Two City Commissioners Vent Over Arscht Center Check Then Disappear
Written by Risa Polansky on April 17, 2008
By Risa Polansky
Miami will not be pushed around, some city commissioners angrily declared last week, miffed that Miami-Dade County expects $5.3 million a year in redevelopment funds for the performing arts center even if a Marlins stadium is never built. But they’re sending the money anyway.
A mega-pact between the governments hinges on Miami’s Omni Community Redevelopment Agency directly and indirectly backing the deal’s major public works projects, such as a stadium, a port tunnel and a revamped Bicentennial Park.
To fund the planned $525 million ballpark, the agency agreed to shoulder performing arts center debt payments, freeing county money for the stadium.
Though the stadium is far from a done deal, the preliminary baseball agreement the city, county and team signed last month says the city must pay up now, City Attorney Julie O. Bru said, and continue to pay every year until 2012, even if a stadium is never built.
Three commissioners vocally protested, insisting they would not be taken advantage of.
But only one of the three remained on the dais during the vote — not enough to hold onto the money.
Tomás Regalado opposed sending the payment. Marc Sarnoff and Joe Sanchez OK’d it.
Because Michelle Spence-Jones and Angel Gonzalez walked out before the vote, the check is in the mail.
"I’m not sure that we’re going to have a stadium," Mr. Gonzalez said early in the meeting. "So why should I be approving giving money to the county?"
Because a clause freeing the city if the deal falls through doesn’t exist, Ms. Bru said.
Also, after they had approved the pacts, commissioners amended redevelopment agency doctrine to provide for the increased yearly payouts to the arts center.
"Baseball now has a life of its own," Ms. Bru said. "Baseball or no baseball, the payment now exists independently."
The county expected the first $5.3 million check March 31, but the city couldn’t pay until commissioners amended the redevelopment agency’s budget.
They were told at last week’s meeting they had to.
"It is a legally binding obligation," said Assistant City Attorney Gail Ash Dotson, who serves as counsel to the redevelopment agency.
Mr. Gonzalez exploded, condemning the attorney’s office for the oversight.
"This is the last time that I’m going to be put in this position," he said. "I don’t like somebody taking advantage of me. That really pisses me off.
"The county is taking advantage of the city… and I don’t blame the county. Shame on us that our legal department didn’t look to the future or look to the possibility of something like this happening. Shame on me that I allowed them to convince me that this was a good deal for the City of Miami."
Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, chair of the redevelopment agency, joined him.
"Why should we be responsible for a mistake the city attorney’s office made?" she said. "Right now, we’re writing a check and we’re not getting anything out of it."
The county, she said, has burned the city before.
After appearing to agree to support a city-backed affordable housing development on co unty land, the county took the property back shortly after approving the mega-plan, known as the "global agreement," in December.
"How can we act in good faith when they’re not acting in good faith with us?" Ms. Spence-Jones said. "You can only get beat up so much until, after a while, you stop believing."
The rants prompted a surprise appearance by Mayor Manny Diaz, who generally does not attend or speak during commission meetings.
Defending his brainchild, the mega-plan, he pleaded with commissioners.
Don’t "kill something that is extremely positive for the city over one issue," he said, reminding Ms. Spence-Jones the city is fighting to get back the county land targeted for affordable housing.
"We’re not being stepped on" through the multi-billion-dollar global deal, he said, noting that every project it provides for is within city bounds.
Replied Ms. Spence-Jones, a former staffer for Mayor Diaz: "Sometimes, you have to take a position."
But her position, and Mr. Gonzalez’s, was outside of the commission chambers during the vote to send the money.
"I’m very concerned that the message we’re sending is that we’re breaking binding agreements," Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez said before approving the payment. "We have an obligation, a binding obligation."
Commissioners are to be asked to affirm that obligation April 24 during a revote on the global agreement.
Ratifying their December decision could protect the city from claims it violated public notice requirements during the first vote.