miami Beach would hold a special election, which would cost the city more than $300,000, according to a memo from the city attorney’s office.