Legal Showdown

CITY PREVAILS IN LEGAL DISPUTE WITH PAC

Last week, the City of Miami Beach and South Beach ACE, the would-be master developer for the Miami Beach Convention Center site were victorious in court in a legal battle with Let Miami Beach Decide, a Political Action Committee (PAC) that was seeking to alter how voters would conceivably approve plans for the MBCC redevelopment plan on the November ballot.

“Let Miami Beach Decide got enough signatures to have the ballot changed so the voting requirement would be changed from requiring 50 percent of the vote for approval to 60 percent of the vote, as well as adding properties requiring voter approval,” explained City Attorney Jose Smith.

At issue is an item on the November ballot, as required by City Charter, asking voters to approve use of the convention center’s “P lots” – a segment of on-site parking – in conjunction with South Beach ACE’s plan to transform the site into a campus featuring a revitalized convention center, convention center hotel and public facilities.

Smith said the effort by Let Miami Beach decide wanted to up the required percentage of votes for approval from 50 percent to 60 percent, and to also include other parcels such as Convention Center Drive and the 17th Street Garage.

“I am pleased to advise that the City of Miami Beach has prevailed in the Declaratory Action…,” Smith wrote, in part, in an August 28 memo to members of the city commission and City Manager Jimmy Morales.

Smith said the City was concerned that a ruling the other way would impact negotiations with South Beach ACE since, if it withstood legal scrutiny and passed, a contract was unlikely to be completed by Election Day and thus would not be vested – altering the nature of negotiations in a project many years in the making.

Instead, Smith was pleased with the decision.

“The judge said a number of things,” Smith said. “He ruled that the PAC did not have standing to ask for an injunction to remove the referendum question from the ballot. The Court said only a [resident] has standing.

“The Judge also granted the City a summary judgment for the City, saying the referendum language on the ballot is timely and was written correctly by the City,” Smith added. “It does not have to be removed from the ballot.”

However, Smith noted that the PAC – which is backed by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, a fierce critic of the convention center redevelopment process – was not through. A notice of appeal was filed asking for an expedited ruling.

“Also, Commissioner Wolfson filed a new lawsuit in Circuit Court, which he is doing to get around the question of standing,” Smith added.

Wolfson did not respond to related questions by press time.

However, Smith said Wolfson’s move might conflict with a general legal principle that traditionally prevents the same lawsuit, once ruled upon, from being filed with only minor changes.

“In my opinion, the tenet of the law is that once a court decided on the issue of the merit of an issue, after arguments from both sides, it’s inappropriate to file another suit,” Smith said. “We will take the position that the prior ruling is appropriate. The language on the ballot will be on the ballot until and unless a judge tells us otherwise.”

Critics of the process include a pair of contenders to supplant Mayor Matti Bower in this year’s election.

“Sadly, this is yet another example of politics as usual at city hall and why I am running for mayor,” said entrepreneur Philip Levine, a mayoral candidate. “Voters deserve the opportunity to express their voice at the ballot box without city hall interfering with taxpayer- funded legal maneuvers. I continue to reiterate that the convention center developer selection process was tainted from the outset, negotiated by a handful of city hall insiders, and is one more example of the City thwarting the will of the voters and being out of touch with residents. It’s quite simple – increase transparency, provide the public with the facts and let the community vote.”

Steve Berke, another mayoral candidate and a former entertainer, was also not pleased with the result.

“Before the city commission sells or allows a long-term lease on our (i.e. the residents’) land for their own political or financial benefit, I think it is prudent to trust our voters to be the checks and balances of the deal,” Berke said. “Further, by requiring a 60 percent supermajority of voter approval, we are ensuring that all parties work much harder to get the best bang for the residents’ buck. However, before this change to the Charter can take effect, we must strike down the current convention center project proposal by a simple majority, since it seems unlikely that the court will rule that this amendment can retroactively apply to another question on the same ballot.

“Ultimately, I believe the convention center project is a bad deal for the city and residents,” Berke continued. “We have no idea what the end costs will be, and the city commission was borderline negligent in their inability to secure monies from Miami-Dade County for at least partially funding for the project. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the convention center will produce the necessary revenues to make this expensive project profitable to taxpayers, but it does seem like we are allowing the developers to potentially make a lot more money off of our land than they are investing. So, let’s stop this project here, take another look, and see where our hard earned tax dollars may be better spent.”

Commissioner Michael Gongora, another mayoral candidate, offered another view.

“As this is a legal matter involving another commissioner suing the City of Miami Beach, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment,” Gongora said. “I do believe, however, that the actions of the City in filing a lawsuit to have the Court formally declare whether the decisions taken to date by the City Commission – based of the advice of our city attorney – were proper, was the correct course of action and afforded everyone due process. I was gratified to learn that the Court ruled entirely in favor of the City. At the end of the day, the final verdict on the future of our convention center will be delivered by the voters of Miami Beach – in whose judgment I have infinite confidence.”

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