The Real Deal Miami

Commissioner’s call to fire Miami’s city attorney dies – for now

Victoria Mendez will still face ethics investigation

September 29, 2016 04:30PM
By Katherine Kallergis and Sean Stewart-Muniz

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Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez and Commissioner Ken Russell

Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez and Commissioner Ken Russell

Miami commissioner Ken Russell’s motion to fire city attorney Victoria Mendez for allegedly withholding public records from his office died at a special meeting on Thursday. 

Russell failed to get support from other commissioners after an hours-long public hearing on how Mendez handled a public records request related to the replatting of Coconut Grove land where developers want to build five luxury single-family homes.

“I don’t know what I would have done differently,” Russell said, adding that his issue was not about differences of legal opinion with Mendez. “This is about being left out in the dark.”

The dispute was brought to light about two weeks ago when Russell publicly called for Mendez’s firing at a commission meeting. He alleged the city attorney’s office withheld roughly two dozen relevant emails related to the replatting of a 50,000-square-foot property known as Battersea Woods.

Developers Gus De Ribeaux, Carlos Tosca and Carlos Sosa sought to subdivide the land into five lots, but the planning and zoning board ruled they needed a special permit known as a warrant to make it happen. A warrant would require a public hearing.

Mendez’s office later issued a contradictory opinion that removed the need for a warrant. Battersea Woods would only need to request a replat. The commission rejected that request last week.

Russell, whose district includes Coconut Grove, began looking into the issue and requested that Mendez provide emails related to the situation in advance of a private meeting. Later on, Russell said he requested the same records from the city’s information technology staff and received about two dozen relevant emails that were not included before. Among those are exchanges between Mendez and Berger Singerman attorney Javier Vazquez, who represented the developers.

During Thursday’s meeting, Russell’s fellow commissioners fell silent when he put forth his motion to fire the city attorney. The vote died after no other commissioners seconded it. However, Mendez will still be investigated by the county’s ethics commission, at her request.

“She should have the ability to answer all the questions that have been asked of her,” commissioner Willy Gort said. “I believe it should be independent individuals doing it, not ourselves here.”