The final phase of the Miami Lakes mayoral saga is in Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely’s hands.
On March 18, Ely will hear arguments one last time before making the definitive decision between Mayor Wayne Slaton and former Mayor Michael Pizzi.
Whomever the judge rules in favor of will serve as the town mayor until November 2016 unless the verdict gets overthrown by an appeals court. In the event of an appeal, Ely’s choice would be mayor until another judge decides otherwise.
The town and Slaton are the defendants in a reinstatement lawsuit that was filed by Pizzi in January. Pizzi has been fighting to regain his position as mayor ever since he was acquitted on federal bribery charges in August.
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When the parties met in court last month, the town made a motion to get the case thrown out, but it was rejected by Ely. Instead, she asked the defense to explain why Pizzi shouldn’t be reinstated to his former position, giving them until March 2 to file an order to show a cause document.
Pizzi’s legal team had until March 9 to file a response.
Both sides submitted their paperwork by their deadlines.
In their papers, both parties cited the Town Charter, state law, previous court rulings and other legal documents to support their differing positions.
Attorneys for the town and Slaton maintain the argument that Slaton’s victory in an October 2013 special election made him Pizzi’s permanent replacement. Their position is that Pizzi’s tenure in office expired upon Slaton’s win.
“Not only does Mayor Slaton have better title to the office of mayor, he is the only person entitled to the office until November 2016,” the document said. “This is because Mr. Pizzi’s term as mayor expired.”
In their response, Pizzi’s legal team asserted that Slaton is Pizzi’s temporary replacement and that Pizzi is entitled to finish his second four-year term, which he was in the middle of serving when he was arrested.
“Because Mayor Pizzi was acquitted before the term of office to which he was elected expired, Florida law mandates Mayor Pizzi’s return to office,” their legal papers said.
The judge’s action in this case echoes one made by the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered Gov. Rick Scott to provide a show cause document when Pizzi sued him in order to get his suspension from office revoked. The suspension was later lifted.
“Really it is now the town that has been ordered by the court to explain why they’ve been keeping me from office, and they don’t have a good explanation,” Pizzi said. “I fully expect to be back in the mayor’s office by the end of March.”
This isn’t the first time the pair have fought for the mayoral seat. In 2012, Pizzi beat Slaton in a mayoral election by taking about 68 percent of the vote.
This current fight has its roots in Pizzi’s August 2013 arrest on federal bribery charges, which led to his suspension from office. At the time, he was serving his second four-year term, slated to end in November 2016.
Slaton became mayor after winning the town’s October 2013, special election, which under the town charter was required to take place within 90 days of Pizzi’s suspension.
In August 2014, Pizzi was found not guilty of the bribery charges. But when he attempted to resume his former role, he was denied. That’s when he sued the governor to have his suspension lifted.
Scott revoked Pizzi’s suspension in December, following a Florida Supreme Court decision. Neither Scott nor the high court reinstated Pizzi to the mayoral seat, as Pizzi never specifically asked to be reinstated as mayor.
After his suspension was lifted, Pizzi sued the town, Slaton and town clerk Marjorie Tejeda-Castillo, demanding to be reinstated, along with back pay for his time away from office and compensation for legal fees.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the counts against the clerk — along with a couple of other counts attached to the suit — were dismissed.
To date, Miami Lakes has racked up about $244,060 in legal fees associated with this case and other legal actions regarding Pizzi’s reinstatement.
These fees are coming from the town’s reserves.
“The total amount allocated is less than [5 percent] of the town’s reserves,” said Nicole Lesson, the town’s spokesperson, via email. “We hope we will not be forced to use it all, but we have a responsibility and an obligation to defend challenges being raised regarding our Town Charter and to ensure the integrity of the municipality and it’s government moving forward.”