Ethics board cautions Coral Gables Commissioner not to advocate for business clients in city

melissa castro
Can she keep doing business in Coral Gables? The Ethics Commission says yes, but in a very narrow fashion.

If Coral Gables Commissioner Melissa Castro continues to have her permit-expediting company represent clients in the city, she must limit its operations to processing and information-seeking services to avoid breaking state law.

That’s according to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust (COE), which sent Castro a letter this month detailing its final opinion on whether her business, MED Expeditors, could still do work in the city while she serves on its governing body.

The answer is yes, but in a very narrow fashion.

The June 5 letter from COE Executive Director Jose Arrojo provided guidance similar to what the agency offered in an October draft opinion, which came in response to a request for advice Castro made of the agency after her election last April.

Arrojo said that MED, under Castro’s ownership, could still represent clients that seek permit approval in Coral Gables, but only if all contact and communication with city officials are for ministerial matters — issues for which services are performed in a legally prescribed manner, without regard to a person’s judgment or discretion.

The moment any interactions involve MED advocating for a client’s interests or a city official exercising their discretion, Arrojo said, MED and Castro could run afoul of the law.

Arrojo offered several examples, including:

— Representation of code violators at appeal hearings or settlement negotiations before municipal staff or boards.

— Seeking a zoning modification or variance from municipal staff or boards.

— Seeking modifications to plans or permits from municipal staff or boards.

— Seeking to reinstate an expired permit or process number.

— Seeking to persuade municipal staff that a permit, plan review or inspection is not required for a project.

— Seeking the assignment or reassignment of a particular building official to a project.

“Also, expert testimony received by the Ethics Commission in this matter … established that the building or construction permitting process can be complicated and, over a period of time on a particular project, may require multiple interactions between property owners, architects, engineers, contractors, attorneys, or permit expeditors on the (one) side, and municipal staff on the other,” he said.

“Consequently, it is very difficult within the context of an ethics opinion to address every possible or nuanced interaction.”

Arrojo “strongly” recommended that Castro seek further guidance about how she should limit MED’s work in Coral Gables. MED also does work for clients across the country.

Castro took over the company in 2020 after the death of her mother, who founded MED in 1997. She has maintained that MED does not “lobby (city officials) for approvals.”

“The building code is there,” she told Florida Politics in February. “So, as far as me or my company influencing reviewers — it’s nonexistent.”

Castro’s lawyer, David Winker, said she and MED are well within their rights to continue working in Coral Gables unabated, citing Miami-Dade court cases from 1959 and 1996 as having settled the matter.

“The idea is (that as a property owner seeking to build on your property), you’re entitled to (a permit),” 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 vocal political adversaries, Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, who was asked last year whether his work as a construction executive blurred ethical lines. Prompted for comment in October about Castro’s pending COE opinion, Lago told the Miami Herald, “All I do is pay for a permit. I’m not in the business of influence.”

Lago added to that statement, “Expediting and lobbying are in the business of influence.”

Several members of the COE disagreed with Castro and Winker that her work and business require no discretionary actions. During a late February meeting, 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.

Arrojo agreed. He said that while property owners have rights, including entitlements to use their property as they legally see fit, those rights are still subject to the government’s sovereign power 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.

Lawyer Ben Kuehne, whose past clients have included Miami-Dade Commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera and Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo, detailed to the COE several emails Castro sent Coral Gables administrators since September that he said show Castro has already tried to manipulate the city’s permit processes in ways that would benefit MED.

In one message dated Feb. 5, Castro asked then-City Manager Peter Iglesias and Coral Gables Assistant Director of Development Services Douglas Ramirez to look into a two-week delay in electrical permitting reviews, suggesting that the city improve its processes to prevent further snags.

Kuehne said the communication 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 who the process works? And does that bleed-over make it appear to be a conflict of interest?” Kuehne asked. “(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.”

Debate over Castro’s ability to run MED came amid continued rising tensions at City Hall, where Lago and Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson frequently joust with Castro and Commissioner Ariel Fernandez over pivotal issues facing Coral Gables.

It’s grown uglier in the year since Castro and Fernandez notched upset victories over better-funded opponents the Mayor supported. With the help of swing-vote Commissioner Kirk Menendez, the pair stalled a $63 million “Mobility Hub” project Lago long backed, approved massive pay raises for Commission members, blocked moving the city’s elections from April to November and fired Iglesias.

Lago in January sued a local radio station for defamation after it aired a conversation in which Fernandez errantly said the COE was investigating him. In April, a citizen petition effort to recall Lago failed by just 75 signatures.

Then on June 5, Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak confirmed his department was investigating an “incident” at City Hall that week. Castro said it involved Lago and new City Manager Amos Rojas Jr. A statement from Lago suggests that someone has claimed the episode in question had violent implications.

“I categorically refute any allegations regarding an altercation at City Hall,” he told the Herald, adding that the issue amounted to nothing more than “political theater.”

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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