The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust held a public forum Wednesday in the town of Surfside, spurred by “a significant volume of inquiries” from residents about the actions of their town’s leaders.
In short, the townspeople filed very many ethics complaints against their new mayor and commissioners, sometimes copying the county ethics committee via email.
“I can say that there has been, in the past, and continues to be, a significant volume of inquiries from Surfside residents regarding municipal transactions,” said Jose Arrojo, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
The county ethics watchdog wanted to discuss what does and does not constitute an ethics violation with community members and city leaders. They hope to educate the community so the people of Surfside don’t overwhelm the commission. The newly elected mayor, Schlomo Danzinger, estimates that the number of complaints could number in the hundreds, driven by a small group of active people.
The ethics commission focused on codes of ethics and the citizen’s bill of rights, including voting disputes, prohibited actions against private companies, and exploitation of official position.
The Ethics Commission reviews every email it receives and determines whether it meets the legal definition of an ethics complaint. Several Surfside people told NBC 6 they were interviewed for investigations against their elected leaders.
Danzinger told NBC 6 the complaints come from a group of residents who simply don’t agree with the direction they’re taking for city policy.
“You can’t please everyone all the time,” Danzinger said.
Four of the five members of the commission this year are new, elected after two turbulent years where meetings often turned into insults and shouting matches. Some of the scuffles stem from the condo collapse – which killed 99 people in 2021 – but not all.
“It comes down to the fact that the commission is just very dismissive of what the residents want,” said Robert Lisman, a Surfside resident who has filed several ethics complaints against the commissioners.
A series of controversies have erupted in the small community over the past two years.
Lisman felt misled after past and current commissioners said residents wouldn’t have to pay for burying Florida’s electrical and lighting utilities, but they would now pay with a thirty-year bond.
Earlier this summer, commissioners passed an ordinance to allow hotels to have more lounge chairs on the beach. Some people in the city have started a petition against the measure, fearing that the increased crowds will change the beach environment and interfere with sea turtles.
“This is again a policy change, not an ethical issue,” Danzinger said.
Then there was the decision to remove an LGBTQ Pride flag above City Hall after Danzinger feared the city would have to put up other flags to be fair.
Lisman said he felt the new leaders were acting in their own interests and beliefs rather than the best interests of the city. Earlier this summer, Danzinger asked the police to escort a woman from the commission meeting for not talking about the topics on the agenda.
“Shutting us up just because they don’t agree. That’s not right,” Lisman said.
Another of Lisman’s concerns is that a commissioner, Nelly Velasquez, is posting comments on the community website Nextdoor. Lisman is concerned that his posts on commission matters are a violation of Florida Sunshine Law.
Velasquez is the sole remaining commissioner of the old commission. She told NBC 6 that she posted on Nextdoor to talk about things the previous commission had accomplished. She said she detailed how the current commission only talks about walking and “changing the code to favor friends and personal business.”
“I don’t see how that would be a potential violation of the sun,” Velasquez said.
Danzinger told NBC 6 that he and the other commissioners should be careful not to reply to or comment on his posts, which would expose them to a violation. For him, it reminds him of the past few years when city leaders were raging against each other on social media.
“It’s bad behavior that needs to be unlearned,” Danzinger said.
Danzinger says the Ethics Commission comes to Surfside to “educate the public on what constitutes an ethical violation versus simply disagreeing with the policy in the hopes that they can reduce the volume of ’emails sent to them’.
The idea that people can vote the commission out of office in the next election, Lisman said, “It’s dismissive. Elected officials should represent all Surfside residents.
For context, the town of Surfside is small. Fewer than 1,500 people voted in the last election where one person doesn’t need a majority to win; they only need the most votes. For instance, Danzinger ousted the incumbent mayor with just 35% of the vote. Only 35 votes separated the three candidates. No commissioner obtained more than 21% of the votes.
This creates a contentious situation where the incumbents are not the first choice for most of the city.
The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust provides ethics training for elected officials, board members, employees, lobbyists, vendors and local government staff. Arrojo told NBC 6 that it’s “much less” common to do training for an entire community.
Arrojo says the county’s code of ethics does not prohibit actions that create “the appearance of impropriety.”