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'Democracy has no price': After stalemate, Miami City Commission agrees on special election for District 2 vacancy

The Miami City Commission convened on a Saturday to decide how to replace District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell.
Photo by Joshua Ceballos
The Miami City Commission convened on a Saturday to decide how to replace District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 8

Proponents for a special election in District 2 won out this Sunday, as the Miami City Commission voted unanimously — after much debate — to let residents choose their next commissioner.

A special meeting held Saturday to address the vacancy left by former Commissioner Ken Russell spilled over into Sunday afternoon when the remaining four commissioners could not reach a consensus.

Russell represented District 2 since 2015, but was required by law to resign late last year after running for Congress, though he did not win the election.

The commission was at a stalemate over how to deal with Russell's vacancy — whether they should appoint a replacement themselves or let the voters decide through a special election. They had until 5 p.m. on Sunday to appoint a commissioner.

Commissioners Joe Carollo and Alex Diaz de la Portilla argued that calling a special election was too expensive — with the high-end estimate at $330,000 — and would take too long for a candidate who would only be in office until the November elections. Diaz de la Portilla also noted that it was the commission's right by the city charter to appoint a replacement for Russell.

Meanwhile, commissioners Christine King and Manolo Reyes staunchly stood by the statement that "democracy has no price" and the people should choose their representative.

READ MORE: Community leaders want special election for Miami commission vacancy

Pushing back against Diaz de la Portilla's vehement support for appointment, Reyes called back to the commission's discussion in November of 2020, when they had to deal with the vacancy in District 5 left by outgoing Commissioner Keon Hardemon.

"I would argue that District 5 deserves a voice and if they don't have a voice, I don't want to be part of that decision of four commissioners picking for 20% of our population that's not being represented before this dais," Diaz de la Portilla said at the time. "Just because it's in the charter doesn't make it the right, moral thing to do."

"Mr. Diaz de la Portilla, my dear commissioner, when we were choosing the replacement for that vacancy, I made a mistake. I should have voted with you, who adamantly and very passionately, asked for a special election," Reyes said from the dais on Sunday.

The commission held several unsuccessful votes, but just before the 5 p.m. deadline to nominate a replacement — after which there would be no option but a special election — Carollo flipped his vote. He said he was still against the idea of an election, but if there was no other option they should get on with scheduling one immediately.

With Carollo's flip, Diaz de la Portilla followed suit. The commission voted 4-0 to call a special election for Monday, Feb. 27. Prospective candidates have until Friday, Jan. 13 to apply for candidacy with the City Clerk's office.

"The people should decide who their representative should be."
Miami Commission Chairwoman Christine King

House of Representatives-like stalemate on Saturday

The decision came after a U.S. House of Representatives-like stalemate on Saturday trying to decide how to replace their former colleague on the city commission.

Commissioners Joe Carollo, Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Christine King, and Manolo Reyes battled it out on the dais over whether to appoint a replacement for Ken Russell — who resigned late last month — or call for a special election where residents of Miami's District 2 would choose their own representation.

The Saturday morning special meeting, called just a day before the commission's deadline to appoint Russell's replacement, lasted into the evening with little progress to show for the nearly six hours of deliberation.

After hearing from 16 applicants for the seat and going through hours of public comment, the elected commissioners were split down the middle with how to proceed.

Commissioner Reyes said from the dais that he had to "vote [his] conscience" and ask for a special election on behalf of the people of District 2. He offered to donate money from his office's funds to reduce the cost of a special election, which is estimated (at the high-end) to cost about $330,000.

Commissioner King, who herself was a candidate for appointment to District 5 in 2020, said she has stayed steadfast in her position that an election is the right way to go.

"The people should decide who their representative should be," King said from the dais.

On the other side of the argument were Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla.

Carollo argued that a special election would be too costly and take too much time for someone who would only serve until general elections this November. Carollo said he liked several of the candidates who applied for the position, but would throw his lot with whomever King chose, in an effort to push her to appoint.

Diaz de la Portilla contended that the people of District 2 need representation right away, and shouldn't have to wait the time it would take to do an election.

In a moment that resembled the recent litany of unsuccessful votes for U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the commissioners went through four ballots with the same result: Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla voting to appoint, Reyes and King choosing no appointment. Without a majority of three votes for one candidate, the votes failed.

Though King wanted to call for a special election after the first unsuccessful ballot because she and Reyes did not plan to change their positions, Carollo and Diaz de la Portilla pushed for more rounds of voting until someone changed their mind.

"It doesn't matter how many rounds. It could be 25 rounds," Diaz de la Portilla said from the dais.

After multiple breaks, the commission finally decided to adjourn the meeting just before 6 p.m. and postpone their decision until Sunday at 2 p.m. Diaz de la Portilla said King would have time to reflect overnight and he hoped she would change her mind and move for an appointment.

Scores of public commenters came to speak before the commissioners adjourned.

While some speakers pleaded with commissioners to hold a special election and give them a voice, others gave vocal endorsements to a few of the 16 people who put their names in to be considered for appointment.

A number of commenters spoke on behalf of applicant Martin Zilber, a former Miami-Dade County judge who resigned in 2021 following accusations that he was missing work and making his assistants do personal errands. Diaz de la Portilla indicated his preference was to appoint Zilber. Last year, an ethics panel found probable cause that Diaz de la Portilla used a city employeeto run personal errands for him.

Other commenters endorsed James Torres, a downtown community activist and president of Miami's Downtown Neighbors Alliance.

Other notable applicants include Kendall Coffey, former U.S. Attorney the Southern District of Florida, who resigned after beingaccused of biting a nightclub dancer.

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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