3-2 vote approves ‘Acting’ Attorney Pepe

By Kimberly Porter….
Attorney Thomas Pepe was approved as acting City Attorney at the March 1 City Commission meeting, and later awarded a $200,000, contract despite absence of a bidding process and questions by two dissenting Commission members about his lack of municipal experience.

Deputy City Attorney Mark Goldstein, voted then to be retained as labor attorney, declined the position as of March 24, stating: “I came to South Miami with Larry [former City Attorney Laurence Feingold] in the hope of one day succeeding him as the city attorney, much like I did in Hallandale.”

Commissioner Walter Harris nominated Pepe for the post that carried with a 3-2 vote with Mayor Philip Stoddard and Commissioner Brian Beasley opposed.

Both felt hiring an acting attorney would cost the city unnecessary money and that any attorney hired by the city should have at least five years municipal law experience which Pepe does not have.

“Mr. Goldstein is already here,” Beasley said. “He already knows our city. He doesn’t have a learning curve. We need some continuation.”

During a public discussion over credentials for the post, ex-Commissioner Lew Sellars said “It is imperative that the attorney have experience in municipal law. For those sitting up there, we have to rely heavily on legal counsel.”

Stoddard remarked that he had checked with two municipalities and found that neither Coral Gables nor Pinecrest would consider an attorney without five years of municipal law experience.

“I don’t think that it [municipal law experience] makes you a better lawyer for the City of South Miami, as opposed to someone who is very conscientious and is willing to put in the hours and the energy,” responded Pepe.

After the decision to hire him and he was awarded his $200,000 contract, questions were posed by Stoddard about a potential appearance of conflict between Commissioner Velma Palmer and Pepe.

Pepe represented Palmer in 2008 when she won her Commission seat by a few dozen votes and her opponent took her to court. Palmer disclosed that action before voting for Pepe as acting City Attorney and Goldstein stated the revelation would “not be a conflict of interest.”

It was subsequently discovered that of $40,000 in legal fees Palmer accrued with Pepe the attorney has received just $6,000, according to email correspondence disclosed by city officials involved.

Stoddard is quoted in one email as saying that “I remain concerned about the appearance of conflict generated when a sitting commissioner fails to disclose the receipt of $34,000 worth of uncompensated services by someone she ultimately rewards with a $200,000 a year contract.”

No action has been taken by the Commission about Stoddard’s concerns.

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