In the last city commission regular meeting, Vice Mayor Josh Liebman chastised Mayor Phil Stoddard and Commissioner Bob Welsh for apparently working together to selectively distribute a city seal-stamped flyer to area residents. What may have started as a simple message from the mayor and Welsh, encouraging community involvement, soon devolved into a possible Sunshine Law violation and seven units of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue on the scene of a possible city block explosion.
The front side of the flyer in question offers tree planting services and energy tips signed by Mayor Stoddard. On the back side is a political cartoon designed in part by Welsh, along with editorial commentary related to a range of local issues. Welsh made a name for himself before serving on the commission as Bicycle Bob; dogmatic distributor of political flyers to the homes of South Miamians.
“If the city pays for it, it should be an informative piece, not an editorial piece,” said Liebman. “Further it should be distributed through the postal service to every resident and not selectively distributed. I didn’t receive a copy.” Mayor Stoddard responded by saying that although he originally intended to use the communication budget for the flyer, he ultimately did not. Welsh said he paid for printing costs. He also said that if Liebman had received a copy of the flyer it would have been a violation of the Sunshine Law.
The use of the city seal on a document not approved by the entire commission also came into question. “Two people on the commission should not decide the content of a (city sealed) flyer that is really and truly poorly done,” said Commissioner Valerie Newman. “I am embarrassed that people thought this was a product of the city. It was not.” Stoddard implied that the interim city manager Steve Alexander approved the final draft.
“I never saw the flyer in its final form,” said Alexander in a subsequent interview with South Miami News. “There are two issues here. One was a newsletter the mayor was sending out which was oriented toward community involvement and education, things like that are acceptable for the seal. Apparently the flip side of the document was more opinionated and I am not sure how it came to be that there were two newsletters on one piece of paper.” Alexander referred legal questions regarding the use of the seal to city attorney Thomas Pepe. He was out of town and unavailable for comment at press time.
José “Pepe” Herrera has been village attorney for Virginia Gardens for 19 years and serves as counselor to the South Miami Grey Ghosts soccer team. He said municipalities will often pass ordinances restricting city seal usage and that the flyer is unquestionably in direct violation of the Sunshine Law. “This flyer guarantees an invitation for scrutiny and potential censorship (of the authors of the flyer)” said Herrera.
“Whoever advised them to do this did not understand the dynamics of following government protocol and the repercussions of not doing so.The use of the city seal gives the perception of an official majority vote on those addressed issues, which is misleading. It puts other commissioners in a very awkward position and gives the appearance of violation of Sunshine Law. It is clearly disrespectful to, not only other members of the commission, but to the staff and the general public.”
At the meeting, Welsh’s response to the possible Sunshine Law violation of producing a flyer with the mayor was to say: “If he sent it to the print shop and then I put stuff on it and I didn’t discuss it with him and he didn’t discuss it with me.” It was unclear if he stated this as an explanation of the way the flyer came about, or as a hypothetical example for how to get around the Sunshine Law.
Herrera said if that was in fact how they planned it it’s immaterial because “you can’t use a surrogate to communicate; someone who serves as a conduit for unification of thought doesn’t cure potential violation of the Sunshine Law. They crystallized their position outside of the public purview.”
When Bicycle Bob made it out to one of the residents’ homes who requested a tree be planted on their property in response to the flyer advertisement, the commissioner hit a gas line as he was digging a hole for the tree on that Sunday afternoon May 27. The seven units of the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Department were then called out to the scene at 5811 SW 63 Ave. The team spent an hour on site diverting traffic and sealing the gas leak to avoid a potential gas explosion.