(Florida International University) -Michelle Spence-Jones returned to the Miami City Commission this week, two years after she was twice suspended by then Gov. Charlie Crist in the face of bribery and theft charges that eventually crumbled.
By most accounts, residents welcomed back the contentious and widely popular commissioner whom Crist suspended after charges were filed and suspended her again after she won the special election called after the first suspension.
With her return to City Hall, Spence-Jones has taken over from Richard P. Dunn II, who represented District 5 when she was suspended.
“I voted for Spence-Jones and I would vote for her again,” said Roy Williams, a retired cab driver who has lived in Liberty City for 43 years. “Give her time to get to work and help the community. Crime and jobs are at the top of the list.”
Spence-Jones was acquitted on the bribery charge five months ago and the state dropped a theft charge last week, citing lack of sufficient evidence to convict her after key testimony from former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler fell through.
She was first suspended in 2009, after state
prosecutors charged her with grand theft, accusing her of steering $50,000 in county money to a family business by allegedly forging a letter purportedly from Carey-Shuler. Months later, she was charged with soliciting a $25,000 bribe from Miami developer Armando Codina.
A jury acquitted Spence-Jones of the bribery charge and prosecutors dropped the grand theft charge after Carey-Shuler acknowledged that she had signed the letter.
Marvin Dunn, a former Florida International University professor and expert on the history of black Miami, said he was glad to have her back.
"She has been the most effective in that seat," said Dunn, founder of Roots in the City, a non-profit that hires needy residents to plant gardens in Miami inner-city areas. "She rides the district, she walks the district. People admire that."
Jerome Roberts, who works at Back Stage Photo Studio in the Village Flea Market, said Spence-Jones’ deep local roots are important.
“Politicians put on a fake smile when they’re going to speak. I don’t know how they do it. But she doesn’t,” Roberts said. “I want to see what she’s going to do. Its ‘show and tell’ now the game is on. People have their eyes on her now.”
It’s Spence-Jones’s blunt ways that get her into
trouble, said Walter Ireland, a retired executive chef who has lived in Liberty City for 13 years.
“I know her personally. She is a very good woman, very honest, very straightforward,” Ireland said. “The problem with Michelle [is] she is very outspoken and she is dedicated to actually to do what she advocated in [her] campaign, which is to work for the people.”
Dolores Baker said at first she thought Spence-Jones was guilty but changed her mind in the absence of proof.
“I think they did the right thing by getting her back because they couldn’t find no evidence,” said Baker, who is on disability. “If they couldn’t find no evidence to prove that lady was wrong, then they did more right by trying to get her job back and giving her some back pay.”
Armientha Thomas, who works for Healthsouth, believes Spence-Jones “should have never gotten into any trouble and should concentrate now on getting guns off the street.”
“She deserves her job back,” said Thomas, who moved to Liberty City from Carol City eight years ago. “She needs to listen to the people and try to do her best to proceed in their direction; it is the people that voted her in.”
After prosecutors dropped the remaining charge against Spence-Jones, Bobby Flam hung a poster proclaiming “Spence-Jones Not Guilty!” in the window of his Jumbo’s restaurant, the neighborhood institution his family has run for more than 50 years.
“They dropped the charges, so they weren’t able to prove she was guilty,” Flam said. “She was able to win the elections again and again because she is from around here and remains a very likeable figure to the community by staying involved and trying to help.”
Florida International University journalism students Leonela Bravo, Lee Castro, Carlos Cisneros, Maria Concha, Nicole Fernandez, Patricia Gonzalez, Anthony Henriquez, Adriana Perez, , Miguel Perez, John Roxborough, Morissia Thomas and Brandon Yee contributed to this story. Liberty City Link may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: NICOLE FERNANDEZ/LIBERTY CITY LINK
SIGN OF THE TIMES: A poster put up in Liberty City of District 5 City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. The sign says “not guilty” but in fact prosecutors dropped charges against her.