Miami’s rules on hiring legal help need help of their own
Written by Michael Lewis on April 4, 2017
Miami’s rejection of a top law firm to help in one of the city’s biggest waterfront deals ever doesn’t bode well for taxpayers, who in years past watched the city fumble away prime waterfront in ill-fated handoffs.
The city manager says the delay in picking a law firm with top-level real estate expertise will keep the deal off the November ballot – and voters must OK city waterfront deals.
But slowdown is the smaller danger as the city deals with an affiliate of the Adler Group, which plans two 36-story residential towers where the city’s riverfront administration building now sits. Adler then would build new offices for the city elsewhere.
The greater danger, as we wrote in December, is that the city will move deeply into negotiations without outside guidance, using just the city attorney’s office for legal advice. While the city attorney has a solid staff, not a single member is a full-time real estate attorney. Adler, a major developer, will have far more firepower on its side of the table.
Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy now to find any firm to represent the city. It cast its net widely already, contacting 70 law firms. Only four of those were interested and one already represented Adler. Another wasn’t qualified and the third was in Palm Beach.
Fortunately, after all that, the city was left with a great choice, Shutts & Bowen, an old-line and highly reputable firm with great expertise in real estate. But the city commission rejected that firm two weeks ago.
The stated reason for the rejection was that Shutts & Bowen had represented a client in a real estate matter with the city. Commissioners say they won’t take any firm that has been on the other side in legal contentions with the city.
That prohibition, unfortunately, probably bars every decent-size firm around. The city gets involved in numerous zoning issues, lawsuits and more, and each of those involves an attorney. Leave out all of those firms – not just individual attorneys but the firms, the city commission insists – and there are unlikely to be any experienced real estate experts left. It’s a barrier built far too high to be logical.
Maybe that’s why 66 firms that were asked passed up the chance to seek work for the city, which is a solid client. The city should ponder why 66 firms that the city attorney’s office felt were qualified said no.
Many of these firms are large. If any firm member was ever on the other side in any action against the city, the city’s policy of not doing business with the firm leaves out all of the firm’s attorneys, whether they even knew of the action with the city or whether they were even with the firm at the time.
If you disqualify the biggest firms that way, you rule out most of Miami’s real estate experts.
But the city went farther than that: Ken Russell, who defeated former commissioner Marc Sarnoff’s wife in a race for his commission seat, said Shutts & Bowen should be disqualified because Mr. Sarnoff now works there. “They probably shouldn’t have hired a politician,” Mr. Russell said. That’s disqualification by political belief.
Now the city is in the unenviable position of trying to hire an expert firm that was not among its top 70 choices to begin with to negotiate with Adler’s real estate heavyweights.
Not only is the city beyond the top 70, but it has to find an expert who has never represented anyone in any action against the city. Talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack!
We were concerned last December that the city would go it alone too long in a major, highly complex transaction that’s to result in a 90-year lease of prime city land and create the city’s new office tower. Now that the city has tried to find help, the situation is worse, because it may never find top experts who will meet its questionable criteria.
Remember, the other side is not a law firm against the city. Attorneys represent clients. They do what their clients request. They are not themselves the opponents. Representing others is how lawyers make their livings. That past action is not a conflict of interest.
The city can probably find out-of-town experts who have never been involved in an action with Miami government, but that carries its own burdens. The lawyers would have to know the city, the players and the geography; be a Florida firm with a great reputation; and travel here for meetings.
But then the city is ruling out doing business with local firms, the kind that spend money here and employ people here – the kind of folks that county government is insisting win county contracts.
Taxpayers deserve experts, and in this case that means local experts. The city manager sees the difficulty in finding such an expert firm in time to finish the deal.
Commissioners would do well to reconsider their ban on any firm in which any attorney has ever represented the other side in a city legal dispute. There is, in sum, no reason for this criterion to exist.
And, of course, there should be no barrier to any firm that takes aboard any political opponent of a sitting commissioner. That’s another criterion that shouldn’t exist.
Commissioners shouldn’t make it all-but-impossible to get expert help in a deal with 90-year ramifications for every Miami taxpayer.