Miami commissioner wants city attorney fired over Coconut Grove zoning issue

Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez and Commissioner Ken Russell
Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez and Commissioner Ken Russell

A Miami commissioner is alleging that the city attorney withheld emails from him regarding a zoning issue and fast-tracked a controversial project in Coconut Grove. And now the commission will hire independent counsel to review the situation and offer an outside opinion that could lead to her being fired.

Commissioner Ken Russell called for City Attorney Victoria Mendez’s firing early Thursday morning at a commission meeting, as well as an investigation into how her office handles zoning issues and public records requests, the Miami Herald first reported.

Battersea Woods LLC, led by developers Gus De Ribeaux, Carlos Tosca and Carlos Sosa, want to redevelop a roughly 50,000-square-foot property they own in the Grove into five single-family homes. But in order to do that, they needed a special permit, also known as a warrant. The developer approached the city attorney’s office, which eventually issued a new opinion that removed the warrant requirement. With a warrant no longer needed, Battersea Woods requested and is still requesting that the commission re-plat the property.

Russell looked into the issue, which involves the city attorney, the developers’ attorney and the city’s planning and zoning department. His chief of staff emailed Mendez, requesting that she provide emails related to the situation in advance of a meeting. Later on, Russell said he requested the same records from the city’s IT 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, according to the Herald’s Naked Politics blog.

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“The fact that I was not given the story that I asked for is what I have a problem with,” Russell said. He delayed the commission re-plat vote twice, and now a third time until later this month. He said there were holes in Mendez’s story, and sponsored the motion to hire outside counsel.

Mendez said no information was withheld, and that it was a misunderstanding. She suggested the county’s ethics commission conduct an investigation, but Russell said he preferred an independent legal opinion.

“My trust in this system is broken,” he said.

The commission will decide on legal counsel at the next meeting later this month.