Commissioner Ken Russell Opens Up About Losing A Key Vote and West Grove
Ken Russell arrives for his swearing in as a Commissioner

Going in, everyone knew the September 29th Miami Commission meeting was going to be a raucous affair.

District 2 Commissioner Ken Russell had earlier called for the firing of the city lawyer. He contends that she withheld emails he had requested to make a decision. For her part, the City Lawyer Victoria Mendez, says it was just an oversight.

Whatever happened between them was long beside the point. By the time the Commission met there was only one issue: whether the city attorney should be fired because that’s what Commissioner Ken Russell had asked for.

At first the Commissioners tussled over whether there would be any public comment whatsoever, despite the overflow crowd, which had come to comment.

IRONY ALERT!!! Whether the public was allowed to speak required a legal opinion. All eyes turned to the city lawyer, Victoria Mendez, who was sitting on the dais. Obviously, she couldn’t give an opinion about whether people should be allowed to trash her and her reputation. Consequently, she had to recuse herself and the opinion was given by one of her staff. Why was Mendez even up there?

BTW: The legal opinion was that if there is to be action taken — like a vote — the public has the right to speak. If, however, it was only to be a discussion among the Commissioners, there is no obligation to hear from the constituents. The Commissioners voted to open up the floor to public comments.

After the public got to weigh in for about 2 hours — for Mendez, against Mendez — Russell restated his case for Mendez’s removal and responded to everything he had heard. He also alleged a dark conspiracy to smear him and his staff over this issue, saying his office had been hit with multiple Public Records Requests looking for documents and texts from Russell and his entire staff to be used against them.

Russell also reacted angrily to one person who I thought would have been his ally, muckraking radio host Grant Stern. Stern was also calling for the firing of Mendez and during the public comments made the most persuasive case. However, earlier Stern had to be admonished personally by the Chair near the beginning of the meeting when he loudly — and editorially — coughed from the public gallery.

Watch the Special Meeting:

When Russell admonished Stern, I was surprised. But, Russell alleged the one time he met privately with him — and, ironically, Victoria Mendez — Stern was so rude that everyone felt the need to apologize to Mendez.

Apparently, people had been trying to make hay from the fact that Russell was receiving emails from Stern. He acknowledged that, but said that anyone can write to a Commissioner and people should not make too much of it.

Russell finally made his motion at to remove the city attorney. And then there was a long pause waiting for someone to second his motion. No one did. Game over.

Win or lose, Commissioner Russell had agreed to an interview with the Not Now Silly Newsroom after the vote. This is the first 10 minutes of our free-wheeling discussion:

Q: Icarus flew too close to the sun. Now what?

A: Oh. You want to talk about today—

Q: Partially.

A: There’s so many things. There’s that. There’s your public records request with Armbrister—

Q: We’ll get there. *

A: And, we lost the Trolley garage.

Q: We’ll get there. *

A: You do need some time with me. I may need to go to the bathroom.

Q: I’ve got more topics than you got time.

A: I’ve got ‘em too, trust me.

Q: My impression is that you’ve set back the cause of reform.

A: Oh! Interesting. Okay.

Q: What’s that expression, “When you shoot for the King, you better make sure that you get the job done”?

A: I disagree. The only way I could have shored that vote up and had it in my pocket walking into that meeting was to have broken “sunshine” [laws] and I knew that if I did this—specifically because I’m fighting about a public records issue and what is right, and about transparency I had to do it the right way. 

So, with 100% sincerity, not one Commissioner up there saw that coming. The City Manager didn’t know about it. The only one who knew about it was Vickie [Victoria Mendez] because I had the courtesy to talk to her before hand.

As far as flying too close to the sun: We’ve been doing that since we got in Day One. 

You were probably the first interview that I had when I sat down with you behind the church and talked. We talked about plans and goals and dreams and ideas. And, it’s been 9, 10 months now and we’ve done a lot. I’m really encouraged by what we’ve accomplished. We’ve taken on some big goals and tamed them. We’ve gotten a lot of reform done. We’ve gotten a lot of change done.

You can’t win everything, but it doesn’t mean you don’t go for it. 

Before I pulled the trigger on this, I knew this was going to be a tough battle. I knew nobody wanted to fire her. I knew that this re-plat issue—such a small issue in the minds of the other Commissioners because none of their districts need to go to a warrant for a re-plat. Only my district.

So, I knew I was going to have trouble for this, but I knew that documents were withheld from me by my own attorney. And there’s no way I can turn a blind eye to that. There’s no way I cam slap her on the wrist, or say “Don’t do it next time”. To me there is no way a client/attorney privilege can survive without trust. And, that was broken. And, it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a knee-jerk to a momentary thing. We had been trying to get information on this case for months and months and months.

So I knew, win, lose or draw, I had to bring it to my commissioners and see where they stood. Would they stand with me and agree that that was enough. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of the other pressures that get involved in these situations, caused a lot of distraction.

And so, I didn’t prevail. But, what did prevail, and the other conversations that the other Commissioners had after I lost the vote were about reform and the change and the specifics to this case. Everything from not allowing the buiding permit on a T-plat until everything’s right. About forcing the [city] attorney’s office to have an official LSR opinion, instead of being able to weigh in willy nilly when any developer wants them to.

They [city attorney’s office] should never have been able to have had an opinion on this case. The fact that they did was because they were requested by an outsider. They don’t work for the outsider; they work for the city. If the city had asked for an opinion, “Oh, we’re not sure about how we’re interpreting our code” the city attorney can help us. That would have been the appropriate time [for the city attorney to get involved]. That never happened. So that was a change that was suggested.

More changes are going to be suggested. So, I don’t look at it as a step back for reform. I think I’s just the start.

Q: Do you think that following the vote the city attorney has been put on a shorter leash, or do you think it’s business as usual?

A: I think if I ever ask for documents in the future, I will get them. And, I think that is a big change that will happen.

Q: This all came out of Battersea. But, even the documents I got from this office the other day, of the 13 properties that you identified that may have been illegally split. It turns out that those were all NCD-3 [Neighborhood Construction District; properties in South Grove], when you know my concern is NCD-2 … 

A: [In unison] The NCD-2 [of the West Grove]. Right. Right.

Q: I am also one of those people who think that Battersea [in South Grove] got far more attention than it should have when you’ve got people on Grand Avenue that are suffering. And, not just a little bit. That’s probably one of the worst ghettos in Miami. How do you reassure the people of Coconut Grove now — West Grove that you’re on it, when all this attention was for Battersea?

A: Of course. You absolutely have to have respect and heart for when you hear [name redacted] come to City Commission and say “Why are you all worried about this when we’re going through this?” And, she’s not wrong. She’s absolutely right.

Q: But she was off topic today.

A: It will always be off topic because we’re going to be talking about something that’s not that and nothing is as important as that to her. And, she’s not wrong. We’re going to be talking about, yannow, picking up dog poop or something, and that’s not as important as someone getting evicted. We’re going to be talking about the color of houses and that’s not as important.

So she can literally come to every meeting and scream that same mantra and she would not be wrong because they are not getting enough attention. It’s not getting fixed.

It’s not fair to say that we can’t do any other business until those things are attended to because Battersea came and Battersea had to be attended to.

But, guess what? Grand Avenue has come and we are attending to that too. I have knocked on every single door of every potential evicted resident on Grand Avenue. So to say that there’s no attention being paid, is actually incorrect. The lawsuit was filed [against an owner who has not maintained the property, leaving residents living among cockroaches, mold and mildew, and raw sewage backing up] at my request to force the owner, the slumlord, to bring those into code or to help everybody with relocation. That was not a simple thing, but when I realized that that wasn’t enough, at first I went, “We are doing a lot” but then I realized that if the result is not there, then it’s not enough. If I haven’t either saved their home, or found them a new home, it’s not enough. And, the buildings are still coming down. And, it’s not enough.

So she’s not wrong. I can’t fault her for being as angry as she is.

Q: All the people who stood up [to speak] today — the West Grove people who got up to talk they were all basically saying “We’re being ignored.” How do you reassure them they’re not being ignored? Their perception is different.

A: Yes. I don’t know how I should better communicate the actions that we are taking in the West Grove. A lot of the initiatives, like the purchase of the Trolley garage and gifting it back to the community; thematic and historic designation of all the wood frame homes that would then find funding to renovate them, which can then convert them into affordable housing; these are all goals that I have. They’re not overnight goals, but they’re happening. You can see the list of projects that we have intended that are on those Post-it notes on the wall. Those are the legislative things that we’re trying to accomplish. So, there’s a lot on the plate.

But that is one of the top—that is one of the top because I know that West Grove is disappearing onn a daily basis and residents are moving out on a daily basis. 

*  Our conversation lasted another 25 minutes. Unfortunately my recorder malfunctioned and the rest of the conversation was lost. It was a wide-ranging discussion that included my records request [Read: An Open Reply To Miami’s Public Records Department and Another Open Email To Miami’s Public Records Department]; the Trolley garage that Russell thought he had purchased on behalf of the city, but found out this week a private owner scooped it out from under him; and Grant Stern. All lost.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.