CITY ATTORNEY LATEST CITY HALL DEFECTION.
When the new mayor and city commission was sworn in following last November’s Miami Beach elections, it was clear there were going to be changes. The final years of former Mayor Matti Bower’s reign had seen city officials under investigation and even arrest for criminal activities, corruption and cronyism considered by many observers to be rampant, and commission meetings that were absurdist to the point of the literary definition.
Few would say change wasn’t needed.
Subsequent to the election of new Mayor Philip Levine, there has been much change. Commission meetings are more structured and congenial and either the commission acts as if with either a unified mind – or as if individuals are afraid to upset the majority and City Manager Jimmy Morales, considered a close Levine ally.
There have also been numerous staff changes a lot. Some were obviously needed in the wake of the corruption at the end of the Bower administration. Others, however, and particularly in terms of defections of staff, raised eyebrows in the Miami Beach beltway. At the same time some in the city said staff had never been more upbeat and easy to work with; others in the city wondered why some who seemed above the previous administration’s various foibles and served the city well seemed to either decide to leave the city or were not in the new administration’s plans.
However, the latest City of Miami Beach official’s decision to leave the City for a lower-paying, lower-profile position in a less glamorous, albeit larger, north Miami-Dade position seems the least likely defection citywide.
On April 4, City Attorney Jose Smith wrote to the mayor and city commission, advising them that he was resigning his position effective May 16. He has accepted a position as city attorney in North Miami Beach, a sizable middle and working class community bordering North Miami, Aventura and parts of unincorporated Miami-Dade County bordering Broward County.
“I thank the residents of Miami Beach whom I was privileged to serve as City
Commissioner and City Attorney,” Smith wrote in his memo. “Their activism, tenacity, and creativity helped make us a world class city. By every objective measure, I leave the city in its best shape ever. My wife and I have lived on Miami Beach for 53 years. We raised our three sons here. We would not live anywhere else. This is paradise. As residents and taxpayers, we will continue to work with our friends and neighbors to insure that the residents’ best interests are protected and that city officials observe the highest level of professionalism and ethical conduct.”
Smith, a soft-spoken, thoughtful and extremely professional veteran attorney and former popular city commissioner also praised the commissioners who had initially entrusted him with his office. Most consider Smith to have solidified the professionalism of an office many saw as being overly-political and that needed to seek outside counsel too frequently.
“First and foremost, I must acknowledge my friend, former Mayor David Dermer, along with Commissioners [Saul] Gross, [Luis] Garcia, (Richard) Steinberg, [Simon]Cruz, Bower and [Jerry] Libbin for their trust and confidence when they unanimously appointed me in 2006,” Smith wrote. “I will be forever grateful to them and to all the dedicated colleagues I had the pleasure of working with during my tenure. They helped me become a better lawyer and a wiser person.”
Smith went on to praise his staff and fellow attorneys and offered a warm – if perhaps, advisory – statement to Levine.
“Mayor Levine, you were elected by a strong mandate to shake things up and bring about positive changes,” wrote Smith. “Your businesslike approach is refreshing. Please take advantage of this mandate to do good things. Preserve the residents’ quality of life. Along with your colleagues, continue to promote smart development, flood mitigation and North Beach revitalization.”
Smith’s departure for a lower-status position appears odd to some, considering that during even the darkest days of the previous administration, and when scandal seemed to reach democratically around departments in city hall, the City Attorney’s office was a model of stability and reason. There were no hints of corruption or favoritism, and if Smith and his team had any political allegiances to the previous, fractured city commission, no one could tell what those might be. Smith came across as a solid legal mind, respected, reasonable and unflappable – with the latter not having been easy under the entropic previous administration.
Smith told SunPost this week that he had approximately a year-and-a-half left on his contract prior to last year’s elections. He said he would like to have stayed on for a while longer.
However, that also changed after the elections in November.
“I didn’t know [leaving the City of Miami Beach] would happen so quickly,” Smith said. “Following the election, I thought things would get better. That just wasn’t what happened.”
Smith did not want to offer any specific criticisms for publication.
However, it is not news that there has been stress between the City Attorney’s office and the City Manager’s office. Their differences – and in the City Attorney’s office case, a legal over-reach – has been spelled out in memorandums and letters over the past several weeks.
For example, an assistant city manager sent the Land Use Committee a letter that, an attorney familiar with the issue told SunPost, effectively un-dos Miami Beach’s Save Miami Beach regulation. A decade-and-a-half ago, the Save Miami Beach referendum preserved for public decision, massive developments on the water – considered the nail in the coffin in the fall of controversial German developer Thomas Kramer, developer of Portofino. The overwhelming public support was a slap in the face to the powers aligned with development interests – the Miami Beach City Commission, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, the Miami Herald and virtually every other establishment entity in the region. It was considered, countywide, a threat to the free hand developers traditionally hold over Miami-Dade politics, and for years, has been the rallying call of Miami Beach activists and others opposed to inappropriate development and locking the public out of major municipal decisions. Save Miami Beach also ushered in the public careers of eventual Mayor David Dermer, its public face – still one of the most beloved and trusted figures in Miami Beach.
Two weeks ago, Smith’s legal opinion related to the need for a public vote for the zoning to be changed to pave the way for a 50-story tower on 5th Street and Alton Road, effectively reinforced the legality and appropriateness – and legal teeth – of Save Miami Beach, according to the same attorney familiar with both issues.
There is also the issue of Miami Beach’s Club Madonna. After an alleged scandal involving an underage stripper at the iconic Beach club, the City of Miami Beach seemed to declare war on the club and its owner, Leroy Griffith. The City Manager’s office asserted that Madonna owed the City resort taxes.
Shortly afterward, Smith, asserting things such as the City Charter and precedent set by former City Attorney Murray Dubbin, wrote that, no, legally, Madonna does not qualify for owing resort taxes.
It was clear there were communications problems between the offices of Smith and Morales, who has been quietly called secretive and authoritarian by some city activists.
Still, asked for comment on Smith’s departure, Levine was gracious.
“Jose Smith served as a city commissioner for eight years and then as city attorney for seven years,” Levine told SunPost. “He is the embodiment of a true public servant and the City of Miami Beach has been fortunate to have his distinguished service. I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Prominent activist Frank Del Vecchio also had praise for Smith.
“My experiences with city attorney Jose Smith have always been positive,” he told SunPost. “He has always conducted himself with professionalism and courtesy.
“Jose Smith was on a slate of winning candidates for city commission endorsed by the organizers of the Save Miami Beach Movement in 1997,” Del Vecchio continued. “As a commissioner he was always sensitive to the impacts of public actions on residents, and maintained that sensitivity during his tenure as city attorney.”
With those same activists saying that the current city commission is difficult to personally engage with, and most feeling Smith was a good public servant, it begs the question if there is a political purge going on in city hall. More importantly, it begs the question is it is good for the people of Miami Beach; or for development and political interests – usually intertwined in Miami Beach. Rumors have been swirling for months that the Manager’s office, the Miami Beach Police Department and the City Attorney’s office were either in conflict or barely communicating.
“Jose Smith wouldn’t leave Miami Beach; that means this Miami Beach has left him,” one former city employee told SunPost, speaking on condition of anonymity as the individual seeks a new position. “Miami Beach must have left Jose Smith, and that isn’t good.”