Ousted Miami commissioner facing criminal charges sues city over voting map change

As former Miami Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla awaits trial on corruption charges, he is suing the city over recent changes to the voting map that he says are illegal.

Díaz de la Portilla and Jose Garcia, the pastor at the Allapattah church New Hope Ministries, accuse the city of violating a state law when commissioners approved a change to Miami’s voting map in January. In a 3-1 vote, commissioners shifted the boundary for District 1 to include the longtime family home of Commissioner Miguel Angel Gabela, whose house had been excluded from the district in a previous voting map approved in June.

Gabela had initially proposed re-including his home in the district in December shortly after he beat Díaz de la Portilla in the runoff election. Commissioners approved the shifted boundary in a vote that included Gabela, and on Christmas Eve, Mayor Francis Suarez vetoed the resolution, citing a state law that prevents sitting elected officials from redrawing district boundaries to favor themselves.

City of Miami Commissioner Miguel Angel Gabela listens during a City Commission meeting to vote to repeal a city law allowing super-sized digital billboards at the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Arsht performance center, at City Hall, on Thursday February 08, 2024.
City of Miami Commissioner Miguel Angel Gabela listens during a City Commission meeting to vote to repeal a city law allowing super-sized digital billboards at the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Arsht performance center, at City Hall, on Thursday February 08, 2024.

In January, commissioners allowed the mayor’s veto to stand. But in separate 3-1 vote where Gabela did not participate, the commission approved the same boundary change that places Gabela’s home in his district. The day before, Miami-Dade’s top ethics official said that Gabela would violate the county ethics code if he voted on the matter.

In the lawsuit they filed Monday, Díaz de la Portilla and Garcia cite that same state law while arguing that the commission’s January vote was illegal.

“The City’s gerrymandered redistricting to accommodate the residency of an incumbent Commissioner violates Florida law and the Constitutions and laws of the United States and the State of Florida, and denying them equal protection of the laws,” reads the lawsuit.

The law went into effect July 1.

“Districts may not be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a candidate for member of the governing body or an incumbent member of the governing body based on the candidate’s or incumbent’s residential address,” the law states.

The lawsuit was filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court by Díaz de la Portilla’s defense attorney, Benedict Kuehne. Kuehne is also representing Díaz de la Portilla in a criminal case that led to the commissioner’s removal from office in September after he was arrested and accused of selling his vote in exchange for campaign contributions and gifts. The commissioner, who pleaded not guilty, is awaiting trial.

The complaint lists the city of Miami and City Clerk Todd Hannon as defendants. City Attorney Victoria Méndez did not immediately respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment on Tuesday.

Multiple lawsuits

Monday’s lawsuit is the latest in a wave of litigation stemming from the controversial redrawing of the city’s voting map. In separate suit, Díaz de la Portilla has accused Gabela of living outside the district boundaries as he campaigned for the District 1 seat. That case is pending.

Meanwhile, the city’s voting map is in flux because of a separate federal lawsuit. Community groups and residents allege the city adopted an unconstitutional, racially gerrymandered map that used racial quotas to sort city residents by race and ethnicity.

After a two-day trial in early February, the judge is expected to rule in the federal case in the coming weeks. The city and plaintiffs could settle before then.