In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Coral Gables leaders decided to take an aggressive stance and issued fines to Florida Power & Light over slow power restoration. The city’s legal team is now drafting a lawsuit against the state’s main power utility that could be filed in the next few weeks.
With the pending lawsuit, FPL would join a recent list of legal action from the City Beautiful, ranging from the vacation rental company Flipkey to social networks like Facebook and Instagram.
The city’s legal team usually settles these cases before trial, including the case against Flipkey, but some critics wonder if their litigious ways are too overreaching. On social media the Gables’ actions against FPL have drawn criticism and cries of “first-world problems” against the mostly affluent city.
“Coral Gables is far reaching with this one. We should be lucky we only got [Category] 1 winds,” Twitter user Alex Vaughn said.
City Attorney Craig Leen said he hopes the dispute with FPL is eventually settled. He doesn’t think the city has been overreaching in taking action against the power company.
“The idea that no one should file a complaint just means that the same thing will happen again,” Leen said. “We’re doing what government should do, we’re protecting our residents.”
And whether the city is taking on power companies or trying to get information on critical Facebook posts, it has devoted $1.3 million — a little more than half of the city attorney’s proposed budget — to special legal services to pay for outside legal counsel.
That amount was in a separate account and wasn’t included in the office’s budget before 2016. Leen said those outside counsel costs also include things like addressing abandoned properties and negotiating the city’s pension plan.
“My office has done well managing special counsel fees and has added a lot of value to the city from the positive outcomes we have received in so many disputes.” Leen said in a text message.
In a statement, FPL described the city’s cease-and-desist fines and their potential lawsuit as “ludicrous.” About 75 percent of affected customers had their power restored in the city earlier this week, but the power utility did not meet the originally promised Sept. 17 target for power to be restored to all customers.
“Our focus is on restoring power to all of our customers, and we will not be moved by self-entitled politicians who are looking for someone to blame,” the Sept. 19 FPL statement read.
The company also attempted to link a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of residents against FPL to City Commissioner Frank Quesada, as one of the plaintiffs works at the same law firm. Quesada said that he doesn’t plan to vote if the Gables files a lawsuit, but thinks the city’s action was appropriate.
“I don’t think it’s too much. The businesses and the residents are the ones that suffered from the downtime,” Quesada said.
The city was also involved in a case with the cities of Miami, South Miami and Pinecrest over a plan to place transmission lines along U.S. 1. That plan was eventually tossed out by the Third District Court of Appeals.
“We’ve been living these fights for years with FPL,” Quesada said, adding that the city hopes to pursue plans to place power lines underground.
Residents like Juan Carlos Diaz-Padron applauded the city’s decision to challenge FPL, but he thinks some of the other legal battles, like the cases against Facebook and Instagram, might not be worth the fight.
“I think those are a little more frivolous. I think a lawsuit with FPL about power and life safety is different than trying to get info from Instagram,” Diaz-Padron said.
The lawsuit against the social networks is centered on two anonymous groups that posted a video criticizing the city’s hiring of security officers to help patrol parts of the city. The posts included surveillance video of a woman being beaten up, though the incident actually happened years ago in Seattle.
The networks took down the posts at the city’s request, but they city decided to proceed with the lawsuit. In that case, as with most legal action in the city, the decision to proceed came from the City Commission.
“I think it’s important for people to know that if you’re going to try and defame the city that’s not going to fly,” Quesada said.
The Gables is also the same government that had a ban over pickup trucks almost make it to the state Supreme Court several years ago. City residents eventually voted to overturn the ban.
That case drew national attention and was mentioned on “The Colbert Report” in 2008.
Most recently, the city issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Miami-Dade school district over developing a school in the city.
The dispute centers on plans to expand the Henry S. West Laboratory School. Gables leaders argue that the district needs to follow the city’s strict zoning process before building.
The meeting to potentially settle that case was delayed by the hurricane and no lawsuit appears to be in the works — at least not at the moment.
“Yes, we have been more aggressive and been the plaintiff in a lot of cases, but there are some things I think are worth pursuing,” Quesada said.