Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi has won his reinstatement lawsuit against the town and current Mayor Wayne Slaton, although the judge who ruled in his favor issued a 30-day stay to allow the town time to file an appeal.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Gisela Cardonne Ely ruled on Tuesday afternoon that Pizzi can return immediately to his duties as mayor, and receive back payments, allowances and benefits from Aug. 13, 2013, to the present. The mayor’s position earns $18,000 annually, but that doesn’t include the cost of benefits, which Pizzi figures exceeds $40,000 when combined with salary.
“This a total and complete victory for democracy and the constitution and rule of law,” Pizzi said after the ruling. “The big winners are the people of Miami Lakes, who are getting their rightfully elected mayor back where he belongs, in town hall — where I should have never left.”
Pizzi has been fighting to return to the mayoral seat since being acquitted of federal bribery charges in August 2014.
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However, he will not be serving as the town’s mayor just yet. Ely issued a 30-day stay of her ruling, pending appellate review.
The town of Miami Lakes issued the following statement on Tuesday:
“We appreciate the court’s time on this issue. Important charter issues like these are almost never decided at the trial court level. The Town Council will be meeting with the Town Attorney over the next few days to discuss the next steps.”
Town Attorney Raul Gastesi said on Tuesday afternoon that the town will appeal the judge’s decision.
“We are disappointed with the decision, but we knew this would be a long process and we are filing an appeal,” said Gastesi. “We are asking the Third District Court of Appeal to put this appeal on an expedited track.”
He said that the case is about upholding the Town Charter and “not about individual mayors.”
Added Slaton: “I remain confident that our attorneys will be successful in the forthcoming appellate process.’’
Pizzi takes a different view.
“I call upon Mr. Slaton to have the class and dignity to step aside and stop wasting taxpayer money on this unconstitutional and illegal political vendetta,” Pizzi said. “The court has ruled in my favor once again; it’s time to end this nonsense.”
To date, Miami Lakes has spent $174,060.95 on legal fees in the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court case, breaking down as follows:
▪ Gastesi & Associates, P.A., the firm defending the Town of Miami Lakes: $42,808.45;
▪ Akerman, LLP, the firm defending Slaton: $106,577.50;
▪ Gelber Schachter & Greenberg, P.A., the firm that had been defending Town Clerk Marjorie Tejeda-Castillo: $24,675. The clerk was dismissed from the lawsuit on Feb. 13.
And Pizzi has asked the town to pick up his legal fees as well. That matter is unresolved. Pizzi estimates that his legal fees, which he says have yet to be determined, are a “decent amount.’’
The fight for the Miami Lakes mayoral seat began when federal agents arrested Pizzi on federal bribery charges in August 2013. On Aug. 6, 2013, Gov. Rick Scott suspended Pizzi from office.
At the time, Pizzi was serving his second four-year term as mayor, a term slated to end in November 2016. Pizzi had defeated Slaton in the 2012 election, securing 68 percent of the vote.
After Scott suspended Pizzi, the town held a special election in October 2013, within 90 days of Pizzi’s suspension, as required by the town's charter. Slaton, elected as the first mayor of Miami Lakes in 2001, was elected mayor.
In August 2014— a year after his arrest and suspension — Pizzi was acquitted of the federal corruption charges. When he attempted to get his old job back as mayor, Scott said that Slaton was elected as the rightful mayor. Pizzi then sued Scott to have his suspension lifted, citing state law. The law says that if an elected municipal leader is cleared of charges, “then the Governor shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore such municipal official to office.’’
In December, the Florida Supreme Court sided with Pizzi, forcing Scott to revoke Pizzi’s suspension. But neither Scott nor the high court reinstated Pizzi as mayor, as Pizzi’s legal team had only asked the court to order the governor to revoke his suspension.
Pizzi then filed a reinstatement lawsuit against the town, Slaton and Tejeda-Castillo in January. Ely ruled on that lawsuit Tuesday.
Scott’s handling of Pizzi’s case differs dramatically from his decision in August 2011 to quickly revoke the suspension of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
Spence-Jones had been suspended by Gov. Charlie Crist two years earlier after she was charged with corruption, and someone else was elected to her seat. Immediately after Spence-Jones was cleared, Scott issued an executive order clearing her to return.
She came back, filled out her term, and collected more than $200,000 in back pay and benefits.
The charters of both Miami and Miami Lakes are similar, although they don’t go into detail about whether an official should be reinstated after being acquitted of criminal charges and being absent for more than six months.
Meanwhile, Pizzi celebrated the judge's ruling with an impromptu victory party Tuesday at Miller's Ale House in Miami Lakes. Dozens chanted Pizzi's name when he walked into the establishment, and took turns congratulating and taking photos with him.
"From the first day to today, the people of Miami Lakes, you guys, you never left left my side. I love you, thank you so much," Pizzi said.