Settlement Reached in MDPL Dispute

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Settlement Reached in MDPL Dispute:

Board chaired by Jack Johnson in place, art deco weekend plans proceed

Following a contentious election that landed in court after two groups claimed victory, a settlement has been reached that recognizes a slate of directors chaired by Jack Johnson as the duly elected Board of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL). The election was marred by allegations of voter fraud after a video surfaced on Facebook of one candidate attaching $50 bills to new membership applications and vote proxies. While the dispute continued, the City of Miami Beach withheld $100,000 in funds for the organization’s signature Art Deco Weekend and asked that neither group represent themselves as speaking for MDPL before the City Commission or Land Use Boards.

Johnson’s Board supported Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo in his fight against the group led by former MDPL Board Chair Steve Pynes. Ciraldo became embroiled in the election when emails from “Jose Viernes” were sent to the entire MDPL membership questioning Ciraldo’s qualifications and salary. The emails touted an “Accountability Slate” of candidates seeking better financial reporting and more consultation with regard to positions on issues such as the density increase for North Beach Town Center which Ciraldo supported in exchange for new historic designations along Tatum Waterway. “Viernes” was later determined to be Board candidate Randy Hilliard, the subject of the Facebook video.
 
Ciraldo responded with his “Dream Team” list of candidates, now referred to as the “Johnson Board.” Following the election, Pynes sent Ciraldo an email that he had exceeded his authority through “continuous and ongoing attempts to interfere with this election process.” The Pynes’ Board suspended Ciraldo with pay then sought to enforce the suspension in Court. To reach a decision, Eleventh Circuit Judge Bronwyn Miller said she would first have to determine who the elected Board was and if the Pynes’ Board had the right to suspend Ciraldo. 
 
Last month, Miller ruled in favor of Ciraldo’s reinstatement as Executive Director and noted she “could not conclude the election was legitimate" citing "alleged election irregularities, including the payment of piles of cash, the ‘gifting’ of memberships, the drafting of proxies by individuals who were not yet members, the failure to corroborate membership information, the postponement of the original election, and the violation of the originally imposed deadline for candidate submission undermine the legitimacy of the election.”

Regarding Ciraldo's salary, she wrote, "[U]ltimately, the Board of Directors ratified the increase following careful, methodical, and well-researched presentations. Petitioner contends that Ciraldo’s response to the contentious pre-election efforts and lack of neutrality in the election process gives rise to a violation of some unidentified maxim. However, the neutrality requirement is not contained within the governing documents. As such, there is no indication that Ciraldo’s continued employment will result in irreparable harm. Instead, Ciraldo produced evidence that his leadership resulted in the resolution of a six-figure judgment against Petitioner and brought financial stability to the organization."

Johnson told RE:MiamiBeach the settlement was the result of a mediation session this week. “The Pynes’ Board has renounced all claim to be members of the Board of MDPL and has acknowledged that my board is the duly elected Board,” he said.
 
When asked why he thought the Pynes’ group gave up, Johnson referenced Miller's ruling. “The Judge’s order didn’t simply state that the preliminary injunction which was requested by the Pynes' Board was not granted, it also went into great detail on the reasons for her decision which basically demolished all of their arguments so it was clear, I think, to them as well as to us that if the trial was to continue to the quo warranto phase they would have little chance of prevailing. They had no further argument to make.” Quo warranto is a legal action that challenges someone’s right to office. At the outset, Ciraldo’s legal counsel Stuart Reed motioned for a quo warranto action. Reed was a member of the MDPL Board and part of the Johnson slate but he resigned to represent Ciraldo.
 
Johnson said this week’s settlement ends all legal action in the case. Under the agreement each side is responsible for their own legal fees. Ciraldo had set up a legal defense fund through gofundme. As of today, he had raised $21,421 out of a $35,000 goal. Johnson said some of Ciraldo’s legal fees were also “paid by generous members of the Johnson Board and other contributions as well.” 
 
And what about the organization’s signature Art Deco Weekend? “Art Deco Weekend is going to proceed,” Johnson said. “The former co-chairs of Art Deco Weekend [Lori Bakkum and Rusty Lee] who were part of the Pynes’ Board resigned their positions as co-chairs last week even before the mediation. As soon as they did so my Board met and we appointed a new chair of Art Deco Weekend who has taken the reins.” The new chair is Joel Levine.
 
“Lori and Rusty have given us all the information that we need to take up where they left off,” Johnson said. “We are proceeding from where they left off and making changes as necessary. We believe that Art Deco Weekend is going to go forward and be very successful.”
 
He noted there are sponsorships in place and additional sponsorships being worked on. In the meantime, with regard to the City funding he said, “We have notified the City Manager and the City Attorney of the mediation agreement and it’s our understanding that the Commission will be taking up that issue on Wednesday.” The $100,000 in funding was included in the current budget as a placeholder pending resolution of the dispute. It is a discussion item on next week’s Commission agenda. [UPDATE: The City Commission on November 14 agreed to provide the $100,000 which is a combination of in-kind funding for police and fire personnel and reimbursable funding for third party security at night while the area remains set up for the festival.]
 
Johnson said the Board is not planning to make any staff changes. At the time of the election, the Johnson slate included:
 
John Bachay 
Timothy Dupont-Stinedorf 
Jack Finglass 
Ira Giller
Jack Johnson
Michael Kinerk
Christina Labuzetta 
Henry Lares
Sarah Leddick
Joel Levine
Nancy Liebman
Clotilde Luce
Franziska Medina
Mitch Novick
Kirk Paskal
Marcella Paz
Micheal Raynes
Stuart Reed
Nina Weber Worth 
Marta Zayas
 
Johnson said there have been two resignations since the election. Though he declined to name them, we reported immediately after the election that Christina Labuzetta who also served on the Election Committee had resigned. And, as noted previously, Reed resigned to represent Ciraldo. 
 
Based on lessons learned, we asked Johnson if there would be any changes to the MDPL bylaws or any policy changes with regard to memberships and elections. “Even before the mediation settlement my board considered those questions and made changes to our bylaws,” he said. “Now that the case has been settled in our favor, those changes are presumably uncontested and the change simply removes from our bylaws the provision which allowed members of MDPL to nominate members of the Board.” Until this year, that provision had not been used with uncontested nominations coming from a nominating committee.
 
“There, of course, will be election policies put in place before the next election and those policies will be public and will be followed to the letter,” he emphasized.
 
“We’re very happy as you can imagine.” Johnson finished with admiration and a thank you to Reed who he said, “has done a really good job for us.” According to Reed’s LinkedIn profile, he is an “Attorney and mediator experienced in resolving business, family, immigration, property, environmental, land use, probate and other civil legal matters.” Johnson quipped, “He admits that he had never heard of quo warranto when he started this.”
 
Neither Pynes nor Bakkum were available as we were publishing. In a Facebook post, Bakkum responded:

"The Pynes Board, a group representing decades of volunteer service to MDPL and the community, has decided to walk away and relinquish any Board membership, in the best interest of MDPL. A pre mediation meeting made it clear that any other path would lead to the organization and opposing boards being in a protracted legal battle. We believe all Board nominees, from all sides, are qualified and had the best interest of MDPL at heart, and we wish the newly appointed Board well. 

"The past Art Deco Weekend Chairs, are proud of the volunteer committee’s work over the last 4 and 1/2 years. The committee continued to work all summer planning for ADW 2019, with important partners, programming, volunteers, and sponsors in place, and we our confident the new Board, under Jack’s leadership, and ADW Committee, under Joel’s leadership, will continue the legacy, and deliver a wonderful Art Deco Weekend."

Photo: Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau
 
November 10 at 6:00 am: This article was updated to provide further details from Judge Miller's previous ruling. 

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