MIRAMAR — A 73-year-old elected official who worried about contracting COVID-19 faces losing his job — because he only showed up virtually for business during the pandemic.
Miramar city leaders are expected to vote Monday whether to fire Commissioner Winston F. Barnes, concluding that leaders “may punish its own members for misconduct,” according to the city’s documents.
Officials said he can be fired because he broke the city’s rules by not attending commission meetings in person for three months.
There’s a battle to come: Barnes’ lawyer, Keith Poliakoff, says the city has no authority to oust him. It’s the voters who put Barnes in office, not his fellow elected officials. And only Florida’s governor has the power to remove an elected official from office, the lawyer says.
Was it misconduct?
The commission, which resumed in-person meetings last year, asked City Attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks for her legal opinion last month. They wanted to know “whether there is an obligation of City Commissioners to attend city commission meetings in person,” and whether they could be in attendance without being physically present.
She issued a memo indicating that the charter reads that if any member “shall fail to attend meetings for a consecutive period of three months,” then that person “may be relieved of his/her office by a majority vote of the City Commission.”
She told the South Florida Sun Sentinel it’s “illogical” to think somebody could attend remotely indefinitely and not return in person. An in-person quorum is required to even have a meeting, she said. If people thought they could work remotely forever, they would, she said. “Everybody was afraid,” she said of the pandemic. “Nobody was sitting around thinking they didn’t have to come back.”
Commissioner Alexandra Davis said she doesn’t favor firing Barnes, but still notes it’s important to attend meetings in person. “I believe he’s elected by the people but at the same time he has to do his job and show up to work,” Davis said. “The people deserve [for] him to show up.”
Attending meetings virtually
Barnes said he has participated: He started attending meetings online when COVID-19 closed City Hall. He has recently returned to appearing in person.
Poliakoff argues that Barnes attended virtually from May 20, 2020, through September of this year and that the city’s attorney “suddenly and surprisingly completely reversed course and now opined that participation is not the same as attendance.”
He wrote in a memo to Norris-Weeks that she needs to reverse her legal decision.
Poliakoff said because of Barnes’ age, 73, and existing medical issues, he’s considered high-risk and was being careful to not contract the deadly virus while still attending City Hall meetings.
Barnes said other members of the commission have had COVID or had to be quarantined, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t bring anything home to his family.
Barnes said he believes the push to fire him is political retribution: He often has conflicting votes with his colleagues, and he also supported Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief in South Florida’s recent 20th Congressional District race.
“I vote my conscious,” Barnes said. “I can vote freely.”
When he did miss a meeting entirely, he said it was days after his wife’s sister was in a car crash that left her in coma. He said he has only missed a couple meetings in his entire tenure at City Hall.
Barnes has turned the tables: Also up for discussion Monday is his motion to fire the city’s attorney, saying she never told Barnes that anything was amiss.
“At every meeting he was marked as present, his vote was counted,” Poliakoff said. “At no time was he ever told, ‘You need to be in person or we’re not going to consider you present.’”
If the commission were to remove Barnes, he’ll file an injunction and the legal fees will start mounting, Poliakoff said. “They have no authority to throw him out of office,” he said. “They’re doing it just to see if they can get away with it, really.”