Something stinks in South Miami

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Grant Miller, Publisher

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s no doubt remembers Pepé Le Pew, an amorous skunk whose affections were never returned, largely because of his smell. The City of South Miami has its own Pepe – and how he was reappointed stinks just as much as the skunk on “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show.”

Thomas Pepe is the city attorney. His job isn’t to represent the city commissioners or the mayor or to do their political handiwork. Yes, he was hired by the commission, but his clients are really the 12,000 resident who live in the city. Pepe often forgets that.

In many cities, the attorney is a full-time employee of the municipality, based at city hall every working day. Pepe’s not a city employee. He’s a solo practitioner and neither is he a member of mega-firm. With just one lawyer, his is the micro-est of micro-firms.

Responding to a public records request, the city noted it pays Pepe a total of $262,920 a year. If Pepe were working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, that would be $131.46 an hour. That seems like a bargain rate. It’s hard to get an attorney to staple together two sheets of paper for less than $200.

But Pepe doesn’t work for the city full-time. So, the city’s not paying that low a rate. Actually, it’s hard to figure out what Pepe’s effective rate truly is – since he’s not required by his contract to keep track of hours. For all the citizens of South Miami know, Pepe only puts in the hours when he’s up on the dais at a meeting. If so, then Pepe is reaping hundreds of dollars more per hour.

At one recent meeting, the commission took up a resolution to put out a Request for Proposals to search for a new city attorney. There would be nothing to prohibit Pepe from submitting a proposal, but it would give other law firms and lawyers a chance to submit their own proposals. Maybe some firm would offer a lower fee than Pepe. Maybe a firm would offer to do more.  Maybe there would be a firm that would do more for even less.

The City of South Miami is no stranger to issuing RFPs. Go to the city website and plug in “RFP” and other procurement words, and the search will yield a combined total of more than 200 recent bids.

The resolution to issue an RFP for the city attorney failed on a two-to-three vote. Stoddard and Liebman voted for the RFP.  Why? Many on the dais said it was because they had personal relationships with Pepe. Pepe is also one of the seated commissioner’s best friends, and he even did personal work for another one them. Others told how they felt free to call him on the weekends and evenings.

Apparently, the city commissioners aren’t very sophisticated. Ask any lawyer if he or she would refuse a call at any hour from a client paying over a quarter million a year and I guarantee you won’t hear a single “Yes.”

The city commission then did something odious. It took an add-on item on the agenda to extend Pepe’s contract through April 16, 2019 – for another $263,000. The discussion of the item took less than five minutes. The notice the city gave about the extension wasn’t sufficient and they didn’t even bother to ask if members of the public wanted to comment.

The truth is that mayor and commissioners don’t really care what the public thinks about this. They don’t want an independent voice to will tell them they can’t do something illegal, much less something unwise. The $1.25 million the city’s going to have pay out because Mayor Stoddard wanted to fire Police Chief Orlando Martinez de Castro without good cause is proof of that.

Thomas Pepe gets to dine at the public trough for another year. It’s a win for the South Miami Commission, a win for Pepe, and a loss for the citizens of South Miami.

Let’s see if we can hold our noses until the next election.

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