Miami-Dade County

Businesses closed for coronavirus, but City Hall can’t. Leaders can now vote from home

Businesses have shut down across Florida, but government work will go on.

To ensure city and county leaders can keep voting on local issues while respecting social distancing guidelines, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Friday allowing local commissions and councils to cast votes and conduct formal business from home using tools like video or telephone conference calls.

The executive order suspends a requirement in state law that require commissions to reach a physical quorum — a majority of commissioners must be physically present — in order to vote on government action.

In Miami Beach, for example, a quorum is reached when four of the seven members of the commission meet together at City Hall. Without the quorum, votes cannot be cast and government directives — like extending City Manager Jimmy Morales’ emergency powers — cannot be approved.

In his order, DeSantis suspended the in-person provision of the quorum rule. That means a quorum can now be reached even if a majority of commissioners are not in the same room, so leaders can vote from their homes.

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“It may not be business as usual here in Miami Beach,” City Attorney Raul Aguila said in a statement, “but the fact that our mayor and commissioners may now hold their commission meetings via telephonic or electronic participation sends a message that city business will continue to get done and we will continue to move forward throughout this extraordinary, unprecedented period.”

Aguila said he is not sure how the commission will utilize a vote-from-home method.

The governor’s order came after city and county attorneys across Florida sent letters to DeSantis asking him to relax the rule.

After not receiving a response in nearly two weeks, the law firm Weiss Serota instructed its clients in over a dozen Florida municipalities to conduct their meetings online regardless of the law or its unfavorable interpretation from Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Some, like Bal Harbour Village, did.

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But larger cities in Miami-Dade County, and the County Commission itself, have canceled commission meetings. The reason: an absence of formal direction from the state on virtual meetings. In the case of Miami, it’s because all five commissioners and Mayor Francis Suarez were quarantined after Suarez tested positive for COVID-19 after being in the same room with Brazilian President Jair Boslonaro’s press secretary, who also tested positive.

After DeSantis signed the order Friday, Miami Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla — who is self-quarantining but said he tested negative — told the Miami Herald he would call a special commission meeting Monday at 6 p.m.

“The most important part is keeping our people safe and healthy,” he said. “We need to act in a deliberate fashion but we have to act swiftly.”

A question raised by Díaz de la Portilla and echoed by the former president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida advocacy group, concerned abiding by Florida’s Sunshine Law requiring government meetings be open to the public.

Barbara Petersen, who served as president of the foundation until 2019, said DeSantis’ order did not appear to violate the open-government laws.

“The devil, of course, is in the details,” she wrote in an email. “But because the requirements of the [Sunshine Laws] are NOT waived, local agencies will have to figure out how to accommodate those who want to ‘attend’ a virtual meeting, including those who do not have internet access or computers.”

Petersen said the local governments could open a public meeting room and provide residents remote access via monitors.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava said she had hoped DeSantis would sign the order sooner.

The next commission meeting is not scheduled for another 18 days after a previously scheduled meeting was canceled due to the spread of coronavirus.

“I hope that it will include ways for the public to engage,” she said. “That is really a downside to virtual meetings.”

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