Commissioner Ken Russell: Commission must stand for integrity — and fire Miami’s city attorney

Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez confers with Commissioner Frank Carollo during a 2014 commission meeting.
Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez confers with Commissioner Frank Carollo during a 2014 commission meeting. El Nuevo Herald

Thursday, I will ask my fellow Miami commissioners to vote with me to remove City Attorney Victoria Méndez.

Last month, despite a direct and specific request from my staff, Méndez unquestionably withheld documents from my office. These documents eventually revealed how she helped a lobbyist change zoning decisions in favor of a client without following the public process. This will be the topic of discussion and an eventual decision by commissioners at our meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. Thursday at City Hall.

Those who have known me over the past few months may find this out of character. I am typically the mediator, erring on the side of patience and understanding. However, I have an inability to find a middle ground on black-and-white matters of right and wrong.

City Attorney Méndez has a responsibility to her client, the City Commission, and we in turn have a responsibility to the public. Yet time and again, when we find the city and its residents on opposite sides of the table, she advises to prioritize legal liability over moral responsibility. This was her approach when it was found that contaminated soil from our parks might also exist in neighboring homes. It was echoed in her strong position against allowing citizens to have standing that would force the city to follow its own charter.

The city attorney has promoted a culture where our city is constantly looking for complex legal strategy to keep us from having to defend the substance of our actions. Wouldn’t it be easier for us just to not violate our own charter in the first place?

I have spoken with Méndez, and she has warned me that I will not have the votes to remove her. Inevitably, her supporters have begun a counterattack on my staff. Some say she misunderstood the records request. Some allege a conspiracy against her. She contends that I am inexperienced and simply don’t understand how things are done. These distractions have muddied the process, but they have only confirmed that I am here exactly for the purpose of making decisions like this.

Our decision on Thursday morning is not an easy one, but it is very simple. Our attorney withheld public records, and I have lost my trust in her. This cannot be denied, and it’s enough to call for her removal. What’s at stake, however, is much greater. The commission has this opportunity to tell the public that we prioritize transparency and accountability — that we don’t agree that friends in high places should be able to circumvent our public process.

I know that my colleagues in the City Commission take no joy in having to fire someone they have worked closely with for years. I also know that, just like me, they want to be on the side of transparency and integrity. I look forward to their support.

Ken Russell represents District 2 on the Miami City Commission.