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Miami Commissioners vote to keep Victoria Méndez as City Attorney for only a few more months

City Attorney Victoria Mendez answers questions regarding legal action regarding the State’s budget requirements during a special commission meeting regarding the city’s budget at Miami City Hall on Monday, December 11, 2023.
Carl Juste
Miami Herald
City Attorney Victoria Méndez answers questions regarding legal action regarding the State’s budget requirements during a special commission meeting regarding the city’s budget at Miami City Hall on Monday, December 11, 2023.

During a heated and politically-charged meeting, Miami Commissioners voted Thursday not to immediately fire embattled City Attorney Victoria Méndez but only to extend her contract to give them more time find a permanent replacement.

The suggestion not to terminate Méndez immediate came from Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who said he didn't want her unceremoniously fired after two decades of service to the city.

"People who have been in the city for 20 years deserve certain deference," Reyes said from the dais. "I agree there is bad blood and we have to start fresh and new."

Reyes' resolution to delay terminating the city attorney passed by a narrow 3-2 vote. She will stay on the job until June.

Reyes, along with Commissioners Joe Carollo and Commissioner Christine King voted in the majority. Newly elected commissioners Miguel Gabela and Damian Pardo voted against it.

The push to fire Méndez came primarily from Gabela, who sponsored the agenda item to terminate her. He wanted Méndez removed sooner from the top post.

Gabela said Thursday that he could not trust Méndez and does not feel she was fairly representing him as a city commissioner, citing a lawsuit the city had filed against him claiming he did not qualify as a candidate. The city pursued the case even after Gabela was elected and sitting on the dais, and a court affirmed Gabela's candidacy.

READ MORE: The disputed signature at the centre of a lawsuit against Miami's city attorney

The two got into a heated argument during Thursday's meeting, in which Méndez said Gabela was trying to fire her for "doing [her] job."

During the public comment period, several speakers came to support the call for Méndez's termination, including local documentarian, Billy Corben.

"The reason why I've lasted over ten and a half years is because of my integrity," Méndez responded in a heated exchange with Corben.

Calls for Méndez's ouster from outside City Hall came on the heels of numerous scandals involving the city attorney, her family and her legal advice to City of Miami leaders.

Last March, WLRN reported on decades worth of questionable real estate transactionsbetween Méndez's husband, Carlos Morales, and the nonprofit Guardianship Program of Dade County.

The nonprofit’s purpose is to care for people, often elderly people with mental illnesses, who have been declared “incapacitated” by a court and have no one else to take care of them. As one means of raising funds for an incapacitated person’s care, the Guardianship Program can sell the person’s property, including their home, with a judge's permission.

WLRN found that Morales, in large part through his company, Express Homes, would buy incapacitated people’s homes from the Guardianship Program for cheap before quickly reselling them for major profits, sometimes only weeks or even days later.

Méndez's mother, Margarita Méndez, also had her own company that was involved in the same pattern of buying and selling Guardianship homes. Méndez herself served as served as president of that company in 2011, and was listed as vice-president from 2012 to 2019. The company, Gallego Homes, was dissolved after WLRN's reporting.

The City Attorney also came under fire after Commissioner Joe Carollo was hit with a $63.5 million civil verdict in federal court last summer. Little Havana businessmen William Fuller and Martin Pinilla successfully sued Carollo for using city power to harass the pair's businesses with code inspections and police raids because he had a political vendetta against them. As part of the trial, former Miami City Manager Emilio Gonzalez testified that Méndez gave him a list of Fuller's properties to inspect and research on behalf of Carollo.

Méndez also caught heat when it was revealed that Miami taxpayers were footing the bill for Carollo's attorneys fees in the lawsuit — fees that had run up to close to $2 million by last April. Méndez asserted that Carollo as a public official was entitled to legal representation at the public's expense, although federal appellate courts opined that Carollo's alleged actions went beyond the scopeof his duties as a City Commissioner.

More recently, the City of Miami had to hold an emergency budget meeting because of a precarious position they were placed in owing to legal advice from Méndez that contradicted state government guidance.

The state required the city to have a unanimous five-member commission vote to approve the budget at the tax rate they had set, but they only had four votes after the arrest and suspension of former Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla for alleged money laundering and official misconduct. Méndez issued a legal opinion that the city could still pass the budget with only four votes, but that turned out to be incorrect.

The commission had to meet on Dec. 11 to reapprove the budget to avoid the shortfall, and the newly elected commissioners pushed through a $25 million budget cut — but not without taking jabs at Méndez.

“Respectfully, I have asked for your resignation,” Gabela told Méndez said at the December meeting. “Because every time something happens in the city of Miami — there’s a hurricane — you seem to be caught right smack in the middle of that hurricane.”

Méndez has worked in the city since 2004, and has held the position of City Attorney since she was first appointed in 2013 after her former boss stepped down. She is paid a salary of about $300,000.

This was the second attempt to unseat Méndez in her 13-year career as Miami City Attorney.

Former Commissioner Ken Russell tried to remove her in 2016 for allegedly withholding public records from him relating to a controversial real estate deal. In an opinion column for the Miami Herald in 2016, Russell wrote that he had lost trust for Méndez and her method of defending the city.

Russell's effort died as he failed to gain support from his fellow commissioners. Speaking today, Russell said he stands by his words from eight years ago.

"The City Attorney should have been fired seven years ago, and there are plenty more reasons to fire her now," Russell told WLRN. "The bottom line is whether the current City Commission wants an attorney to protect their personal interests and wrongdoing, or if they want an advocate for the city that gives sound legal advice on which they can legislate and make good decisions."

Commissioner Joe Carollo apologized to Méndez for her removal, albeit delayed.

"Madam City Attorney, I am sorry for this that has happened to you now. You don’t deserve this at all. But God has a mysterious way of working sometimes," Carollo said.

The city will now create a committee to immediately seek out candidates and ultimately select a replacement for Méndez by the end of the five-month period. Méndez will continue in her role during the "transition" period.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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