Questions Remain Over Control of Preservation Organization

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Questions Remain Over Control of Preservation Organization:

New legal filings provide insight into continued rift

Updated November 2, 2018 to reflect an opinion from Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila.

Following a court ruling last week that concluded a recent election for the Board of Directors of the Miami Design Preservation League was not legitimate, questions remain as to who is in control. The ruling reinstated Daniel Ciraldo as Executive Director but it is not clear who the legally recognized members of the Board are. After two groups claimed to be the legitimately elected Board, the City of Miami Beach requested no one speak on the group’s behalf until the issue was resolved. The City has not yet reacted to the recent ruling. Meanwhile, the legal filings continued this week with one group appearing to, as they say, follow the money. 
[UPDATE: In a letter to the City Commission, Miami Beach City Attorney Raul Aguila wrote, “Though the Motion for Temporary Injunction was denied, the Circuit Court case remains pending, which means that the dispute over the election for MDPL’s Board of Directors has not yet been resolved… Given that these matters (including the underlying dispute over the results of the election) remain pending, I recommend that the City Administration continue to obtain the consent of both putative Boards of Directors prior to the City entering into any agreements or other binding commitments with MDPL.”]

The battle started following a contentious and disputed election for the preservation organization’s Board of Directors. Accusations of fraud and vote buying accompanied a Facebook post by Ciraldo with a video of candidate Randy Hilliard attaching cash to membership applications accompanied by voter proxies.

After the election, two groups claimed victory: One chaired by Steve Pynes, the Board chair at the time of the election, and one chaired by Jack Johnson with members supported by Ciraldo. On the Saturday after the vote, a group comprised of 10% of the Board called an emergency meeting as allowed under the organization’s bylaws to discuss the election. They voted to throw out “any and all handwritten ballots that were presented at the election with cash attached” and declared any proxy signed by someone before they became an official member invalid. The group voted to remove Steve Pynes as Chair and Joe Geller as legal counsel, neither of whom attended the meeting.
The next move belonged to the “Pynes Board” which suspended Ciraldo with pay and locked him out of the MDPL offices. They then filed suit seeking to compel immediate injunctive relief to force Ciraldo to “recognize and accede to his suspension” and turn over access to the organization’s website, social media, and email. That request was what was denied last week by Judge Bronwyn Miller who wrote, “Under the circumstances presented, the Court cannot conclude that the election was legitimate, thus, Petitioner has failed to establish a clear legal right to relief.”
Which board is in control, however, is not clear. Is it the previous board, the Johnson elected board, or the group that met the Saturday after the election which would include the previous board members minus Pynes as Chair? Neither Ciraldo nor Pynes will comment but one Board member told RE:MiamiBeach that the organization is operating as if the Saturday morning meeting takes precedence. The MDPL website "Leadership" section reads “This page is under construction.” Earlier, Miller had issued a mediation order to the two groups. It is not known if mediation has been scheduled.
This week, Ciraldo, Johnson and Clothilde Luce, another member of the Johnson Board, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint filed by the Pynes Board for the injunctive relief and asked the Court for “an order determining defendant’s entitlement to attorney’s fees and costs.”  Ciraldo is represented by Stuart Reed, a former Board member and attorney who resigned from the MDPL Board to represent him. Ciraldo had set up a gofundme campaign for his legal defense fund. To date, he has raised $21,421 of a $35,000 goal. The original goal of $10,000 continued to increase as the case wore on. 
In addition, Ciraldo, Johnson and Luce filed requests for information and documentation from the “Pynes Board.” While Ciraldo and Johnson declined comment due to the ongoing litigation, a post on Facebook by Ciraldo gives some clue as to what the filings are about. In the post, he wrote, “You have my commitment we WILL get to the bottom of this, especially who is funding this behind the scenes and for what benefit.”


Specifically, the group has asked for information regarding legal fees billed or paid on behalf of MDPL or any members of the Pynes Board since January 1st of this year as well as the source and “identity of each payor.” In addition, they have requested information on all expenses incurred and the source and identity of each payor of those expenses. 
Ciraldo, Johnson, and Luce are also looking for information with regard to communications between Pynes or any member of the Pynes Board and three individuals: Hilliard, Ron Lowy, and former Mayor Matti Bower. According to the filing, they have requested “Copies of all emails, texts, instant message, letters, facsimile messages, and all communications ... regarding or pertaining in any way to a) the management of MDPL, b) MDPL directors elections, c) MDPL positions on any actual or potential land development plan(s) or proposal(s), d) the subject legal action, and e) all fees or costs related to legal services provided by Joseph S. Geller and/or Greenspoon Marder PA to MDPL and/or Plaintiff from January 1, 2018 to the present.”
While he wouldn’t comment for this article, in June Ciraldo told RE:Miami Beach, "It feels like MDPL is being attacked." He linked the unrest to former Mayor Bower and others who "are not happy about the new director of MDPL and the idea that we compromised with North Beach" referring to his support to increase density in the North Beach Town Center to secure developer support to designate the Tatum Waterway historic, a position later supported by voters. (Marie Hernandez, the MDPL Business Manager, who was named Acting Executive Director by Pynes’ Board, is Bower’s daughter.)
RE:MiamiBeach reached out to Lowy, Hilliard, and Bower for comment. Hilliard and Bower did not respond as of publication time.
In an email, Lowy called the request for communications around any development proposals “Absurd because there are no such communications as it refers to me. My interest is Art Deco Weekend primarily not individual projects.” Since chairing the 3rd Art Deco Weekend in the 80s, he said, his desire has been "to bring back [the] formal Art Deco Gala, clothes, cars, etc., bring [the] event to new heights.” Lowy said he doesn't recall the Board ever discussing land development projects at its meetings.
MDPL, founded by noted preservationist Barbara Baer Capitman and friends in 1976, is the oldest Art Deco Society in the world according to the organization’s website. It provides cultural and educational programs with its signature event, Art Deco Weekend, held each January. Earlier this year, MDPL released a survey by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau indicating the impact of the weekend at over $13m in direct business to the City of Miami Beach. It also advocates on behalf of preservation of significant architecture.

The MDPL offices, Art Deco Welcome Center, museum, and gift shop are located in a City of Miami Beach-owned building at 1001 Ocean Drive. Because of the arrangment with Miami Beach to manage the facility as well as City funding provided for MDPL events, the City was placed in an awkward position. In addition to asking that no one speak on behalf of MDPL at Board and Commission meetings, City funding has been withheld until resolution of the dispute.

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