Miami Downtown Development Authority Officials Slam Citys Ethics Code As Too Widesweeping
Written by Yudislaidy Fernandez on January 29, 2009
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Miami’s stringent ethics code has generated criticism from Downtown Development Authority officials, who say the code’s rules for board members cast a wide net.
In recent weeks, several board members have been signaled as having potential conflicts of interests under the city’s code because of their business ties with the city.
Local attorney Jay Solowsky resigned last month from the authority’s board to represent it in a lawsuit that threatens the authority’s future.
Under Miami’s current ethics code, Mr. Solowsky needed to wait two years to work for the city — the two-year rule applies to all board members after they leave.
For the city to hire Mr. Solowsky as outside counsel to defend the case, the city commission had to approve a conflict of interest waiver this month.
Board member Nitin Motwani also appears to have a conflict of interest.
Mr. Motwani is the managing director of Miami Worldcenter, a project that plans to revitalize the Park West area with hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues.
The authority’s executive director Alyce Robertson said the code’s rules create a problem across city boards.
"It presents a hardship for anybody who has business with the city," she said.
Ms. Robertson said the downtown authority requires at least eight board members to own property or businesses downtown.
She said if they have to do anything on that property that requires city approval, a potential conflict is created.
"None of the members want to be under a cloud of suspicion… especially when they have not done anything wrong," she said. "We want to make sure people are behaving ethically, but not make that net so wide…"
The board of directors includes business owners in the central business district, Brickell developers and the head of Miami Dade College’s downtown campus.
Ms. Robertson said she wouldn’t have a problem with the city addressing any "true" conflicts the board members may have.
At the commission meeting at which Mr. Solowsky’s waiver was approved, commissioners were expected to vote on another waiver for Mr. Motwani, but the item was tabled until February.
Initial conflicts of interest surfaced late last year when the downtown authority passed a resolution endorsing Miami Worldcenter.
At the time, the project was undergoing city review for approval of a zoning change to make room for the project and a long-term development agreement between the city and the developers.
Before the city commission approved both the zoning change and the development pact, the downtown authority passed a resolution in support of the project.
Mr. Motwani did not attend that meeting and two other board members abstained from voting because of their ties to Miami Worldcenter.
Attorney Neisen Kasdin, who is the authority’s vice chair, represents Miami Worldcenter. La Epoca department store owner Tony Alonso owned property on the project’s site.
Mr. Motwani confirmed in an interview that he plans to seek a formal review of his case by the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, an independent agency with advisory and quasi-judicial powers.
Robert Meyers, executive director of the county’s ethics commission, said he has not issued an official opinion yet.
But he said under the city’s current code Mr. Motwani has a conflict and can either resign from the authority or request a waiver.
Board member Jerome Hollo, vice president of Florida East Coast Realty, also appears to have a conflict because his company is entering into a lease with the city.
Florida East Coast Realty plans to lease a bayfront parcel it owns in Brickell to the city for $1 a year to build a temporary park.
Developers are holding off on construction of a high-end condo and hotel planned for the site until the real estate market and the economy improve.
At the same commission meeting, elected officials were to vote on a conflict waiver for Mr. Hollo that was also postponed until February.
Mr. Meyers said he didn’t have enough facts on Mr. Hollo’s case to comment, but added that he had not requested an opinion from the ethics commission.
City Attorney Julie Bru says the city’s legal department is drafting changes to loosen the code that should be ready for the city commission to review in February or March.