Petition Drive the Latest Roadblock for City’s Convention Center Plan.

Ever since political activists and at least one member of the Miami Beach City Commission began challenging the progress of the City’s ongoing and long-planned vision for redevelopment of the Miami Beach Convention Center, the cry has gone out from supporters of the project that opponents were playing politics with what could be a landmark achievement for this and for the next commission.

This week the conflict escalated with the revelation that a petition drive that could, at the very least, completely redefine the scope of the proposed redevelopment, is garnering signatures.

“Seeing that city officials and the city attorney’s office oppose an amendment to the city charter that would require a city-wide referendum and voter approval of the privatization of the city’s Convention Center District property, in addition to the two surface parking lots, it appears that the only practical avenue left to residents is the initiative petition being circulated that would require such a vote,” said Frank Del Vecchio, civic activist and petition supporter.

On Monday, the City’s commission-appointed Charter Review Committee voted 5-1 to reject a change to the Charter proposed that would have prompted a much broader referendum prior to private development in the Convention Center District. The current Charter requires only a public vote on a pair of surface parking lots on the property, which has been a bone of contention between city officials and activists who feel city hall misrepresented the role of a referendum in the process.

“The prior city administration misled the public into believing that residents would have the final say under the city charter on private redevelopment of any part of the 52-acre Convention Center District; and that voter approval at a city-wide referendum would be required,” Del Vecchio said. “The city is now discovering that the small print in the Charter contradicts what they have been preaching for nearly a year and a half and that, at most, the voters will have a say only over private development on the surface parking lots adjacent to Convention Center Drive.

However, both the City’s Legal department and former City Manager Jorge Gonzalez vehemently deny misleading either the public or commission members throughout the already-lengthy process.

“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,” Raul J. Aguila, chief deputy city attorney, told SunPost last week. “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.”

However, it appears possible that the debate over current Charter language will be moot should the petition drive succeed. According to a report in the Miami Herald, Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson – a project critic – has launched Let Miami Beach Decide, a political action committee committed to forcing a Charter change and cites Wolfson as saying that the group has already collected two-thirds of the necessary signatures to make the petition valid and submit for public consideration. If the petition drive succeeds, if the language is deemed legal for the ballot and if approved by the public, the sale, lease or conveyance of almost all city land within the convention center district would require the approval of 60 percent of voters.

Advocates have differing opinions about the proposed project itself and, officially, different complaints.

“I am against allowing this to go forward,” Wolfson told SunPost last week. He cites the alleged corruption in the city manager’s office during the course of the selection process and which led to the arrest of its procurement director Gus Lopez, as well as detrimental effects of the project on the city overall.

Del Vecchio has been more focused on the process and what he and others feel is a lack of public input on the use of public property for the development.

“I don’t view the initiative petition as designed to kill the entire development project, and I view such a charge as a scare tactic to discourage public support,” Del Vecchio said. “The petition does not cover the Convention Center premises or the adjacent streets, meaning that a modernization and expansion of the Convention Center would not require a public vote.  However, if the Jackie Gleason Theater had to be torn down for a hotel, a vote would be required, and if the 17th Street Garage was to be converted to a Nordstrom’s, a vote would be required.”

Supporters of the current process, though, are critical of opponents. Both Mayor Matti Bower and Stuart Blumberg, founder and former president and CEO of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association have criticized Wolfson in the Herald.

Commissioner Michael Gongora struck a more statesman-like position in talking to SunPost.

“This surprise move is bound to further erode public confidence in the city commission. projects I will vote on,” Gongora said. “As with any vote, I have listened and observed every aspect of this project.  Unfortunately, we have lost sight of our ultimate goal because of distractions from outside of this process. As a commissioner, we are elected to work within the process. Commission meetings are the purest form of democracy in action. It is a problem when a colleague who did not prevail in a commission vote seeks to advance their personal political agenda outside the regular process. My goal has always been to provide a convention center that is in the best interests of the residents of Miami Beach.”

Complicating the debate, and likely to fire the flames of playing politics allegations, is Wolfson’s acknowledgement in the Herald article that the Let Miami Beach Decide PAC is so far entirely funded by the Fontainebleau. The Fontainebleau was included in one of the teams bidding on the project but did not make it to the final round, which includes two groups now.

Off the record, sources close to the process and in city hall have intimated that unhappy, unsuccessful bidders are behind the various efforts to slow or stop the redevelopment project.

However, whether the bone of contention is political or procedural, recent challenges to the city’s redevelopment effort have officials busy. Mayor Matti Bower did not respond to several requests for comments on the topic. Nor did the Miami Beach City Attorney’s office respond to requests for clarification on the potential impact of the Wolfson petition and the possibility of its approval, as of press time.

But just as SunPost prepared to go to press, documents were provided illustrating that Bower had placed an Emergency discussion item on Wednesday’s commission agenda with no prior public notice or availability, including to commissioners, and at the last minute, that would instruct the city attorney to draft two straw ballot questions regarding Convention Center development on the November 5, 2013 ballot.

“This surprise move is bound to further erode public confidence in the city commission,” Del Vecchio said.


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