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Written by Jay Beskin -- BT Contributor   
December 2012

A lawsuit against Aventura and its city manager raises some very disturbing questions

TPix_JayBeskin_12-12here is a spring ritual in Aventura, and it is not housecleaning. It is the city commission’s annual review of city manager Eric Soroka. This is how it works.

At a morning workshop, which almost no residents attend, the city manager asks for an annual raise of $10,000 and a $10,000 lump-sum bonus. Each of the commissioners commends the manager on performing an outstanding job during the previous year, and then they unanimously approve his request. The entire process takes about five minutes. That’s it. Nary a critical comment, or even a recommendation for how the manager might improve his performance.

A gambling man might want to bet that this 15-year-old ritual may change next spring.

This past November 2, after a month-long trial, a Miami-Dade jury in state court awarded former Aventura charter school principal Katherine Murphy $155 million in damages against the city and Soroka for, among other things, harassment, slander, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and creating a discriminatorily abusive working environment during Murphy’s tenure at the school, known as Aventura City of Excellence School (ACES).

That sum probably exceeds the limits of the city’s insurance coverage by 15 times, and is approximately $137 million in excess of Aventura’s carefully safeguarded reserve accounts for use in an emergency. Well, this judgment just might be the emergency. Or maybe not.

Lest you worry that property taxes will immediately increase fivefold in order to pay this penalty, just three business days after the jury’s decision, Judge Rosa Rodriguez, who presided over the case, tossed out the award. Ben Kuehne, an attorney for Murphy and one of the more esteemed members of the Florida Bar, remarked that to overturn the jury’s work so quickly was unprecedented. Kuehne says Murphy will appeal. The city is not yet off the hook.

Murphy, who was the school’s founding principal (2003), first brought her case in the federal courts after being terminated in 2006. Both the federal trial court and appeals court found that, even if some of her allegations were true, she had no claims that could be remedied by federal law. However, the federal courts did affirm her right to pursue the case in state court.

Murphy’s claims have now been addressed in three judicial forums, and certain allegations continue to be litigated. If any of them are true, they would besmirch the governance of our City of Excellence. Here is a summary of some of the allegations contained in Murphy’s complaint. That a jury apparently found them credible is alarming, and raises very disturbing questions.

First, the manager allegedly directed “vulgarities and obscenities,” some containing “unwelcome sexual comments,” at Murphy. Soroka also allegedly threatened her for speaking with commissioners, even under the most innocuous of circumstances. In addition, the complaint claims that Soroka ordered Murphy, despite her protest, to turn over certain student records to the city clerk, even though the law says those records cannot leave the custody of school officials.

Has Soroka behaved similarly toward other members of the city staff? Has he created such a hostile work environment in Aventura that city employees are fearful for their jobs if they question him? Can the city attract the best and brightest employees if they know they’ll labor under difficult work conditions and not be free to say what they think? Is the commission failing to receive important information about the city administration because employees are afraid to speak candidly?

Second, Murphy’s complaint states that, although the city commission functions as the ACES’ board of directors and is obligated to exercise continuing oversight of the school, “nevertheless, Soroka required his name to be listed as the chair of the school’s governing board on all papers to be filed with the Miami-Dade School District, and made all decisions unilaterally and independently of the governing board.”

Indeed the board’s representative to the School Advisory Council is not one of its own, but rather the manager. Kuehne claims that ACES is the only school he knows of that operates under the control of a city manager and not an experienced education professional.

Murphy’s complaint also makes note of a policy that allows nonresident employees of ACES to enroll their own children at the school, thereby precluding some number of Aventura children from enrolling. Did the manager establish that policy? Is the commission even aware of it?

How can the commission properly oversee the school if one of its own members does not participate with administrators, teachers, and parents on the School Advisory Council, and if as a result, all information gets bottled up in the manager’s office?

Third, Florida law requires that all city vendors must go through a neutral bidding process for large contracts. Applicants are scored by a set of criteria, including design. In the contract to build ACES, Soroka allegedly determined that his favored contractor would build the school, even though that contractor failed to present any design plans. Did the city enter into an expensive contract that subverted the legal bidding process?

Fourth, the commission exercises direct oversight and control over three municipal positions: the city manager, the city clerk, and the city attorney. None of these positions is answerable to the other. The purpose for this is to ensure there is system of checks and balances in our city, and that accountability rests solely with the commission.

Yet the city clerk, who is married to the manager, may have taken direct orders from him with respect to the allegedly illegal custody of school records. Has the clerk in fact improperly taken direction from the manager?

Not surprisingly, the manager’s son is employed by the city attorney, which is the private law firm of Weiss Serota. This on its face presents a conflict of interest. To whom does Weiss Serota owe its allegiance -- to the manager, who is the father of one of its attorneys, or to the city commission?

Have the manager and Weiss Serota been counseling the commission on how to proceed in the Murphy matter? If they have, wouldn’t that represent an inherent conflict of interest? Should the commission have considered its strategy outside the presence of the manager?

Perhaps none of these allegations, even if true, rises to the level of illegality. But for a city that prides itself on excellence, even the possibility that the manager’s conduct has included “vulgarities and obscenities” is shameful.

That our residents may not be receiving the best possible government is unacceptable, and that the city may still be liable for $155 million is untenable. It’s time for commissioners to exercise their oversight function, and they should hire independent counsel to assist them.

Then maybe there will be a true housecleaning next spring.


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