Ethics Commission clarifies rules for elected officials doing business in their city

Elected officials in Miami-Dade County can run businesses that interact with their city’s government if the scope of work is clerical in nature and does not involve advocacy, according to a draft opinion issued Wednesday by the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

The opinion was issued in response to an inquiry from Coral Gables Commissioner Melissa Castro, who sought guidance from the Ethics Commission on her permitting business after she was elected last April. Castro owns a company called M.E.D. Expediters, Inc., which helps clients secure building permits. The company provides permitting services throughout the country but does approximately 40% of its business in Coral Gables, according to Castro.

In the draft opinion, Miami-Dade Ethics Commission Executive Director Jose Arrojo wrote that “an official and his or her private company employees may represent clients engaging with the official’s city, as long as the contacts or representation are limited to ministerial matters or simple informational requests.”

However, Arrojo wrote, if those interactions involve advocacy by the official or their employees in a matter that requires “responsive decision-making or discretionary action by a city official, board member, or employee, then a prohibited conflict of interest may be found.”

The draft opinion lands at a time of heightened political tension in Coral Gables, where activists are currently gathering signatures in a recall effort against Mayor Vince Lago. Castro and Lago have been at odds on multiple split votes in recent months, including the decision to fire the city manager and hire his successor, as well as the 3-2 vote to raise commissioners’ salaries by 78%.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Castro said the opinion “stands as a testament to my unwavering commitment to transparency and zero tolerance for corruption.”

“From the moment I took office, I made it clear that I would leave no stone unturned in ensuring my actions align with the highest ethical standards,” she said. “Despite facing relentless political attacks aimed at undermining my integrity and pushing me into compromising positions, the Ethics Commission’s thorough evaluation has vindicated my steadfast dedication to ethical governance.”

The draft opinion is an important clarification from the Ethics Commission, which had lengthy discussions at its February and March meetings about the degree to which city and county building employees use discretion in approving permits and whether it’s typical for outside parties to exert influence on those government employees.

The county ethics code prohibits public officials from receiving compensation from third parties — directly or indirectly — if the compensation is related to matters where the third parties are seeking a benefit from the city.

Castro has asserted that the work her company performs is purely ministerial. Speaking before the Ethics Commission at the Feb. 14 meeting, she said that most permitting work is now done electronically online.

“If you abide by the rules, you get a permit, and the reviewer has to abide by the building code,” Castro said at the meeting. “There’s no influencing there, either. My company does not go to any commissions or present to any boards to influence any decisions. All we do is clerical work. We’re a middle person.”

Impact extends beyond Coral Gables

While the draft opinion was issued in response to Castro’s inquiry, Arrojo, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said at the February meeting that he thinks “it’s going to have a much broader application.”

At that meeting, Ethics Commission board members appeared hesitant to take a stance on the matter, saying their job isn’t to rewrite the ethics code. But Arrojo cautioned that it would need to be addressed “sooner or later.”

“It’s an issue, and I think that’s why your lawyers have over the years really tiptoed around it, but Ms. Castro has kind of brought it to everyone’s attention,” Arrojo said.

The new draft opinion is an about-face from an earlier version the Ethics Commission issued about six months ago, which said Castro would run afoul of the ethics code if she benefits financially from permitting services in Coral Gables.

In the ensuing months, the commission heard presentations from outside experts, including attorney and former Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Meyers, former Miami-Dade County Building Official Charles Danger and former Coral Gables City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez.

In addition to hearing from experts, the commission grappled with the political fabric of Miami-Dade County, where most cities consider politicians to be part-time employees.

“The goal here is not to punish,” Ethics Commission Board Member Nelson Bellido said at the March meeting, “but the goal here is to deter public officials from abusing their position in any way.”