MIAMI — The Rev. Richard P. Dunn II is the city’s newest commissioner, replacing suspended Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
Commissioners made the appointment Tuesday night after hearing emotional pleas from residents. Dunn raised his right hand, and was sworn in to office.
Before the 4-0 vote, commissioners deadlocked twice between Dunn and School Board Operations Director Pierre Rutledge. The appointment, however, came with a condition.
The vote for Dunn came only after he publicly agreed with Commissioner Francis Suarez’s suggestion that he serve as a “caretaker” for the District 5 seat and would not run again in November’s general election.
When asked why he would agree to take the seat under such a stipulation, Dunn said he refused to be selfish when his community was in desperate need of healing.
“I am a steward of District 5 and not the owner of District 5. We were deadlocked and somebody had to step in and do something,’’ Dunn told reporters. “I’ve always had this district’s best interests at heart and I offered myself as a public servant.”
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 totaling $50,000 to a company she and family members owned, and spending the money for personal use.
Spence-Jones has maintained that she is innocent.
Gov. Charlie Crist suspended Spence-Jones from the Miami City Commission after the grand-theft charge was filed. He suspended her again on Jan. 14, after she won a special election for her replacement on Jan. 12.
In the Jan. 12 special election, Spence-Jones received more than 53 percent of the vote and defeated eight other candidates, including Dunn, who was the second-highest vote winner. Prior to Crist’s first suspension, Spence-Jones was re-elected on Nov. 3 with nearly 83 percent of the vote.
If city commissioners on Tuesday had not reached a decision on Spence-Jones replacement by midnight, another special election would have been called. Dunn’s agreement to the terms at the last hour prevented that from happening.
Some supporters on Tuesday celebrated, but not everyone in Dunn’s camp was completely happy with the outcome.
Community activist Tangela Sears said she was offended.
“I’m happy that they finally made a decision, because the district does need representation, but I don’t agree with Suarez cutting the deal that he could only be appointed if he agreed not to run in November. This is a democracy, so I have a problem with that,” Sears declared.
Suarez, however, said he didn’t force Dunn to do anything, and commended the reverend’s sacrifice for the good of his community.
“I don’t feel like I pressured him. I think it shows incredible leadership on his part that he would put aside his own personal ambitions for the betterment of the community and the district,” Suarez said.
District 5 includes Overtown, Lemon City, Model City, Buena Vista, Spring Garden, Little Haiti, Wynwood and Liberty City.
In addition to Dunn and Rutledge, candidates for the District 5 seat included former Assistant City Attorney Erica Wright, Harvard graduate Dufirstson Neree, entrepreneur David Chiverton; Alison Austin, CEO of the Belafonte Tacolcy Center; Basil Binns; Charles Flowers, a former member of the Tuskegee Airmen; and community activist/educator Robert Malone Jr.
Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff said he was impressed with the list of candidates.
“I am blown away by the qualifications of the all of the candidates,” he said.
On Jan. 4, a week before the Jan. 12 special election, Spence-Jones filed a civil complaint against Crist in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, seeking to prevent him from suspending her a second time if she were to win. The complaint led to a court hearing last week in which a judge denied Spence-Jones’ request for a temporary injunction to prevent the governor from removing her from her seat.
The judge did, however, set a hearing for Spence-Jones to receive a permanent injunction against the suspension.
That hearing is scheduled for Feb. 12.
Spence-Jones, who is still fighting in court, recently acquired the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has filed its own motion to intervene in the case on behalf of the voters in District 5. The ACLU argues that Crist is violating the will of the people by suspending Spence-Jones a second time, despite her overwhelming victories at the polls.
“I want to be clear. We are intervening not to defend the rights of the candidate but to defend the rights of the voters,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “We believe that the governor has essentially disenfranchised the voters of District 5 because she was qualified to run, and if a person is qualified to run, they should be qualified to serve if they win.”
Simon also noted the historical magnitude of the case being the first of its kind in Florida in which a governor has suspended an elected official twice for the same alleged crime.
“There have been lots of times when governors have suspended public officials who’ve been charged, but I don’t think there’s been a single instance in Florida’s history in which the public official was suspended again after winning re-election based on the same charge,” Simon said.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Platzer is scheduled to hear the ACLU’s motion on Jan. 29 at 9 a.m.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Rev. Richard Dunn II