Behind the Boot
For 35 years Diane O'Quinn Williams has been a fixture at County Hall. She climbed the ranks from clerk to top administrator with a quiet, efficient style that calmed angry applicants and pleased nervous supervisors.
In 2001 then-County Manager Steve Shiver made her planning and zoning director, one of the most important positions in Miami-Dade government. Until recently anyone with an application to rezone a property or make changes to the county's master plan had to consult her.
She never seemed like much of a rabble-rouser. She was never reprimanded and in performance evaluations her work was consistently rated above average. Her annual salary rose to $193,417.
But on March 16 County Mayor Carlos Alvarez abruptly forced her to resign. Though her official retirement date is set for June 1, she was immediately placed on administrative leave. Interim director Subrata Basu, previously assistant director of planning, has taken over the department.
Alvarez won wider powers after a public referendum this past January 23 and has liberally exercised them, also removing transit agency director Roosevelt Bradley, and demoting employee relations director Don Allen. As with Bradley and Allen, Alvarez has been mum on the decision to dispatch O'Quinn Williams. And he will stay that way, according to spokeswoman Vicki Mallette. "The mayor is just not going to comment on personnel matters," she said.
But New Times has learned that O'Quinn Williams had a hand in several controversies that may have led to her removal. (She didn't respond to repeated requests for comment that included a list of questions sent via e-mail.)
O'Quinn's first questionable action began with Redland property owners Royd Lemus and Raquel Lau, who filed an application years ago to convert their two-and-a-half-acre nursery into a fruit-and-vegetable farmers' market that would include a meat and fish store, a bakery, a deli, and an outdoor dining area. The property is located on Krome Avenue and SW 208th Street, four miles west of the urban development boundary, the line that demarcates where development is generally restricted.
"Their request would normally have required amending the county's master plan, since it prohibits any business or industrial uses on agricultural land," says John Wade, a Redland homeowner who opposed the farmers' market. Before the proposal reached O'Quinn Williams's desk in late 2005, Lemus and Lau had twice tried and failed to win approval in 1999 and 2001.
Both times the planning and zoning department recommended denial.
But O'Quinn Williams gave them a favorable nod, and this past September 16 county commissioners approved the plan with two caveats. Though Lemus and Lau suggested a requirement that 65 percent of the produce sold at the market would come from local farmers and nurseries, County Commissioner Barbara Jordan insisted all the fruits and vegetables come from local sources. And Jordan wanted nothing sold outside the building. The county commission approved Jordan's plan by a six-to-one vote.
But when O'Quinn Williams and assistant county attorney Nancy Rubin drafted the final resolution, they left out Jordan's instructions, Wade grouses. When he complained to the county manager's office and to Jordan's staff, he claims no one investigated his charge. "This was a case of a department head changing what the county commissioners approved and refusing to correct it," Wade says. "It's an outrage." (Rubin insists she followed the commission's instructions.)
In a separate matter, O'Quinn Williams apparently had no problem following Commissioner Natacha Seijas's directives, though it apparently meant bending county rules.
This past March, the Country Club of Miami Estates Improvement Association requested permission from the county's public works department to close off the street leading in and out of this residential complex near NW 67th Avenue. That meant the association had to ask planning and zoning for a public hearing before the Country Club of Miami Estates Community Council.
On June 16 of last year, a meeting took place in Commissioner Natacha Seijas's downtown office to discuss the road closure. In attendance: Seijas's chief of staff, Terry Murphy, association lawyer Gary Dumas, O'Quinn Williams, and public works director Esther Callas, as well as assistant directors and other employees from both departments, according to planning and zoning spokeswoman Marisol Trianna and public works spokesman Delfin Molins.
What was said at the meeting is a mystery. Assistant planning and zoning director Al Torres contends that he explained the need for a public hearing. But when asked what Murphy said, Torres declined comment. Murphy did not return three messages. It's likely the commissioner through her aide was trying to win points with constituents by advocating for the road closure. She was facing a recall vote at the time.
This past July 19 O'Quinn Williams filed a request for a public zoning hearing on behalf of the association. By doing so, she bypassed the community council, which might have nixed the request. Her department also ate the $7421.30 the association would have been required to pay for public notices and public hearing expenses. This past October 12 the County Commission voted in favor of closing the road, nine to zero. Seijas, who's legally barred from discussing zoning matters outside commission chambers, was conspicuously absent.
And there's more, according to an elected official who asked to remain anonymous. The politician claims O'Quinn Williams displayed favoritism for projects involving Miami Lakes-based land use consultant Reinaldo Villar. In 1998 Villar lost his high-profile county position as assistant director of permitting and zoning when he was arrested and charged with four felony counts of official misconduct for failing to disclose $62,000 in unexplained extra pay. A year later, prosecutors dropped the charges. They acknowledged that they couldn't prove the source of the cash.
Former employees remember Villar and then-zoning services chief O'Quinn Williams were close friends, often seen whispering to each other. After former county manager Shiver promoted O'Quinn Williams to the top post, a running joke around the planning and zoning department was that developers and lawyers had Villar on retainer. "Whenever Diane doesn't want to take their phone call or meet with them, they have Rey call her," says the elected official. "He's the gateway."
That would be remarkable since Villar has never registered as a lobbyist, according to the county's lobbyist registration reports. But the planning and zoning department's online database of approved applications includes a document connecting Villar to the director: a January 1, 2003 letter from Royal Group Investments Inc. to O'Quinn Williams signed by Villar on behalf of real estate investor Alicio Pina. The two men are partners in A & R Investments, according to state incorporation records. They share their Miami Lakes office with former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.
The letter informed O'Quinn Williams that Royal Group Investments wanted to change a 2.61-acre parcel from agricultural to business zoning in order to develop a used car lot. O'Quinn Williams recommended its approval. On October 22, 2003, the South Bay Community Council authorized the dealership.
Perhaps O'Quinn Williams met or spoke with an unregistered lobbyist and didn't report it to the ethics commission. Or maybe Villar used his influence. It's hard to say. He didn't return calls seeking comment and there's no public record of his involvement in other zoning applications.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.