Last month, the perennially dysfunctional North Miami Beach government was forced to expend time and resources to formally tell its mayor, Tony DeFillipo, not to insult Haitian people. On May 23, the other members of the city commission, including three Haitian-American politicians, voted to censure DeFillipo after he wrote on Facebook that he believed North Miami Beach had fired its former city clerk so the city's Haitian lawmakers could "put in a person of there [sic] own heritage and do what they want!!!"
Haitian-American City Commissioner Michael Joseph, who proposed the reprimand, said from the dais that after DeFillipo made his comments on social media, someone called Joseph with a death threat.
"That rhetoric, I think, was the principle cause that I was called and left at least one message that threatened my life," he said, according to a clip of the meeting. "It bothered me a lot and, to this day, still does."
DeFillipo didn't immediately respond to a message from New Times.
This is, to put things mildly, not the first time DeFillipo has gotten himself in trouble by Posting Too Hard. In 2017, he shared an Islamophobic and obviously fake news story about how the U.S. Supreme Court had abolished the teaching of Islam in public schools. He shared the false post and wrote, "Here comes the sun! America grew balls again!" He later deleted the post.
DeFillipo was elected mayor after the city's previous leader, George Vallejo, pleaded to charges he'd spent campaign money on personal items. (New Times later obtained transcripts of sworn testimony in which Vallejo admitted that his family also accepted money from a prominent, Trump-tied local developer and that Vallejo created shell companies to hide the payments from the public.) DeFillipo also helped push plans to privatize the city's waste-management services and water-treatment plant — in 2018, New Times reported that the private contractors who won those bids then funneled campaign donations to DeFillipo.
DeFillipo himself has a thin skin when it comes to comments about his heritage. In 2018, he filed a $2 million libel lawsuit after the union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sent mailers comparing him to fictional Mob boss Tony Soprano and saying he was part of a "crime family."
His latest controversy came after the city voted to fire its former clerk, Pamela Latimore. DeFillipo opposed her termination and was the lone commissioner to vote against the move. After the vote, he hopped onto Facebook and launched into a since-deleted tirade:
DeFillipo eventually apologized at the May commission meeting. ("If there is any comment about heritage, I apologize wholeheartedly," he said to Commissioner McKenzie Fleurimond, who is Haitian-American.) But the mayor also launched veiled insults at other commissioners minutes later, and his colleagues ultimately decided a formal reprimand was in order.
The Facebook post, naturally, pissed off the Haitian-American politicians on the dais — Fleurimond, Joseph, and Paule Vilard. Joseph said he found the mayor's comments unacceptable, especially because this wasn't DeFillipo's first offensive incident on social media.
"Sadly, these comments can only be viewed as race-baiting," Joseph said from the dais. He said DeFillipo had been given an opportunity to apologize earlier that week but refused.
Joseph then asked a city attorney to explain to the other people on the dais that a formal "censure" is simply a letter of reprimand for someone's conduct. But both DeFillipo and Commissioner Phyllis Smith still seemed as if they did not understand the difference between being "censured" and "censored." DeFillipo at one point launched into a speech about how "censorship" was anti-American and violated his First Amendment rights.
"I am elected to be honest and to vote on my conscience and tell the truth to the people," he said. "And that's what I will do, good or bad. If Mr. Joseph does not like it or agree with my opinions, then Mr. Joseph can express his own opinions, and the people can decide. I will never vote to censor any of my colleagues for expression and expressing their opinions. North Miami Beach is a democracy, not a dictatorship. It is un-American to try to censor public officials for telling the truth."
In a different section of the exchange, Fleurimond tried to explain to DeFillipo that he is also the child of immigrants himself.
"I believe you're half-Cuban and half-Italian?" Fleurimond asked.
"I'm American," DeFillipo curtly responded, seemingly unaware of the point Fleurimond was trying to make.
Later, Smith also asked whether DeFillipo could still have his right to "free speech" if he was going to be "censored." Commissioner Fortuna Smukler interjected to explain that the commission was not actually "censoring" anyone.
"It's censured, not censored," she said. The commission then voted to reprimand the mayor.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.