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Following a humiliating loss in Court last week, the City of Coral Gables is seeking to reach a settlement with the Gables Accountability Project (GAP) in the lawsuit regarding the construction of a Wawa gas station across the street from George Washington Carver Elementary and Middle Schools.
On Wednesday, January 5th, the City and fellow defendant’s, Bahamian Village, LLC and Wawa Florida, LLC., motion to dismiss the case was heard by Judge Michael A. Hanzman. Judge Hanzman’s decision painted a clear picture for the City, Wawa and developer, Bahamian Village, the City’s decision to allow a gas station on the site he said was, “blatantly illegal.” (Read: Judge: City Attorney’s Actions “Blatantly Illegal,” Denies Motion To Dismiss Wawa Suit).
The City initially sent out a statement which seemed to imply an appeal could be on its way. “The City disagrees with the judge’s ruling and continues to believe that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction,” said City Attorney Miriam Ramos.
However, following an hour-and-a-half “shade” session during the City Commission meeting on Tuesday, where members of the Commission met behind closed doors with the City Attorney and the City’s outside counsel to discuss the litigation, the City change its tune.
In a statement to Gables Insider, Ramos stated that, “the City wishes to seek a stay of the litigation in order to allow for time to explore a resolution to this matter.”
Sources at City Hall tell Gables Insider that the City would like to find a resolution that would prevent further litigation and will be asking GAP to join them in the motion to stay.
The lawsuit, which was filed in January of 2021, irritated the City, which had a desire to allow the construction of the project.
So much so, that at the February 9th City Commission meeting, as previously reported on Gables Insider, Vice Mayor Michael Mena, then Commissioner Mena, lashed out at GAP’s attorney David Winker saying, “these are facts. I don’t live in a post fact world, and while I do respect people hiring litigators, filing lawsuits let me be very clear, the lawsuit that you filed is frankly frivolous. I think it’s, it’s frankly sanctionable and I think it has no basis in the law whatsoever. And I’m not saying that in my capacity as a commissioner, I’m saying that in my capacity as a lawyer.”
Ramos also seemed pretty sure of the City’s case following the previous hearing with Judge Hanzman, explaining in an email to the Commission that she was hopeful that “the City will prevail in having this complaint dismissed with prejudice at the next hearing.”
Judge Hanzman disagreed with Mena and Ramos’ legal opinion.
Not The First Legal Interpretation From Both Called Into Question
This is not the first time that Mena’s and Ramos’ legal opinions have been called to question on a matter affecting the City.
As you will recall, at the May 11th City Commission meeting, Mena voted in favor of the no-bid sale of the surface parking lot at 350 Greco Avenue to a group made up of his two bosses, John H. Ruiz and and former Coral Gables Vice Mayor Frank C. Quesada, below the property’s appraised value. At that meeting, Mena stated that Ramos had opined that he could vote and that no conflict existed. Ramos’ written opinion did not exist until after the meeting had concluded and members of the media, including Gables Insider, requested a copy.
The decision by Ramos and Mena brought about calls for their resignation from, among others, former federal prosecutor the late Leon Kellner.
By the time the issue came back up for a vote on May 31st, Mena changed his tune and decided to recuse himself from voting on the issue, due to the community outcry.
The vote did not take place and the City Commission, sans Mena, decided to start the process over and request an RFP for the sale of the property. The new deal, to the same buyer, yielded additional funds for the City as the property was sold at the appraised value and the electric vehicle chargers the City had previously been unable to negotiate were also included.
Process An Unnecessary Expense To Residents
In the GAP suit, the City could have prevented this entire process and saved thousands in taxpayer dollars.
Since the onset, Members of GAP, comprised of parents of students at the school and area residents, only sought a fair resolution to the situation the City itself brought upon the parties involved.
In fact, from the beginning, their only request was that the City reopen the process and allow for a fair discussion where all parties were at the table and a resolution was found that included all parties.
The City however, continued to cite the settlement agreement that allowed for the construction on the site, which specifically prevented the City from allowing any public input on the issue.
Also as part of the settlement, as you will recall, City Attorney and City Manager self-anointed themselves as the final decision makers on what would happen at the site. Ultimately, Judge Hanzman was inclined to rule that they had no such authority and that the City needed to have followed the legally established process under the Code.
With Judge Hanzman’s ruling, the writing is on the wall. The City is currently on path to lose the litigation due to its inability to defend the actions taken under what Judge Hanzman clearly stated was a “blatantly illegal” process.
The total cost in outside counsel to this point is unknown, but Gables Insider is currently investigating.
Although the City publicly express that they are interested in finding an amicable resolution and the developer is on board with the motion to stay in the hopes of finding a resolution, on January 12th the developer restarted construction on the site. The City’s take is that “at the moment, there is no injunction in place.” Giving no assurances that work would not continue as planned, even as the City, and the developer, seek to buy more time to complete a resolution.
Motion To Stay
It would be expected that the motion to stay be filed by Monday. If a stay is not requested, by Monday, the City would be required to answer the complaint and the case will continue to be heard by the Court.