Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday issued an executive order to suspend Michelle Spence-Jones from the Miami City Commission again, effective immediately.
Crist’s action came just two days after Spence-Jones won the District 5 special election to take back her seat, and before she could be sworn in to office. The executive order states that Spence-Jones, who was originally suspended after her arrest on a grand-theft charge last November, “has not been acquitted, found not guilty or otherwise cleared of the charge which was the basis of her arrest.”
On Jan. 4, a week before the special election, Spence-Jones filed a civil complaint against Crist in Miami-Dade County Court, seeking to prevent him from suspending her a second time if she were to win.
“It’s not a surprise to us, because Tuesday, we go to court,” Spence-Jones said after the announcement of Crist’s executive order.
There will be a hearing on Spence-Jones’ motion for a temporary injunction seeking to block the suspension at 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 19 at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, 73 W. Flagler Street, Miami.
In the Jan. 12 special election, Spence-Jones received more than 53 percent of the vote and defeated eight other candidates.
“It is the voters’ choice, not Charlie Crist’s choice,” Spence-Jones told supporters at her Liberty City headquarters as the results came in Jan. 12.
“The law has always been that the state can give you more rights than is provided by the (Florida) Constitution,” said Phyllis Diane Kotey, an associate law professor at Florida International University’s College of Law.
Spence-Jones’ complaint seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting Crist from re-suspending her because she was not indicted, according to the criteria in the constitution.
“That may be an issue,” said Kotey, a former circuit court judge in Alachua County, which includes Gainesville. “Most times, the state attorney will take that case before the grand jury, so they have that indictment.”
In November, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office charged Spence-Jones with one count of second-degree grand theft, a felony. She is accused of steering two county contracts to a company she and family members owned, and spending the money for personal use.
Crist first suspended Spence-Jones shortly after she was charged.
Terry Chavez, a public information officer for the state attorney’s office, said Spence-Jones received an “affidavit in support of arrest warrant,” and added that indictments are usually reserved for murder cases in Miami-Dade.
Kotey disagrees with that interpretation.
“The law specifically provides for grand jury investigations of public officials,” she said. “It’s state law, so it would have statewide applications.”
Spence-Jones’ complaint also said the state constitution gives Crist the right to suspend only county officers, not city officials, and that his initial suspension of her last November was unconstitutional.
The document requesting a temporary injunction states, “Spence Jones was arrested and suspended. Once she is elected again, she would have to be arrested after the second election for the suspension to be valid.”
But through his executive order, Crist disagreed.
If the re-suspension holds up in court, the next action will come from the rest of the Miami City Commission, which would appoint another commissioner for District 5.
Commissioners were unable to appoint a District 5 commissioner after Spence-Jones was first suspended on Nov. 13 because they lacked a quorum for the 10-day time period in which they had to name a replacement before calling a special election.
The resignation of District 1 Miami City Commissioner Angel Gonzalez as part of a plea deal, and a runoff in District 4 left only two commissioners, Marc Sarnoff and Frank Carollo, during that time.
Willy Gort, who served on the commission from 1993-2003, won the District 1 seat in the Jan. 12 special election. The commission was to meet Thursday, then again Jan. 28.
Spence-Jones has already said she’ll take the case through the court system. Kotey said it is possible the challenge could head to Tallahassee.
“It would be up to the Florida Supreme Court to choose to take it,” Kotey said.
She said she is not sure of Spence-Jones’ chances of succeeding against Crist.
“It’s an interesting argument in light of the re-election,” Kotey said. “I wouldn’t think it holds water. But it’s certainly an argument to be made.”
Spence-Jones’ supporters are sticking with her.
“In this country, you’re innocent until proven guilty,” said George Garcia, a volunteer in Spence-Jones’ election campaign. “She’s a fighter. She’s someone who’s stepped up for the community.”
Spence-Jones cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s election. She received 2,043 votes, or 53.48 percent. Her closest competitor, the Rev. Richard P. Dunn, received 601 votes, or 15.73 percent. In 2005, Spence-Jones defeated Dunn in a runoff to win her first term.
Spence-Jones set the fundraising pace in District 5, with more than $40,000 through Jan. 8, while real estate manager Georges William raised $30,000, half of it loaned to his own campaign. William received 151 votes, 3.95 percent.
Other than Spence-Jones, Dunn and William, others in the race included: Miami-Dade Public Schools administrator Pierre E. Rutledge, with 319 votes, 8.35 percent; attorney Erica Wright with 284 votes, 7.43 percent; American Intercontinental University representative Robert Malone Jr. with 189 votes, 4.95 percent; David Chiverton, chief executive officer of Miami/Miami-Dade Weed and Seed, with 138 votes, 3.61 percent; Howard University economist Dufirstson Neree with 66 votes, 1.73 percent and homemaker Yashica Brown-Rogne with 29 votes, 0.76 percent.
The district includes Overtown, Lemon City, Model City, Buena Vista, Spring Garden, Little Haiti, Wynwood and Liberty City. There are about 40,000 registered voters in the district. The election attracted fewer than 10 percent of them – 3,820 voters.
South Florida Times photographer Khary Bruyning contributed to this report.
Photo: Michelle Spence-Jones. By Khary Bruyning.