When Is a House Not a Home?

Perhaps when Dade school board members pay the rent but live elsewhere

Contradicting the Heaths, Diaz de la Portilla claims he spends approximately a dozen nights per month at the nearly empty house, which he began renting in March. "You're only required to hold a residency there; you're not required to be there every day," he says defensively. "I never said during my election campaign that I lived in the district. I didn't have a house [in the district] during the campaign because the law did not require me to do it."

Diaz de la Portilla also argues that he has walked door to door in school board District 8 while campaigning for his brothers -- Dade County Commissioner Miguel and State Representative Alex -- and knows many of the residents and their concerns. He also attended Florida International University and is a member of St. Brendan's Catholic Church, both located in the district. "I have as much presence here as anyone who resides here," he says.

According to state law, school board members elected from single-member districts "shall reside" in those districts. Legislators, however, did not define the word reside, and that, says Michael Cochran, has made enforcement difficult. Cochran, an attorney with the state's division of elections in Tallahassee, adds that "in a nutshell, your residency is where you say it is until someone can prove otherwise in a court of law." As for possible criminal violations, the Florida voter registration application form asks for the "address where you live (legal residence)." Applicants who provide false information can be convicted of a third-degree felony, fined up to $5000, and imprisoned for up to five years.

Courts and criminal charges are beside the point, says former school board member Janet McAliley, who surrendered her seat so a Hispanic candidate would have an opportunity to be elected. "The whole idea behind single-member districts was that you'd have a person in that particular district who would live there and be closer to the constituents and do a better job representing them," McAliley asserts. "It's not just a matter of political expediency. You're supposed to bring the government closer to the people.

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