The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust is supposed to be a watchdog, protecting the rights of ordinary citizens against public officials who would abuse the offices they sit in. We just found out that the Ethics Commission has taken a step forward on a matter filed against South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard.
Complaints made to the Commission are normally kept confidential. They only see the light of day when confidentiality is waived by the officeholder, there’s a determination of probable cause that a violation of the law has taken place, the Commission dismisses a case, or the Commission issues a report or orders a public hearing.
We know that Phil Stoddard is in hot water because the Ethics Commission has set a hearing in May on a complaint filed against him. We didn’t have to search for the complaint itself. Steven Alexander, the City Manager, put it on the agenda.
Stephen Cody, a man best known for filing Voting Rights Act lawsuits against Miami-Dade County and the School Board and forcing them to adopt single-member districts, went to speak to the City Commission during their “open mic” time about a subject that causes Phil a lot of heartburn.
Phil Stoddard led the effort to get former South Miami Police Chief Orlando Martinez de Castro fired. De Castro’s contract said he could only be fired for cause. What was Phil’s beef with de Castro?
The Chief sued and won. Doubling down on dumb, the City appealed the verdict and lost in the appellate court. That left the City — the citizens, really — holding the bag for South Miami folly.
It totaled over a million dollars, considering damages, interest, and both de Castro’s and the City’s attorneys’ fees, money that the City is on the hook for.
Cody went to the January 16, 2018 South Miami Commission meeting and signed up to speak. He wanted to talk about how the City wasted so much money firing Chief de Castro and how it bungled the lawsuit and the appeal.
He didn’t get the chance.
Phil, irked that Cody was the head of a Tallahassee based PAC that criticized the Mayor, wouldn’t let him speak. By some odd coincidence, the microphone at the podium went out as Cody came forward and didn’t come back on until he was sent away. Cody showed up to a meeting in February to speak on the same topic and the same thing happened again — Stoddard barred him from speaking as the microphone inexplicably went dead.
Cody complained to the Ethics Commission. Both the County Charter and the City Charter declare that citizens have the right to address bodies like the City Commission.
The Ethics Commission determined that there was probable cause to move forward with Cody’s complaint. The resolution offered by the City Manager was to allow Phil Stoddard to hire noted local lawyer Ben Kuehne to represent him when he faces the charges before the Ethics Commission.
Kuehne has a reputation as an excellent lawyer and his hourly rate shows it. For every two hours Kuehne spends trying to pull the Mayor’s chestnuts out of the fire, he will collect more than the average South Miamian makes in a week.
Had Phil Stoddard been able to resist his basic instinct to try to shut down criticism, especially coming just before the mayoral election, the City would not now have to spend thousands of dollars defending the indefensible — a public official who can’t bear being criticized.
Phil should have gritted his teeth, taken five minutes of heat, and moved on. Instead, everyone in South Miami is going to pay the price .