While a battle over the City of Miami's voting district map rages in the U.S. Supreme Court, another legal fight is hanging in the balance at the local level: a city commission candidate is waiting to hear if he's been officially drawn out of the district he's been campaigning in for months.
Miguel Angel Gabela is a candidate for Miami's District 1 commission seat. In November, he faces off against incumbent Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, whom Gabela lost to in a runoff election in 2019.
Gabela sued the city last week in Miami-Dade County Circuit court, alleging that he was purposely drawn out of District 1 by the commission in June to benefit Diaz de la Portilla. He claims the city violated a newly enacted Florida statute that prohibits municipalities from drawing districts to favor one candidate over another.
"Basically he took his opponent out, therefore curtailing the electorate's vote and their Constitutional rights as Americans to pick a candidate of their choice," Gabela told WLRN this week.
The city has been embroiled in a tense legal battle over its voting map since last December. A collection of community advocacy groups represented by the ACLU of Florida alleged in federal court that the city was guilty of unconstitutionally packing voters into districts based on their race and ethnicity, and the court ordered the city to draw a new map.
Commissioners called a special meeting on June 14, and adopted a new map drawn by map consultant Miguel de Grandy with instructions from each commissioner. That new map moved Gabela's riverfront home, located between NW 17th Ave and Sewell Park, from District 1 into District 3. District 3 is represented by Commissioner Joe Carollo, who won't be termed out until 2025.
Gabela spoke out about the potential legal issue during the June 14 special meeting. During the public comment portion, Gabela asked commissioners from the podium to move his home back into District 1, where he says he's been campaigning since February, to avoid a lawsuit.
"It is quite obvious that this is a political move on somebody’s behalf," Gabela said to commissioners. "You don’t need any more lawsuits in the city of Miami. Please, don’t do this to me and don’t make me go out and get myself an attorney and have to sue the city because I don't want to do this."
After his comments, commissioners still approved the map that's at issue in the courts. Gabela said that because he warned them in advance, the city cannot say that they didn't know his house was being cut out of his district.
Supreme Court decision could make the case moot
The ACLU of Florida's lawsuit now sits with the U.S. Supreme Court, as the plaintiffs have asked Justice Clarence Thomas to order Miami to use a map of their own creation in the November elections. The city, in turn, has argued to the highest court that the elections are too close and changing the map now would be burdensome. A decision in that case is expected soon.
If the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs, Gabela's house will still be in District 1 and his local case would become moot.
But if the city and the commissioners' map is accepted, Gabela's lawsuit asks the local circuit court separately to invalidate the city's map.
"We're not connected, but both the ACLU and we are trying to invalidate the same map. It's attacking it from two different perspectives," Gabela's attorney, David Winker, told WLRN. "Theirs' is on racial [gerrymandering] and constitutionality. We're focused more on the state issues and the effect that it has on voters and the choice that they have."
Gabela's suit also alleges that Miami violated the city charter and code by not providing the public proper notice of the June 14 special meeting.
Official notice for the meeting said that the public would not be allowed to speak because commissioners were only expected to discuss the map. But once the meeting the meeting started and it became clear the commissioners were going to vote, residents were allowed to give comment.
Gabela and Winker argue that this was done to minimize public input and in violation of the city's own provisions on how meetings must be noticed to the public.
Winker said that the city is expected to be served the lawsuit this week.
WLRN reached out to Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla and the Miami City Attorney's office for comment via email on Tuesday. The city's communications office said they received the request for comment and are working on a response.
In a statement to the Miami Herald last week, City Attorney Victoria Méndez said the city would reserve comment until they were officially served.
This story is published as part of a collaboration between City & State Florida and WLRN News. Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Ceballos at firstname.lastname@example.org.