Ethics board to query experts on Coral Gables Commissioner’s in-city business work
Image via Melissa Castro.

Melissa Castro MC
Emails she sent staff about the city’s permitting process may raise additional questions.

The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust (COE) has again postponed issuing an official opinion on whether Coral Gables Commissioner Melissa Castro’s permit-expediting company can keep working for clients in the city.

After a one-hour discussion, the panel punted a decision they’ve been mulling over since last April to next month, when its members expect to hear from experts on the issue.

Whether emails between Castro and Coral Gables employees — viewable below — that were submitted at the end of the COE’s Feb. 14 meeting are part of next month’s discussion remains to be seen. But they could raise additional questions about her sway over permitting matters in the city and whether the permitting process is as detached from the influence of policymakers as she and her lawyer say it is.

COE Executive Director Jose Arrojo said in a proposed opinion this month that, as he suggested in a draft opinion last year, Castro would likely violate the county ethics code by receiving payment from clients seeking a benefit — in her case, construction permits — for private entities.

Castro and her attorney, David Winker, insisted neither she nor anyone from her business, MED Expeditors, seeks anything from the city except ministerial services — services performed in a prescribed manner, without regard to a person’s judgment or discretion.

As such, they said, she isn’t running afoul of county ethics strictures that bar public officials from receiving payment, directly or indirectly, from people or entities seeking a benefit from the city government.

Winker maintained that if a property owner MED represents meets the city’s requirements for a permit, it is entitled to one and the services the company renders are ministerial. He cited two past court cases in Miami-Dade — City of Miami Beach v. State ex. rel. Fontainebleau Hotel Corp. (1959) and Bal Harbour Village v. State ex. rel. Giblin — to support his argument.

“The idea is … you’re entitled to it,” he said. “If you’ve met the criteria, there is no discretion to say no.”

He pointed to comments from one of Castro’s most public political adversaries, Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, when asked last year about whether his work as a construction executive blurred ethical lines. After being asked in October about the pending COE opinion about Castro, who requested the agency’s input on the issue, Lago told the Miami Herald: “All I do is pay for a permit. I’m not in the business of influence.”

Members of the COE appeared less than inclined to agree with Castro and Winker’s position that her work and business require no discretionary actions from city staff. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge David Tunis, one of the COE’s five Commissioners, said that while permitting might on its face be devoid of judgment or discretion, decisions over the minutia of construction projects rarely are.

He added that the COE isn’t tasked solely with interpreting the legality of actions by public officials; it is also responsible for identifying and addressing perceptions of impropriety.

Arrojo agreed. While property owners have rights, including entitlements to use their property as they see fit under the law, those rights are still subject to the “police power of the sovereign” — the government’s ability to delimit personal liberty to protect social interests.

“I don’t get to put a three-story building in my backyard, even though I have the space, because I live in a municipality that doesn’t allow that,” he said.

Arrojo said there is a legitimate question as to whether elected officials should engage in any transactions with the city they serve, even if they are ministerial to the letter of the law. State opinion on the matter, he continued, is “very restrictive” and includes “permit” in a list of examples of government benefits public officials must not pursue for profit.

According to former COE Executive Director Robert Meyers, who now works for a law firm that serves as the City Attorney for several municipalities, determining what is or isn’t a benefit has “never been interpreted by the Ethics Commission in 26 years.” The impact, he said, could be enormous.

“It seems to me if you take a real expansive view of this, there’s a possibility that a lot of elected officials (with day jobs) will no longer be able to interact at all with any city official or city staff on any matter,” he said. “You can read it that way. And is that the way we really want to go here?”

Arrojo recommended that the COE should solicit input from permitting wonks, including land use lawyers from the private and public sectors, to provide more clarity. The board agreed.

Then the COE heard from lawyer Ben Kuehne, whose past clients have included Miami-Dade Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera and Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, about communications Castro had with city staff he called questionable.

In one message to Coral Gables Assistant Director of Development Services Douglas Ramirez on Jan. 31, Castro complained of a “policy concern” with the Development Services Department, which she said “allows runners, expeditors, business, and residents behind the counter.”

“I would like to request, through the manager, the reinstatement of a policy where only city employees are allowed behind the counter,” she wrote.

Six days later, she sent Ramirez another email highlighting a two-week delay in electrical permitting reviews and suggested that the city should improve its processes to prevent further snags.

“Considering potential review delays, I propose we anticipate these challenges and utilize the available resources effectively,” she wrote. “We now have access to reports and data showcasing timelines of plan reviews.”

Then-City Manager Peter Iglesias, whom Castro and Commissioners Ariel Fernandez and Kirk Melendez voted to fire on Feb. 13, was a recipient of both emails.

The first email, Kuehne said, raises questions about how expeditors truly operate in Coral Gables, as it is evident by Castro’s email that their work isn’t without face-to-face interactions through which they could influence decisions.

The second, he said, should elicit concerns about Castro’s influence over government processes that impact the industry from which she profits.

“Can a Commissioner whose business deals with permit-expediting direct questions on how the process works? And does that bleed-over make it appear to be a conflict of interest?” he said. “(This is) exactly what I and lawyers like me do when we try to represent public officials so they can act not only to earn a living but to act in a way that doesn’t challenge the public into thinking they misuse their influence.”

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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