Ethics board to advise strictures on Coral Gables Commissioner’s in-city business dealings

Melissa Castro -- CG
She and her lawyer contend county ethics rules should allow her to continue business as usual.

Nearly a year after Coral Gables Commissioner Melissa Castro asked for guidance on whether her permit-expediting business can keep working for clients in the city, the county’s ethics board is saying yes — but in a very narrow fashion.

Castro and her lawyer, meanwhile, have a different interpretation of the rules highlighted in a Feb. 4 proposed opinion the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust (COE) will weigh approving Thursday.

They believe it clears her to continue business as usual in the city without having to divest herself of her company, MED Expeditors, or leave office.

The proposed opinion comes at the request of Castro, who solicited the agency’s opinion after she took office last April. It follows a draft opinion the COE released in September warning she’d likely violate the county ethics code by profiting directly or indirectly from services MED provides to clients through interactions with the city.

City records show MED has started to process more than 40 new permits since the draft’s release.

COE Executive Director Jose Arrojo said he consulted with the municipal bar to prepare the Feb. 4 opinion, which references the draft opinion’s conclusion that Castro “would not be able to operate her business in the City of Coral Gables in the same manner as she has in the past.”

The formal opinion says that while a City Commissioner can be employed as the CEO and owner of a permit-expediting company that represents clients in the city, they may not do so if a client is seeking a benefit from the city or if the Commissioner receives compensation connected to that benefit. Moreover, a City Commissioner may not vote or participate in measures that may affect their private company or its clients.

“I think that the big rub in this case is not the obvious and agreed upon, that an elected official cannot serve as an advocate for (a) private party before a municipal board. But rather, what constitutes a purely ministerial exchange that would be permitted? And specifically, what about filing building permits?” Arrojo told Florida Politics, adding that the outcome of Castro’s case could have a bearing on others in government across the county.

Attorney David Winker, who represents Castro, said the new opinion isn’t necessarily a death knell for MED’s ownership structure, its business operations in the city or the continuation of Castro’s work as the company’s CEO and a Commissioner.

A key word in the opinion, he said, is “benefit,” which he argued doesn’t apply to businesses and residents seeking city approval to build on property they own.

“You have a right to develop on your property, so I would argue that she isn’t asking for anything other than what you’re entitled to,” he said. “That’s something we’re going to clarify, whether it’s a benefit to get something that you’re allowed to have.”

Winker said the work Castro’s company does is largely ministerial — performed in a prescribed manner defined by law, without regard to a person’s judgment or discretion — and, because it’s devoid of any kind of advocacy work, doesn’t run afoul of ethics strictures.

Speaking by phone, Castro suggested the idea she is acting unscrupulously stems from a misunderstanding of the work done by MED, which she took over in 2020 after the death of her mother, who founded the company in 1997.

“We don’t lobby for approvals,” she said. “The building code is there. So, as far as me or my company influencing reviewers — it’s nonexistent.”

Unrest at City Hall

Castro reiterated that she plans to “100% abide” by what the COE and her attorneys say she should do. She also denied intimations by some that she has tried to delay approval of the COE opinion so she has more time to sell her business before being forced to remove herself from it.

“To be honest with you, maybe it’s taking so long because of all the things that are happening with Francis,” she said, referring to an investigation the COE is conducting with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office into the lucrative side jobs of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Suarez is a friend and ally of Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, who repeatedly butts heads with her and Commissioner Ariel Fernandez at City Hall.

Coral Gables elected officials have formed something of a circular firing squad since the city’s April election, when Castro and Fernandez defeated two Lago-backed candidates and markedly shifted the balance of power on the City Commission.

Lawyer Matt Sarelson — who has ties to Lago and previously filed a Florida Ethics Commission complaint against Fernandez — filed a COE complaint against Castro on Oct. 31 over MED’s Coral Gables business dealings.

The COE dismissed the complaint on Dec. 13, determining it lacked legal sufficiency because it did not “include sufficient adequate facts to support a violation of the County Ethics Code.”

Seven days later, Lago sued a local radio station for defamation after it aired an interview in which Fernandez claimed the Mayor was under COE investigation. Lago at the time was actually under a since-closed preliminary review by the agency, which is not an investigation.

Castro and Fernandez are also trying to fire City Manager Peter Iglesias. The pair voted last year to oust Iglesias, who they said has not been effectuating the City Commission’s wishes or acting in the best interest of residents.

That vote failed 3-2, but on Monday, Fernandez again raised the issue, and swing-vote Commissioner Kirk Menendez indicated he was in favor of the move.

Since Castro and Fernandez notched upset victories over better-funded opponents the Mayor supported, the City Commission has seen several split decisions on major issues facing Coral Gables. That included votes Castro, Fernandez and Menendez cast to redesign a planned $63 million “Mobility Hub” Lago has long backed, approve massive pay raises for Commission members, maintain the city’s tax rate and keep its municipal elections in April.

Lago and Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson, conversely, advocated for moving forward with the Mobility Hub as designed and opposed the pay raises. They also voted unsuccessfully to lower the city’s millage and move its Election Day to November to coincide with state and national elections.

Shortly after the pay-raise vote, Lago derided his colleagues in Spanish-language media. He said they were unprepared for office, “reached into residents’ pockets” to enrich themselves and that Fernandez and Menendez “live off their wives.”

In October, Castro, Fernandez and Menendez voted to censure the Mayor and blocked his move to reverse the pay raises.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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