This father-son lease by county hall is too close for comfort
Written by Michael Lewis on December 18, 2013
A county lease in the making sets off loud alarm bells that seem to fall on deaf commission ears.
The lease for a local office for Commissioner Bruno Barreiro could total more than $360,000. His landlords would be his parents.
The commission’s Finance Committee approved the lease last week. It’s headed to a full commission vote.
Documents say the lease is below market value and could save the county tens of thousands over its four-year term and four-year renewal option.
We’re all for saving. But we’d rather spend more at another site to avoid suspicion that a commissioner wants his parents’ space because they would benefit from the lease in a nearly 90-year-old building and not because it’s the best site.
In order for the Finance Committee to approve the lease at 1454 SW First St., it had to expressly waive the county’s “conflict of interest and code of ethics ordinance provision” – a title that should have set alarms ringing loudly. Why is the county waiving conflict of interest and ethics at all, and why expressly in the case of a commissioner’s parents?
That provision, after all, bars contracts with family members.
The measure says the county will pay only 71% of market rate so it’s a good deal.
Perhaps, though we doubt many commissioners choose 90-year-old sites for district offices in a county where buildings half that age are routinely razed for new development. And this office abuts a small apartment building.
A county-hired expert says the building was renovated in 2004 and is in good shape.
But Mr. Barreiro has had offices there since 2001, when the building hadn’t been renovated – yet it still belonged to his parents. The lease was renewed in 2007.
That lease expired Dec. 3. Fortunately, the commissioner’s parents have not evicted him.
We’ll take the appraiser’s word that rent is less per foot than in three nearby spots. We’re accusing nobody of profiteering. But it’s still tainted.
Perhaps Mr. Barreiro could do with less space at higher rent per foot, saving money in less territory.
Does a part-time commissioner, after all, need what his parents provide: a large office for himself when he’s there, plus five smaller offices – if his staff is really five at one of his three office sites, it’s more than taxpayers should fund – plus a conference room, reception area, two bathrooms, storage space, and up to 13 parking spaces. Isn’t that excessive, considering that he also has offices and staff in county hall downtown and in Miami Beach?
Then too, suppose the lease were renewed and by some slim possibility Mr. Barreiro should lose the 2016 election. The parents of the loser would become his successor’s landlords. That’s messy.
Or, suppose Mr. Barreiro won in 2016 and the lease were renewed. He’d be term-limited out of office in 2020, but his successor would be stuck with the Barreiro lease through 2021. Messy again.
Or, suppose Mr. Barreiro won higher office before the lease ended – he did, after all, serve as a state legislator as did at least three of his commission colleagues, and some commissioners do return to Tallahassee. That would leave a new commissioner in a Barreiro lease nonetheless. Another mess.
That’s too many potential messes, coupled with a waiver of conflict of interest and ethics provisions, plus suspicions of favoritism that waivers for a commissioner’s family can arouse.
That’s not to say anyone is pocketing anything illegal. But space for a five-person staff plus himself with his parents as landlords in a lease that is likely to outlast Mr. Barreiro’s term raises far too many questions.
It’s not like it’s the only site in the mainland slice of his district, which includes most of downtown Miami and Brickell. And it’s not like his successor will covet area offices that then will be nearing age 100 when other choices include much of downtown and shiny new Brickell.
When commissioners vote, they should rank appearance ahead of so-called saving in a over-large site. Collegiality and commission courtesy shouldn’t trump the appearance of county propriety.