Community leaders want special election for Miami commission vacancy
Residents of Miami’s District 2, which includes downtown, Coconut Grove and much of the city’s coastal land, will be without elected representation come January.
Commissioner Ken Russell, who has represented the district since 2015, will be out of his seat as a result of running for federal office in the midterm election.
But while the commission can pick a replacement, local leaders say they want someone they can choose — even if a special election could cost more than $300,000.
Russell ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate and then switched to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the recent midterms, though he was ultimately beaten out by his opponent in the Democratic primaries, Annette Taddeo. Under Florida’s “resign to run” law, an elected official must step down from their position to qualify as a candidate for another office if the term of their service would overlap.
With Russell out early next year, the remaining four city commissioners must either appoint a new person to take over the seat for the remainder of his term — until November 2023 — or make way for a special election in which only the residents of District 2 may vote to select their preferred commissioner.
Nine potential candidates have so far submitted their resumes to the Miami City Clerk to be considered for the appointment route, though the commissioners can choose from outside that pool.
But community leaders from Coconut Grove, considered by some to be the political heart of the district, say they want the city to go the election route, so residents can have their voices heard.
“I think a special election will give voters an opportunity to find out who [the] candidates are, and we’d be able to make the decision ourselves because it would go to the electorate,” said Clarice Cooper, president of the Coconut Grove Village West Homeowners and Tenants Association (HOATA).
Cooper, a 72-year-old lifelong Coconut Grove resident, said she doesn’t have confidence in the remaining commissioners to pick the right person to represent her community. “I’m not confident in who the remaining commissioners will select, or whether that person will serve our interests,” Cooper says.
Jesse Tarr, member of the elected community advocacy group Coconut Grove Village Council, says residents feel their needs and desires have been “steamrolled” by the city commission in the past and appointing a leader for them would be “salt in the wound.”
“We need to let the democratic process take its due course. District 2 has very unique needs and challenges. To hastily appoint somebody would be doing the community a disservice,” Tarr said.
According to the city charter, the remaining four commissioners must appoint someone to fill the vacancy within 10 calendar days of Russell’s resignation. If they fail to come to a three-person consensus on an appointee, or if they refuse to appoint, they must call a special election between 38 and 45 days after that 10-day period. There would be a separate process for potential candidates to put themselves in contention for the election route.
Reverend Nathaniel Robinson III, pastor of Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, says he just hopes the city will follow the procedures in the charter to the letter, either with an appointment or an election.
“The city has policies in my place, and my hope and prayer is that they follow the proper procedures,” Robinson says.
Reached by WLRN this week, the commissioners of the other four districts don’t seem to be of one mind on how they intend to fill the vacancy.
Commissioner Manolo Reyes of District 4 said he hasn’t had time to review the candidates’ resumes. If no candidate impresses him, he said, he’ll push for a special election.
Joe Carollo, Commissioner for District 3, said a special election would be too expensive.
According to City of Miami Clerk Todd Hannon, the high-end cost estimate for an election – with nine days of early voting and three early voting sites – is $330,000 of the city’s funds. Hannon explained that the city staff prefers to plan for the most expensive option, so there is no low-end estimate.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend $330,000 for someone who is going to serve maybe 10-and-a-half months,” Carollo added.
While nodding to Carollo’s point that the cost is high, Cooper, of the HOATA, said that engaging the electorate is a worthwhile exercise. “I know it’s costly, but that’s government,” she said.
Commission Chairwoman Christine King of District 5 also believes an election is worth any cost.
“We should not put a price on democracy,” King said. “$330,000, if it means allowing the District 2 community to have a voice in who represents them, I don't think that’s a lot of money.”
Tarr concurs with King — and argues that the city hasn’t been slow to open its coffers for other endeavors in the past. “I think they allocate funds to noble causes and to questionable causes all the time. To circumvent the process while the city is doing well would be inappropriate,” said the Coconut Grove Village Council member.
Reached via text, Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla did not answer whether he intended to appoint someone to Russell’s seat or punt to the ballot.
“Miami will move forward with the right leadership. Leadeship [sic] determined by the people not by fake bullshiters [sic] which include you,” Diaz de la Portilla wrote in a text message to a WLRN reporter, after multiple requests to contribute to the debate.
None of the commissioners said that they had a preference out of the would-be candidates who have submitted resumes so far. They will have until Jan. 8 to decide on whether to appoint a replacement or have residents go to the polls to make the choice themselves.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 3, 2023, to reflect the fact that Ken Russell left office five days early, on Dec. 29, 2022, and that the deadline for commissioners to decide on the method to fill the vacancy is therefore Jan. 8 and not Jan. 13.