When Is a House Not a Home?
The Dade school board elections that took place this past November were marked by two dramatic changes: The number of board members increased from seven to nine, and candidates ran for office from single-member districts. These changes resulted from the settlement of a lawsuit designed to increase the influence of black and Hispanic voters in school board elections. (Similar changes for similar reasons affected the Dade County Commission elections of 1992.) As part of the settlement, board members were given six months after election day to become legal residents of their districts. Though that six-month clock rang its bell on May 19, three newly elected board members seem not to have heard it -- at least if being a legal resident means actually living there.
In various documents, school board chairman Solomon Stinson says his official residence is a modest but tidy ranch house at 6900 NW Fifth Ave. in Liberty City, which lies squarely within school board District 2, from which he was elected. But Stinson resides in a large, two-story home in the unincorporated North Dade neighborhood known as Biscayne Gardens, which lies outside the boundaries of District 2.
Board member Demetrio Perez, Jr., has lived for years in a Brickell Avenue condominium located outside the district from which he was elected. And Renier Diaz de la Portilla claims to spend only occasional nights each month at the house he rents within his school board district.
Requiring that candidates live from day to day in their districts was not the highest priority for the plaintiffs who sued to create the school board's districts, says Stephen Cody, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. But they certainly envisioned that the board members would in fact do so. "It was not done solely for the purpose of electing candidates by race or ethnicity," Cody says. "In part it was also giving the voters in an area the chance to elect the person of their choice. If someone ran and wanted to make [residency] an issue, it certainly would be a fair topic to raise in a campaign."
Since late October of last year, Solomon Stinson has listed the Liberty City home as his residence on his voter registration card. This past April he changed his Florida driver's license from Biscayne Gardens to the same address, according to Janet Dennis, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles. But 71-year-old John Perry Bryant, who lives next door to Stinson's Liberty City property, says the school board chairman does not reside there. According to Bryant and a second neighbor who asked not to be named, the house is occupied by Stinson's ex-wife Jessie. The couple, divorced for 24 years, jointly own the property. "She lives there alone," Bryant says. "Sometimes I've seen him come over there, but I don't think he lives there." (Neither Jessie Stinson, principal of Hialeah Elementary School, nor Solomon Stinson returned repeated calls requesting comment.)
State statutes require that Florida homeowners reside in the dwelling for which they claim a homestead exemption, according to Herbert Parlato, assistant Dade County property appraiser. Dade property records show that Stinson uses the Biscayne Gardens residence at 921 S. Biscayne River Dr. for his homestead exemption, which reduces the taxable value of a home by $25,000.
Demetrio Perez, Jr., claims no homestead exemption, even though he owns two condominiums (a unit in the luxurious Palace building on Brickell Avenue and one in Miami Beach), as well other residential properties.
Perez's concealed-weapon permit lists the Palace condominium as his home, though his driver's license and other official records show his address to be 904 SW 23rd St., a complex of stucco buildings that houses the main offices and classrooms of Perez's privately owned and operated Lincoln-Marti Schools. Neither the condominiums nor the Lincoln-Marti offices are located within school board District 5, from which he was elected and which includes portions of central Miami, Miami Springs, and unincorporated Dade County.
Perez says that since 1985 his Palace condominium has been his permanent residence, but this past April he rented a room in a squat three-bedroom house near the intersection of NW Twelfth Avenue and Fourth Street, in the shadow of the Orange Bowl. He now considers the Fourth Street home, which is within District 5 and is owned and occupied by old friend Enrique Rodriguez and his wife Zenaida, to be his residence as well. In fact, he has filled out a new voter registration form listing the Rodriguez house as the address where he lives.
Perez says he pays Rodriguez $300 per month for the room. "I can change my residence like I change my watch," he quips. "I move from one to another. It doesn't make any difference." Perez is frank in explaining why he gave up his homestead exemption on his Brickell condo: "Going into the political arena, it was very clear that my family home could not remain my permanent residence. I penalized myself in order to prevent a future conflict."
Renier Diaz de la Portilla this past April changed his driver's license and voter registration to reflect his residence at 6500 SW 47th St. But by all appearances, the three-bedroom house in unincorporated Dade is vacant, and several neighbors say it has been that way for at least six months. "We never see a car -- we never see anyone come in and come out," says Deborah Heath, who lives next door with her husband Gary. Upon learning that Diaz de la Portilla considers that house to be his permanent residence, Deborah Heath asked, "How come nobody is ever there?"
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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