Town Council votes to defend former mayor Pizzi's lawsuit

Government By David L. Snelling, The Miami Laker staff Thursday, January 15, 2015

Transfixed by a legal showdown to determine who should be the town’s rightful mayor, Miami Lakes residents appeared to be divided over their support for Mayor Wayne Slaton and former mayor Michael Pizzi, who filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to get his old job back.

But the schism also suggested the town shouldn’t spend taxpayer’s money for legal expenses and explore other ways to settle the mayoral quandary.

During a special meeting last week at Miami Lakes Town Hall, councilmembers unanimously voted to hire two law firms to represent Slaton and Town Clerk Marjorie Tejeda-Castillo, who were sued by Pizzi and former Councilmember Mary Collins. 

The Akerman law firm and the law firm of Gelber Schachter and Greenberg were tapped to defend Slaton and Tejeda-Castillo, and the town’s charter, which councilmembers and some residents declared Slaton as the mayor. 

Each law firm will charge about $375 an hour for the work.

According to the lawsuit, Collins, a founding councilmember, who supported and voted for Pizzi in his 2012 reelection bid, is entitled to see Pizzi restored to the office of mayor to which he was lawfully elected to serve his four-year term expiring in November 2016. 

The legal showdown has been brewing since Pizzi was acquitted of all seven counts of public corruption charges in August but Governor Rick Scott refused to reinstate him to political office.

According to Florida law, an elected official who was suspended from office following an arrest can return to political office if found not guilty of any charges.

But councilmembers and some residents alluded to the town charter which called for a special election to select a new mayor following Pizzi’s arrest in 2013.

Slaton won the special election. 

Pizzi sued Scott and the Florida Supreme Court forced the governor to revoke his suspension in December, albeit the former mayor didn’t ask the high court to reinstate him. 

Instead, his attorneys filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to force his return to Town Hall. 

Pizzi and his “dream team” of attorneys spoke and urged Miami Lakes to reinstate their client as the town mayor to serve out the remainder of his term instead of taking the issue to court.   

Said lead attorney Ed Shohat: “Follow the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution. The town’s case won’t hold up in court.” 

In defending Miami Lakes’ charter, Town Attorney Raul Gastesi reviewed the government documents and said the town has a strong case.    

Gastesi said Miami Lakes can’t reinstate Pizzi and the Supreme Court stated in its order that the permanent mayor assumed office on October 8, 2013 and the new mayor’s term will run until the next regularly scheduled election in 2016.

“The Florida Supreme Court and Gov. Scott have been clear and unequivocal,” Gastesi said. “Wayne Slaton is the mayor of the town of Miami Lakes. The former mayor cannot and will not be reinstated. There is no office to be reinstated to.”

Gastesi said under the town’s policy, Miami Lakes is required to render legal services to elected officials and town employees who are sued. 

Citing a conflict of interest, Slaton recused himself from the meeting and turned the gavel over to Vice Mayor Manny Cid. 

Cid, and Councilmembers Frank Mingo, Tim Daubert, Nelson Rodriguez and Ceasar Mestre voted for the legal representation. Councilmember Tony Lama was absent. 

Lawmakers said the lawsuit puts Miami Lakes in a difficult and uncomfortable position but they took the oath to protect and defend the town’s charter.

Mingo said: “Miami Lakes can’t reinstate Pizzi to office. Scott has to do it. I don’t understand why the town is being sued when the issue should be taken up with the Florida Governor.” 

With mounting legal fees, Mestre said Miami Lakes might have to put some projects on hold because of the lawsuit.

“As elected officials and professionals, we have to do what’s best for Miami Lakes,” Mestre said. “But this is a sad day for Miami Lakes.”

In a prepared statement following the special meeting, Slaton said, “Let me be clear. Both the Florida Supreme Court and the Governor’s Orders stated that my election to the Mayor’s office was as a permanent replacement until November 2016. Further, the Governor’s Order specifically states the revocation of Mr. Pizzi’s suspension did not equate to reinstatement. The highest judicial and executive offices in the State have not reinstated Mr. Pizzi to office.

“Based on these actions, neither I, the Town Council, nor the Town Administration have the authority to reinstate Mr. Pizzi to office.

“Mr. Pizzi has once again turned to the courts to pursue reinstatement. We are therefor being forced to address this lawsuit and seek legal counsel to protect the interests of our Town, its Charter, and ultimately our residents.

“I ran for Mayor of Miami Lakes to return civility to our meetings and restore integrity to the Town. Over the last year and half, there has not been any controversy in Miami Lakes but, for that associated with Mr. Pizzi.

“I am here to serve the will of the residents who asked me to come back to office and restore integrity to our Town, foster collaboration and respect among our Council, and all Miami Lakes residents, not to mention treating our hard working Town staff with dignity. Together, we have been able to accomplish this and so much more.”