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Doral mayor, council locked in legal battle with former city leaders over pension benefits

A woman in a pink suit speaks into a microphone
Christi Fraga
via X (former Twitter)
Doral Mayor Christi Fraga

Current Doral administration officials are locked in a battle over pension benefits with former elected officials in a fight some observers claim is just political theater.

Former Doral leaders have sued the city for dissolving a retirement plan for ex-elected officials who served a certain number of years. Doral’s current mayor, Christi Fraga, has urged those former leaders to drop their suit and “reflect on the impacts of [their] decisions.”

“I urge you to reconsider your actions and demonstrate true leadership by rescinding the lawsuit and returning the retirement plan money that was unlawfully awarded,” Fraga wrote in identical letters to Juan Carlos "JC" Bermudez, Pete Cabrera, Michael DiPietro and Sandra Ruiz earlier this month.

Critics have said the letter and the repeal are just meant to drum up publicity for Fraga’s upcoming re-election campaign, a claim the mayor denies.

A man in a suit stands outside a building ringed by palm trees
Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Doral's founding mayor, Juan Carlos "JC Bermudez, is locked in a legal battle with the current city administration over an elected officials retirement plan. Pictured here in 2016.

The lawsuit

One year ago, the current Doral City Council voted to do away with a pension plan created by city ordinance in 2021 that was meant for former elected officials who had reached retirement age.

An outside law firm hired by the current administration issued a report last April saying the pension plan was enacted improperly. The law firm said that no “actuarial analysis” was done on the plan to determine its financial impact on tax-paying Doral residents before it was approved by a 4-1 vote.

Under the plan, former elected officials who served eight years in office get 50% of their average salary over their last three years in office. Ex-elected officials, who served 12 years or more, receive 100% of their highest compensation.

In 2017, the Mayor made $68,365 annually, while each council member was paid $16,399. They each also received a non-accountable stipend to cover expenses in the amount of $30,000 each year, according to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Fraga told WLRN those numbers have since risen and that the mayor's current salary is $76,000, plus a stipend. Council members are paid $17,000 annually.

The current council members and mayor canceled the pension plan, effective May 11, 2023, and a group of former officials were told they would no longer receive the pension payments.

READ MORE: Doral council explores repealing retirement benefits for elected city officials

Four former Doral leaders, including ex-Mayor Bermudez — who currently serves on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners — subsequently sued the city.

“The Plaintiffs, four former Doral elected officials, have vested rights protected by the Florida Constitution and enforceable by Florida Statutes. Nevertheless … the Defendant City of Doral … unceremoniously terminated Plaintiffs’ benefits payments ‘effectively immediately,’” their complaint, dated June 23 of 2023, states. “They are entitled to damages as well as declaratory relief.”

The plaintiffs want the court to declare they have a right to continue receiving their pension, as well the right to monetary damages from the city in the amount that they’re owed since last May.

An attorney for the plaintiffs did not respond to WLRN’s request for comment.

The original ordinance to establish the retirement plan was removed from the city's website earlier this year — which Doral City Clerk Connie Diaz said happened erroneously.

Reached via email, Diaz said she would correct the error.

“First, let me start by clarifying that the record was not removed. We cannot (or will not) do that to an agenda that is a public record. I am not certain why the record is not pulling up. I will look into that and correct it,” she said, and provided a digital copy of the ordinance and memo to WLRN.

A mostly blank webpage with the text "The page you requested was removed."
Screenshot via City of Doral
The online meeting minutes of the January 13, 2021 Doral City Council meeting does not currently give access to the ordinance that created a pension plan for former elected officials, which is currently at issue in a lawsuit.

The letter

Fraga said she decided to send the letter to the former elected officials after a private “shade meeting” with the city council and their attorneys, the details of which she could not discuss.

“I felt compelled to really just call on the former elected officials of our city and ask them to really reflect and think about whether it was really with good intentions that this lawsuit moved forward,” Fraga told WLRN. "It’s going to cost the city a lot of money.”

Speaking to WLRN news partner the Miami Herald, Ruiz, the city's former vice mayor, accused Fraga of sending the letter as a “publicity stunt” related to the upcoming November election in Doral. Fraga is up for re-election after serving a half term of two years, since she ran in 2022 following Bermudez’s departure for the county commission.

Ruiz isn’t the only ex-councilmember claiming political antics.

Claudia Mariaca, who was the sole “no” vote on the pension plan in 2021, also believes this fight is more about publicity than fiscal responsibility.

“I think right now its being used as political rhetoric for an upcoming election,” Mariaca told WLRN. “I did not support [the pension plan] because I didn’t have all the information, but I think this is a lot of smoke and mirrors, and they should move on and worry about safety, traffic and all the other resident concerns.”

Fraga said repealing the pension plan has been her intention from the beginning.

“I have been committed to this cause from the day I got elected. It bothers me and it upsets me to see former elected officials who are quote-unquote ‘public servants’ taking from taxpayers,” she said.

The lawsuit is pending. The attorney for Doral is scheduled to depose the plaintiffs on May 23.

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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