Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

State Supreme Court orders do-over in Miami Gardens mayoral election

Former Miami Gardens mayoral candidate James Wright will get another shot at the ballot.
Former Miami Gardens mayoral candidate James Wright will get another shot at the ballot.

Miami Gardens must hold its mayoral election all over again after one of the candidates was wrongly disqualified from the race, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court ruled in favor of James Wright, who was disqualified as a candidate on the Aug. 30 ballot. It ordered that last month’s results — in which incumbent mayor Oliver Gilbert won reelection with 69 percent of the vote — be tossed and a new vote be held with Wright’s name on the ballot along with the three other candidates from the August race: Gilbert, former councilman Ulysses Harvard and political newcomer Clara Johnson.

The ruling also strikes down a section of state elections law related to candidate qualifying.

Wright now has two days, excluding the weekend, to pay the qualifying fee and be placed back into the race. Because the ruling came just as the county was readying the Nov. 8 ballots for the printer, the election would likely take place later in the month when other municipalities will have their runoffs from the Nov. 8 general election.

The court wrote that it recognized the financial and logistical hardship the ruling might place on the city, the state Legislature, the Miami-Dade elections department and the other candidates, but it was necessary to give voters a chance to make a decision.

“In this case, an irrational, as well as unreasonable and unnecessary restriction on the elective process has tainted the entire Miami Gardens election for the office of mayor by keeping the name of a candidate off the ballot, and therefore, beyond the reach of all the voters,” the Supreme Court wrote.

The court’s decision could also be a setback for Gilbert, who spent more than $90,000 on his reelection campaign. He did not return a call for comment Thursday.

“Now the hard work begins for the next leg of this race,” Wright said. “The courts have spoken. Let’s see what the people of Miami Gardens have to say about the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Wright, former Opa-locka police chief, was disqualified June 20 by City Clerk Ronetta Taylor. She said in a letter that the check Wright used to pay his qualification fee was returned to the city because the bank couldn’t find his campaign’s account number. State election law says if a check is returned for any reason, the candidate must be notified and given the opportunity to pay with a certified check but must do so before the qualifying period ends.

In Wright’s case, the bank didn’t return the check to the city for more than two weeks after qualifying ended. It was returned because of a bank error; Wright’s account was already open and he had funds to cover the check.

J.C. Planas, who represented Taylor and the city, said the court has set a dangerous precedent and should have made its decision before the Aug. 30 election was certified.

“The way they’re doing this opens the door for so many possibilities. What happens now if the other [qualifying] check bounces?” Planas said. “There are so many ways in which this is a power grab by the Supreme Court.”

After unsuccessfully suing at the Miami-Dade Circuit Court level, Wright appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, which upheld the lower court.

The Supreme Court, in its 6-1 opinion, said the current law is ambiguous and doesn’t offer a remedy for candidates if they’re disqualified.

“The statute effectively forecloses the candidacy of all otherwise qualified candidates who have done all they were required to do but have had their checks returned, not due to insufficient funds or some other matter within their control, but due to sheer bad luck resulting from a bank error totally beyond their control,” the Supreme Court’s ruling read.

Justice Ricky Polston offered a dissenting opinion and wrote that while the initial result was harsh, the court can’t rewrite statutes because they deem them unnecessary, unreasonable and arbitrary.

“By addressing and deciding the case based on a facial constitutional claim that was not raised or briefed by the parties, the majority becomes an advocate rather than a neutral decision maker,” Polston wrote.

Wright was Opa-locka’s top cop from 2005 until 2008. He also unsuccessfully competed in 2004 for the County Commission seat currently held by Barbara Jordan.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3