Suspended Miami Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla is suing his challenger, Miguel Angel Gabela, alleging that Gabela is living in a home outside District 1 and does not meet a city requirement to be eligible for the election.
At the same time, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal issued an opinion Monday that upends the city’s interpretation of its own charter by redefining how long someone has to live in a city district before they can qualify to run for the City Commission.
The runoff election is Tuesday, with polls opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m.
Díaz de la Portilla’s lawsuit, filed Monday in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, accuses Gabela of living in a single-family home just outside the District 1 boundary. Gabela has said that since August, he has lived in a duplex he owns inside the recently redrawn District 1 boundaries.
“Gabela is a fraudster who is pretending he lives in District 1,” Díaz de la Portilla said in a text message.
Díaz de la Portilla faces criminal corruption charges after he allegedly sold his vote in exchange for political contributions and gifts, according to prosecutors. Suspended from his office since Sept. 15, he has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty in the pending case.
The lawsuit also names City Clerk Todd Hannon, Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Christina White and thecity’s canvassing board as defendants. Díaz de la Portilla is asking the court to rescind the certification of the results of Nov. 7 election and declare Díaz de la Portilla the outright winner. In the first round of voting, Díaz de la Portilla received 36% of the vote and Gabela received 28%.
Gabela’s attorney, Juan-Carlos Planas, called the lawsuit a “bizarre” maneuver that suggests Díaz de la Portilla might be worried about the election.
A legal opinion in a separate lawsuit initiated by Gabela to confirm his election eligibility appears to overshadow Díaz de la Portilla’s argument.
City officials have for years interpreted the charter to mean that in order to qualify for City Commission, the candidate has to have lived in the district boundaries for one year before the end of the qualifying period. In a unanimous order released Monday, a three-judge appellate panel wrote that the city of Miami’s residency requirements are written so broadly that anyone who has lived in a city district for a year, even if it it was many years ago, can qualify to run to represent that district.
Even before the boundaries changed in June, Gabela had lived in District 1 for two decades.
“The plain language of the City’s district residency requirement doesn’t require continuous residency, or residency immediately preceding qualification,” reads the opinion, which affirms a Miami-Dade Circuit judge’s decision.
In a statement, City Attorney Victoria Méndez told the Miami Herald the decision will cause an “unusual amount of chaos in city elections.”
“If I was born in the city of Miami and lived here for a year in 1974 as an infant, moved out for 48 years, I can now move back in a few days before the end of the qualifying period ends, and I can qualify to run for office based on this opinion,” she said. “You might as well do away with residency requirements.”
On Díaz de la Portilla’s lawsuit, Méndez said, “the thought that Gabela might not live in the district is really disheartening,” especially in light of the other ruling on the city’s residency requirements.