North Miami Beach

North Miami Beach Commissioners Vote to End Lawsuit Questioning Mayor's Residency

An ethics complaint filed months ago claimed Mayor Anthony DeFillipo has been living in a property in Broward County

North Miami Beach commissioners voted Tuesday to drop the city’s counter lawsuit questioning Mayor Anthony DeFillipo’s residency, likely ending a nearly half-year-long drama.

According to the city charter, to be the mayor of North Miami Beach, a person must live in the city. Following an ethics complaint, the former city attorney and an outside law firm determined last fall DeFillipo was living with his family in Davie.

DeFillipo told lawyers in a deposition his family moved to Broward, citing marital issues and his wife’s concerns over crime, but he has lived in the city since taking office.

He previously told NBC6 Investigators and the city clerk he moved to his one-bedroom condo after his family moved to Broward. But in the deposition, DeFillipo gave a different story, telling attorneys he lived at his mother’s home in North Miami Beach for almost a year while he was renting his one-bedroom condo. That’s something he denied when asked about real estate records obtained by NBC6 showed it was put up for rent around that time.

A November runoff election tipped the balance of power in the city to the mayor and his allies. When the mayor’s political opponents and the city investigated where the mayor lives, the mayor and his attorney Michael Pizzi, filed a lawsuit seeking to reduce the number of commissioners required to conduct meetings.

“We are happy that the politically motivated and completely unfounded attacks on the mayor’s residency are finally being put to rest by the city,” Pizzi wrote to NBC6. “The mayor has always lived in the city, and it is time to stop these petty distractions and focus on the people’s business. The mayor has been vindicated.”

While a court battle played out over the issue, the former city attorney Hans Ottinot advised three city commissioners – Daniela Jean, McKenzie Fleurimond, and Michael Joseph – to boycott the meetings arguing the mayor did not have the power to preside over the commission. From October to March, the city commission did not hold a full commission meeting and much of the city business was put on hold.

In a major turning point earlier this spring, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Valerie Manno Schurr ordered all the commissioners to attend meetings for the rest of the year. Once the new governing majority had a quorum in March, they voted to remove city manager Arthur Sorey. Ottinot resigned days prior to the meeting.

In his resignation letter obtained by NBC6, Ottinot wrote his law firm “followed the law and City precedent in making recommendations in compliance with the City Charter,” referring to the mayor’s residency issue, adding, “it is the firm’s sincere hope that the City Commission finds common ground and healing to make the City a better place for all residents.”

A Miami-Dade judge has ordered all North Miami Beach commissioners to attend regularly scheduled meetings for the rest of the year. NBC6's Phil Prazan has an update on the city drama

The mayor’s allies then appointed John Herin from the law firm Fox Rothschild to be the interim city attorney.

“Whoever wants to come against me, against my residency, file it. But don’t go out and hire a lawyer to put a bogus investigation together, who at the end of the day, is gone,” DeFillipo said Tuesday.

Interim city attorney Herin told the commission he believed the city’s lawsuit against the mayor would fail because it was always the mayor’s intention to live in the city. Herin also pointed to the fact the commission did not approve the original counterclaim against the mayor.

“The way I do business as a city attorney and have always done business as a city attorney is to never initiate any lawsuit unless I get authorization from the city council, city commission, town, wherever it is,” Herin said. “It’s your responsibility under the charter to direct me.”

Then commissioners Jay Chernoff, Phyllis Smith, and Fortuna Smukler out-voted commissioner McKenzie Fleurimond and directed the interim city attorney to end the legal fight.

“Whoever votes not to even look at this is clearly saying they don’t really care about that issue, they don’t care about the residency issue, which is a charter issue,” Fleurimond said.

“If someone doesn’t believe the mayor lives here let them handle it. Let it be their problem. Let them sue him and let them spend their money,” Smukler said.

Commissioner Michael Joseph left the meeting early because he reported being sick. Commissioner Daniela Jean was not present at the meeting. Earlier in the month, she shared on social media she had health issues and had spent time in the hospital. DeFillipo left the room during the vote after the interim city attorney advised him on state conflict of interest rules.

The city commission also voted to hold a hearing on Joseph’s attendance. Joseph was one of the three commissioners who boycotted meetings over the mayor’s residency question. The commissioner who won the close runoff election, Chernoff, filed a separate lawsuit against Joseph over whether he missed 120 days in a row and must vacate his seat. Joseph’s attorney said that’s not the case. That lawsuit is ongoing.

"This was all a sideshow just to make me the main antagonist of this whole charade that’s being caused by the mayor," Joseph previously told NBC6.

Earlier in the night the commission also voted to appoint Pizzi, the mayor and Chernoff’s personal attorney in the ongoing litigation, to represent the city and investigate the actions of the former city manager and former city attorney. That action led to conflict-of-interest concerns from Fleurimond.

“How do you go to court suing the city and then you’re also defending the city? It doesn’t even make legal sense,” Fleurimond said.

Pizzi told the commission he believed his appointment would not be a conflict of interest under Florida Bar rules because he is only looking into the specific actions of the two former city employees. The majority of the commission and the interim city attorney agreed with the appointment.

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