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Emails put Miami City Attorney on the hot seat

@NewsbySmiley

At the behest of a lobbyist, Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez worked behind the scenes this year to help a developer fast-track a controversial residential development and then hid the extent of her involvement, a city commissioner has charged.

During the morning session of Thursday's commission meeting, Commissioner Ken Russell distributed a letter to city officials calling for Mendez's firing, and an "independent inquiry" into her office's handling of zoning matters and public records requests. Russell said he'd "lost trust" in Mendez after she withheld emails and other public records from his office.

"It's absolutely unacceptable," he said. "For me, that alone is enough that I can't work with my city attorney."

Mendez called the situation a misunderstanding.

"It's unfortunate because a lot of things have been mischaracterized," she said in an interview.

The dispute between Russell and Mendez is linked to a controversial effort by developers Gus De Ribeaux, Carlos Tosca and Carlos Sosa to build five homes in South Coconut Grove by splitting one property on the corner of Ingraham Way and Battersea Road into five lots.

Late last year, the developers, who own the 50,000-square-foot property through Battersea Woods LLC, were told that city laws showed they'd need to seek a warrant, a special permit that can be easily and cheaply appealed by surrounding neighbors. Meanwhile, as developers continued to sap up, split and redevelop surrounding properties, neighbors in the area -- one of the most politically active in the city -- began to protest.

Eventually, Russell, who lives in the South Grove and represents the area, began to look into the issue. First, he says his office asked Mendez for emails documenting its involvement. Then, when he began to suspect he hadn't received the whole story, he said his office sought the same records from Miami's informations technology staff -- a request he said yielded far more interesting results.

Among the emails obtained through the second batch from IT: a series of exchanges between Mendez and Berger Singerman attorney Javier Vazquez showing Vazquez's lobbying to change the city's zoning determination that the developer needed a warrant. The emails also showed Mendez asking an office lawyer to work on the issue -- after an attorney on her staff had already issued an opinion saying a warrant was needed, despite Vazquez's assertions to the contrary.

After a new opinion was issued, acting zoning administrator Devin Cejas changed the city's position on Jan. 20, allowing the project to move forward without a warrant.

The developer, however, still needed the city commission to "re-plat" the property into five parcels. Typically, such requests are rubber-stamped by the city commission. But Russell twice delayed a vote until Thursday's meeting, when he unloaded on Mendez and Vazquez after a group of South Grove neighbors asked the commission to oppose the proposal.

Mendez, he said, "works for this city, not for the developer and not for that attorney." Vazquez, in the audience, defended Mendez, himself, his client, and his law firm. He also incorrectly assured Russell that he was registered to lobby on the project. (He registered minutes later, during the break in the meeting.)

"At no time has there been any request for a change of attorney or request for special favors," he said. "I wanted to stand up here to defend my integrity as an attorney."

In an interview, Mendez said she gave Russell all the documents she found in response to his request, which she didn't take for a legal or exhaustive records request. She said her office was simply responding to Vazquez's arguments by reviewing the law, as it's done countless times in the past.

"My main point is to defend against liability," she said. "I just think he doesn't understand the process."

Russell did not motion to fire Mendez before the commission's lunch break, saying he wanted his colleagues to take the afternoon to think about the issue.

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