By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
In a three-month span, North Bay Village Mayor Brent Latham’s relatively controversy-free tenure has sustained a few dings. He was found to have likely violated state law barring public officials from accepting expensive freebies from people doing business with governments they represent. And he was busted for building an illegal boat dock at his waterfront home.
The Florida Commission on Ethics disclosed on Aug. 2 that there was probable cause to believe that Latham’s free trip to London last year constituted a prohibited gift valued at more than $100. But instead of seeking sanctions against Latham, the commission that touts itself as “the guardian of the standards of conduct for officers and employees of Florida,” lifted him off the hook “because the investigation revealed Mr. Latham received inaccurate guidance from his agency’s legal counsel before taking the trip,” according to a commission press release.
Er, not exactly.
Latham did claim to investigators that Robert Meyers, an attorney with the Weiss Serota law firm that represents North Bay Village, “advised he could accept the invitation to travel at [the Argentine Football Association’s] expense if it was approved by an affirmative vote of the NBV Commission,” according to the ethics commission’s 10-page investigative report.
But Meyers, a former executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, denied it, the report says.
In an interview, Meyers confirmed he spoke with Latham about the matter, but said he did so only as regards to the county’s ethics code, not state-level ethics law, “nor did he direct him on how he should proceed.” Indeed, Florida does not allow municipal governments to override state ethics laws.
“Mr. Meyers stated he advised the Respondent that, because the AFA was a proposer (meaning an entity proposing business with NBV) he could not accept the invitation if the AFA paid his expenses, but that this prohibition in the Miami-Dade County Code of Ethics could be waived by a majority vote of the NBV Commission,” the report says.
THE MAYOR’S NEW PROBLEM
Latham used that tailored information near the end of a May 22, 2022 commission meeting to request approval. The two commissioners present gave him a green light.
Within days, the mayor jetted off on a three-day excursion to the United Kingdom as a guest of the Argentine Football Association, or AFA, which at the time was negotiating an agreement with North Bay Village to build a soccer-training facility and new administrative building on land owned by the city and an adjacent portion of Treasure Island Elementary, the city’s only public school.
Now, Latham is facing new trouble with his own municipal government.
Last week, a North Bay Village Building Department review determined Latham rebuilt a boat dock behind his waterfront home without a permit. On Sept. 25, the city notified Latham that he has 30 days to obtain an after-the-fact permit or face penalties, according to an email from North Bay Village Code Enforcement Director Orlando Rodriguez to Norman Powell, a real estate lawyer whose practice is headquartered in the same building as the city’s offices. He is also Miramar’s city attorney.
Powell reported the mayor’s illegal dock, as well as an allegedly illegal above-ground pool in Latham’s backyard, to Rodriguez. Powell was North Bay Village’s city attorney from 2017 until 2019, when Latham led the city commission in unanimously voting to fire him without cause after a tumultuous meeting. Since then, Latham and Powell have been locked in a contentious feud.
Powell also filed the state ethics complaint against Latham, as well as nearly half-a-dozen dismissed complaints with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
LATHAM CLAIMS ‘PERSONAL VENDETTA’
In an email prior to getting tagged for the illegal boat dock, Latham told Florida Bulldog that Powell is engaging in a “personal vendetta” after North Bay Village filed a complaint against the ex-city attorney last year.
“Norman Powell has targeted me with dozens of actions, ranging from multiple, since dismissed ethics complaints at the state and local level, to extensive records requests, and now these zoning complaints about a kiddie pool and years-old hurricane repairs at my home,” Latham wrote on Sept. 22. “These latest complaints will be reviewed by the proper authorities and resolved in due course, just as all the others have been.”
Latham did not respond to subsequent Floride Bulldog emails with follow-up questions. The mayor also did not respond to a text message.
On a Facebook community page he controls, Latham accused this Florida Bulldog reporter of rushing to cover Powell’s ethics complaints before “they can be debunked and dismissed, reporting on the false charges but never the outcome.”
Latham also claimed that “work at my home is and has been done in compliance with zoning laws and specifically following the instructions of zoning authorities.”
Powell did provide Florida Bulldog with copies of the code enforcement complaint, his previous ethics complaints and his emails with North Bay Village staff concerning Latham matters. In a phone interview, Powell said some of his complaints, including the recent one involving Latham’s property, are on behalf of anonymous city taxpayers who disapprove of the mayor’s antics, but don’t want to incur wrath from him and his supporters on social media and in person.
“His neighbors are scared that the mayor will retaliate,” Powell said. “He attacks people all the time on Facebook. I’ve experienced it.”
A SLATE OF COMPLAINTS
Since July of last year, two months after Latham and his four city commission colleagues voted to file the complaint against him for alleged conflicts and self-dealing when he represented North Bay Village, Powell has hit back at the mayor.
Powell personally filed four complaints with the Miami-Dade ethics commission against Latham that were either found legally insufficient to warrant an investigation or investigated with a finding of no probable cause. In April, the county watchdog agency dismissed Powell’s most recent complaint against Latham accusing the mayor of exploiting his official position and violating a Miami-Dade ethics law that prohibits elected officials from making false public statements.
Powell alleged that Latham orchestrated the village filing the complaint against him, and that the mayor made false statements about him during city public hearings, ethics commission records show.
North Bay Village’s complaint against Powell also fizzled. In a Jan. 10 letter, Florida Bar Counsel Rita Florez informed North Bay Village City Manager Ralph Rosado that the allegations against Powell were not supported by public records obtained from the city, and that inconsistent statements by elected officials about Powell “could be viewed as a credibility issue for the mayor and village commission.”
FREEBIE TRIP ILLEGAL, BUT NO PROBLEM
On a gift disclosure form filed last November, Latham reported that AFA covered $2,700 for his plane ticket and a two-night hotel stay, according to a Florida ethics commission investigative report. The association also gifted him a Lionel Messi jersey that Latham told investigators he didn’t report on his form because he believed it was valued under the $100 threshold, the report states.
In addition, Latham didn’t disclose that AFA provided him with prime seats at Wembley Stadium to watch the Cup of Champions match between Argentina and Italy on June 1, 2022.
Accepting AFA’s generosity was illegal, according to a recommendation by Florida Commission on Ethics Advocate Melody Hadley. But because he did make an attempt to determine his ethical duties, Hadley decided to recommend that Latham be cut a break. “While the evidence supports the allegation, it does not appear that further pursuit of this allegation would serve the public,” Hadley wrote.
The ethics commission also dismissed allegations concerning three other trips Latham took out of the country last year after determining those were either paid by Latham directly or by North Bay Village to cover his expenses in his official capacity.
NO PERMITS FOR POOL OR BOAT DOCK
Because of a state law passed in 2021 barring code inspectors from initiating investigations based on anonymous complaints, neighbors of Latham recently asked him to draw attention to the mayor’s illegal boat dock and the above-ground swimming pool, Powell said.
As part of his code enforcement complaint, Powell attached a permit history for Latham’s house obtained through a public records request. The history shows no permits for the rebuilt boat dock which Latham has admitted he had to repair after it was damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2018. Powell also noted that the history showed no permit was pulled for the wood-paneled pool that is tall enough to require a step ladder, according to photos attached to the Sept. 7 email he sent Rodriguez, the city’s code enforcement director.
Powell also alleged Latham violated state law requiring the pool be enclosed by fencing and a locked gate to prevent unsupervised children from entering it.
In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rodriguez said he informed Latham in 2021 that he didn’t need a permit for the pool because the mayor said it was going to be temporary. With regards to the boat dock, he requested North Bay Village’s building department review Powell’s complaint and determine if indeed the boat dock was built illegally, Rodriguez said.
“If a code case is opened, the owner Mr. Latham will have 30 days to comply with the violation or we will proceed with additional enforcement as needed,” Rodriguez said.