CITY ACCUSED OF MISLEADING PUBLIC ON REDEVELOPMENT PLAN.
One of Miami Beach’s most influential civic activists has accused the City of misleading the public about the role of a potential binding referendum in regard to the proposed redevelopment of the Miami Beach Convention Center site. At least one city commission agrees that the entire project should face a public vote as well.
“Suddenly, Miami Beach city officials have discovered that voter approval for private redevelopment of the 52-acre Convention Center District isn’t really required, except for, maybe, the open parking lots which make up only about 15% of the area,” said noted civic activist Frank Del Vecchio.
Del Vecchio claims that throughout the entire process of seeking a developer of the site and the ensuing bid process, it was at the very least intimated – if not outright asserted – that the public would have the final say on the redevelopment plan in a binding referendum. As the City’s Legal Department clarified to SunPost last week, however, the current city charter requires a binding public vote only on the included surface lots.
That’s not how it appeared until recently, however, Del Vacchio said. “Ask residents whether they thought a referendum was required and you’ll get the same answer: ‘Yes’,” Del Vecchio said. He also has no problem assigning blame primarily to former city manager Jorge Gonzalez.
“This is a testament to either the deviousness of former city manager Jorge Gonzalez, or bungling by those responsible,” Del Vecchio said. “It was probably both.
“Gonzalez launched his grand plan in January, 2012, the 12th anniversary of his appointment, an incumbency exceeded only by his principal supporter, Mayor Matti Bower,” he continued. “Overseeing a $1 billion Convention Center District redevelopment project should perpetuate him in office. He must have thought that once momentum built up everyone and everything would fall into place. Gonzalez misled residents into believing they would have the final say on giving up any portion of the 52-acres for private development. Residents rely on Charter provisions that require voter approval in a city-wide referendum before city land can be sold or leased. The small print in the complicated section of the Charter applicable to the Convention Center imposes the referendum requirement only on park land and surface parking lots. Residents might have had second thoughts about the project if they realized the land transactions were not subject to a referendum.”
There were opportunities for the City to correct the misperception, Del Vecchio said.
“Although city officials had the opportunity to correct the record when the official Request for Proposals was advertised worldwide in February, 2012, they didn’t,” he said. “Moreover, they compounded the misrepresentation by approving language in the RFQ explicitly referring to the requirement that private redevelopment of any or all of the city properties in the district would be subject to voter referendum approval: “the use of any or all of the city-owned properties referenced in this RFQ will be subject to the requirements of section 1.03(b)(2) of the Miami Beach City Charter, which requires that any sale, exchange, conveyance or lease of ten (10) years or longer of such properties by the City shall also require approval by a majority vote of residents in a city-wide referendum.” [RFQ Sec. I F. "REFERENDUM"].
“At this late date, with a new city manager in office, the city attorney now advises that the referendum applies only to Convention Center parking lots,” Del Vecchio added.
However, Gonzalez stands by his position.
“When we decided to pursue a joint venture to build the convention center instead of the City undertaking the project itself, it was my understanding that a referendum would be required,” Gonzalez told SunPost. “My understanding has always been, and remains, that a referendum would be held on the Miami Beach Convention Center project. I had always shared that understanding with everyone whenever I spoke or wrote (memos)on this project. Two reasons in particular. One, at the time, I expected to include an increase to the resort tax to help fund the project. I anticipated that that referendum requirement would be presented to the voters along with the project details (i.e. once a developer had been selected, a development agreement has been negotiated and concept drawings/master plan had been developed). The City Commission decided to hold the resort tax referendum separately and earlier than the remainder of the project. It was held in August of 2012 and passed overwhelmingly by the voters.
“In addition, I always envisioned that the project would require the use of the ‘P-Lot and other surrounding City properties,” Gonzalez continued. “As a result, the charter requirements for a referendum if a lease of greater than 10 years or a sale would take place would be triggered. A cursory review of the master plans presented to date by both developers includes elements that require the use of City property triggering the need for a referendum.”
Gonzalez said Del Vecchio’s assertions are inaccurate.
“Frank is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts,” Gonzalez said. “He can try to make up whatever he wants, but I never misled the public on this or any other project during my 12-year tenure as city manager. I am proud of my accomplishments and the improved quality of life in Miami Beach – including his – as a result of my efforts. I look forward to this project being completed – in spite of those who may want to inject petty politics and personal agendas into the discussion . The bottom line is that this project is the most important project this commission will ever consider. It affects the economy of not only Miami Beach, but of the entire South Florida region. It should rise above petty political agendas and be dealt with in the serious manner that it deserves.”
Still, when one inquires if there was any vagueness when it comes to charter-mandated referenda, the City Attorney’s office has consistently said “no.”
“When I read the referendum requirement in the RFQ, I find no ambiguity, because the RFQ language in question expressly cites Section 1.03(b)(2) of the City Charter,” said Raul J. Aguila, chief deputy city attorney. “That section makes direct reference to the ‘Convention Center Parking Lots.’ Therefore, it’s consistent with what our office has opined since the outset of the process — that, within the Miami Beach Convention Center District described in the RFQ, the only legally required referendum that would be triggered under the Charter would be in the event of a sale, or lease of more than 10 years, of one of the Convention Center surface parking lots.
“We have consistently opined this, when the question’s come up, to City staff; to the mayor and the individual city commissioners who have asked ; and, of course, to the proposers and their respective counsel (including, without limitation, the short-listed proposers, Portman and South Beach ACE). In addition to what is legally required by the Charter, above, some members of the city commission, as well as members of the public (including Mr. Del Vecchio), have expressed the sentiment that, as a matter of policy (and although not legally required), the selected proposer’s entire proposed project should be subject to public referendum (as a non-binding, “straw ballot” referendum, if you will). Although the city commission has not voted on whether to do this or not, the City’s negotiating team staff has been fully transparent and has advised proposers as to the possibility of this happening.”
Apparently Del Vecchio and Gonzalez agree on the issue of public input. Del Vecchio is lobbying city hall to amend the City Charter to require a public vote on such uses of City property and Gonzalez said he thinks the public should have a strong voice.
“I don’t know who in the organization is now suggesting that a referendum not be held,” Gonzalez said. “I certainly expected one to be held and I believe the community that has been following this project expects to have a referendum. I don’t think it would be wise and proper for the City to now attempt to avoid a referendum by legal maneuvers or interpretations.”
Aside from a potential eventual referendum related to the parking lots at the site, however, it does not appear that greater public input is in the cards. That isn’t good news to Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson.
“We have to let this get to a vote of the people,” Wolfson said. “The traffic and congestion concerns of adding a combined more than 200,000-plus square feet of condominiums and retail space are something the residents should resolve. And, the fact that this is a huge expenditure and a developer giveaway are things that the public should be able to have the final word on.”
Wolfson is a fierce critic of the project process overall.
“I am against allowing this to go forward,” Wolfson said. “First, the process is rife with corruption. The former procurement director was taking bribes from others during this time. And his pal, Walter Garcia,who co-signed for Gus’s wife’s car, got paid $25,000. And I am not supposed to believe that Gus got some of that money? Come on. I think it is poppycock that people think that the State Attorney’s office conclusion that a crime cannot be prosecuted gives us cover. They are two different standards. The SAO’s conclusion that they can’t prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. What it means is that they can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And they are right. But, our burden is lower and our standard is higher.”
Another commonality between Del Vecchio and Gonzalez is that both believe the referendum question is clouded in politics and personal agendas – Del Vecchio pointing at the City, and Gonzalez at unnamed entities.
“Those who are truly interested in moving this project forward should inquire as to why this has suddenly become an issue so far along in the process,” Gonzalez pointed out. “Why was this question not raised sooner? Who has raised this doubt? For what purpose did they raise it? Who’s agenda stands to benefit from this newly-created doubt?
“The city commission can easily resolve this matter by agreeing to have a referendum on this project whether or not the City Charter requires it,” he continued. “That could save Frank, his commissioner allies and the special interests who are said to be ready to spend lots of dollars to defeat this project a lot of time and aggravation on silly pursuits that are not in the best interest of the city.”
Del Vecchio sees things differently, even while also supporting an absolute public vote.
“Did the manager conceal this in order to lull the public into a false sense of security that would enable him to negotiate a Megadeal and guarantee his retention to see it through? We don’t know, but the city commission should now take action to put a Charter amendment on the November 5 ballot requiring voter referendum approval for the privatization of any part of the publicly owned Convention Center District,” said Del Vecchio.
The Miami Beach Mayor did not reply to questions related to the question of a public referendum by SunPost press time.