Miami to move forward with vote on Marlins stadium deal; debate lingers over agreement between black-owned businesses and team
By Risa Polansky and Yudislaidy Fernandez
A proposed Marlins stadium is to have its day in commission today (3/19) despite ongoing debate over the legality of an agreement involving the baseball team and African American-owned businesses, Miami City Attorney Julie Bru says.
The Marlins last week signed an agreement with the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People promising to "use every reasonable effort" to invest at least 15% of the team's contribution to the stadium project with African-American owned businesses.
Soon after, some Miami-Dade commissioners say they received calls from the county attorney, who reportedly called the agreement "illegal."
A federal order forbids the county from mandating minority participation goals in construction projects.
The Marlins, chamber and association said last week the rule doesn't apply to their participation agreement because it's among three private organizations and involves only the private share of the stadium construction pot — $119 million from the Marlins.
County — and city money would not come into play, they said.
City Attorney Bru said Tuesday she has not seen the agreement, noting that it was the result of private negotiations.
The city's vote on the five contracts that make up the ballpark deal remains scheduled for today, with no attempt in the works to "delay or cancel" it, she said. The contracts themselves "don't contain any quotas or set-asides."
Still, County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said County Attorney R.A. Cuevas Jr. phoned commissioners last week after the Marlins announced the agreement to say he "would not be able to sign off on any of the [stadium] documents."
The attorney said it would be "illegal," Mr. Gimenez said Tuesday. "That was his opinion."
Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said he also talked to the county attorney, and "we have to respect the legal aspect of the attorney's advice."
Building the stadium is in part a private deal and it is important to be inclusive, Mr. Diaz said, "but it's also a public deal, and we have to adhere" to the law.
Mr. Cuevas did not respond to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday.
County Manager George Burgess said Tuesday that "obviously there's an interest in making sure this project is as inclusive as can be," but "there's no way that our board [of commissioners] is going to do something that is violative of the law," nor would the administration encourage it, he said.
The county is set to vote on the ballpark March 23.
After unveiling the minority-participation agreement last week, Marlins President David Samson said the team did not consult county legal staff before signing it.
"We execute contracts every day," he said.
He stressed that the rule forbidding minority set-asides does not apply to private business and that the team's agreement to hire black-owned businesses involves only the private financial contribution to the project, which would come from a pot separate from the county and city governments' share.
"We are a private corporation. We have the ability to enter into agreements and contracts with whoever we deem fit," Mr. Samson said.
To cover stadium project costs, funds are to be disbursed first from the county and city's accounts "until such funds are exhausted, then from the stadium developer account," one of the proposed contracts says. The Marlins are to control stadium development.
Mr. Samson did not respond to a request through a spokesman to address when in the construction process the minority hiring could begin.
Attorney Rhonda Vangates, third vice president of the local NAACP, provided legal counsel in drafting the participation pact.
"This is an agreement with a private company, and it just provides goals for the Florida Marlins," she said at the pact unveiling last week.
She acknowledged set-asides based on race or gender are illegal in Miami-Dade projects and that, if built, the stadium would be a county-owned facility, but said the proposed ballpark deal provides for "two separate pools of dollars" — private and public.
"We walked around that issue quite a bit to make sure we weren't establishing a set-aside program," she said.
Miami-Dade Chamber President and CEO Bill Diggs told Miami Today last month that a participation agreement with the Marlins was potentially in the works.
At the time, Assistant County Attorney Geri Keenan, lead attorney on the pending Marlins contracts, said she'd heard nothing of it.
"We would have to review what's being proposed in order to make a determination on whether it would be deemed legal," she said last month. "But I can tell you that we are precluded from having a race- or gender-based program for design and construction of a county facility."
Ms. Keenan said the stadium would be considered a county facility.
When contacted Monday for further comment on the now-tangible pact, she deferred to County Attorney Cuevas, who she said was handling the issue.
Commissioner Gimenez said he's been told also that the county attorney's office got wind of the agreement beforehand and expressed concerns, but "the Marlins chose not to vet the contract with the county attorney."
Mr. Samson openly acknowledged the team entered into the pact without running it by the county.
The Marlins' sportsmanship did not please Mr. Gimenez.
"At best, the Marlins are incompetent," he said. "At worst, they could be disingenuous."