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David Arthur Walters

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Referendum Madness in Miami Beach

10/23/2007 4:46:00 AM

by David Arthur Walters

The City Commission can do anything it wants, said the City Clerk

Miami Beach, Florida 33139


Words: 2,000










Mount Sinai Medical Center wants to get rid of its money-losing Miami Heart Institute facility in Miami Beach, and the residents are worried that buyers might convert the nine-acre site into high rise condos. The November elections are coming up, money is pouring in, and of course some of the candidates have accepted contributions from their Mount Sinai associates, and even more money is needed in the campaign coffers. Something must be done and quickly. What to do? It’s time to recommend referendums to absolve oneself of ultimate responsibility, and, at the same time, please the vested interests as well as the voters.

On the one hand, Commission Saul Gross and his compadre, mayoral candidate and Commissioner and Vice Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, who is known for her support of the downtrodden and whose candidacy is supported by outgoing Mayor David Dermer, wanted the city commission to approve a zoning referendum that would automatically rezone any hospital property that did not remain a hospital to the zoning of its abutting property. That nearly gave executives at Mount Sinai a heart attack, for that would limit prospective condominium developers to a height of 50 instead of 100 feet. They threatened to sue.

On the other hand, mayoral candidate and Commissioner Simon Cruz, the recipient of the largest amount of Mount Sinai tainted contributions, rode to the rescue with his sidekick Commissioner Michael Gongora, another campaigning recipient of Mount Sinai largess, and managed to ramrod a $95 million bond referendum resolution through the commission. The money would have been used to buy the property from Mount Sinai and convert it into a park. That certainly would have been convenient for Mount Sinai in this down market. Needless to say, Commissioner Bower was livid.

Mayor Dermer remarked that recommending parks is as popular as kissing babies. He ought to know. The popular old park at South Pointe will be closed for a long time for gentrification renovations. To show off City Hall’s taste in art, an iceberg sculpture will be placed in the park for residents and passersby on cruise ships to gawk at. Local pundit McScuttlebutt said the faux chunk of ice represents the cold-heartedness of City Hall. He recommended that the newly recommended park be named Mount Sinai Park, and said that a working volcano sculpture should be placed in its center.

However, Mayor Dermer, in dead seriousness, opposed the bond referendum resolution because, he said, it violated the city’s constitution. That municipal charter, by virtue of an amendment had by a 2004 referendum, requires the city to consider the long-term economic impact of so-called legislative acts. Ironically, Mayor Dermer, in his 2004 State of the City Address congratulated Simon Cruz for coming up with the economic impact notion way back in 1997: “He got early on what took many of us a little while longer to get. Congratulations Simon, you deserve a hand.”

The media often casts outgoing Mayor Dermer, an attorney by trade, in a heroic anti-gentrification light because his claim to high office arose from his representation as the chairman of an activist group opposed to high rises on the south end of Miami Beach. He asked the commission back then to put a restrictive referendum on the ballot. The commission refused so he resorted to an initiative that seemed to win the day. Yet high rise development on the whole has accelerated since he took office, including a very tall condominium tower on the waterfront that he vowed would be the last one he approved of.

The mayor’s low-rise pet project happens to be South Beach’s new cultural art’s district, known as CANDO, where property values have soared in part because of his efforts to gentrify the neighborhood for the gentry in the name of Contemporary art. Many affordable apartment hotels have been shut down, sometimes with the help of the city’s code compliance manager; lower income workers along with other non-gentry traditionally called vulgar people were put out on the streets with their belongings, left to hunt for housing in a rapidly dwindling supply of affordable, i.e. blighted, apartments, so that developers could upgrade the neighborhood and their bank accounts. The editors of the only major daily paper of course gawked at and gushed over the towering results. As for the local street rag, the SunPost, the mayor can do no wrong now that its formerly muckraking columnist, A.C. Weinberg, is his right-hand man and has been exalted by the editor as one of the most influential persons on the beach – in any case, explained a SunPost advertising department employee when this writer complained that the seamy side of the real estate story was not being aired by his rag, “The paper is profitable and this is no time to alienate the real estate industry.” The self-righteous honorable mayor tossed out a few crumbs to do charitable penance. For example, three dilapidated old hotels in the CANDO neighborhood were purchased at so-called market value at the peak of the real estate boom by the local community redevelopment corporation with money from the tax slush fund where tax incremental funds are deposited – as property values soar in designated areas, the increase in taxes is skimmed off to further the gentrification projects – the hotels will be converted to affordable housing.

Neither so-called affordable housing nor expensive high-rise housing would be very much appreciated in the upper middle-class neighborhood in Midtown Miami Beach where the Miami Heart Institute property is up for grabs. Clerk Robert E. Parcher caused Miami-Dade County elections technicians to put the park bond referendum resolved by the commission on the ballot, but then he had to have them take the question off the ballot because Commissioner Cruz, at the next commission meeting, presented a cloakroom deal made with his illustrious colleagues: the park bond referendum resolution, which some voters were blowing a gasket over because of the cost implied, was repealed in favor of a zoning strategy that would allow the redevelopment of the Miami Heart Institute building into an retirement facility with medical services; the beach certainly needs a major assisted living facility now that gentrification has closed down the old retirement hotels – the chic and ritzy South Beach editors now effuse about was once a poor person’s paradise populated mostly by old Jewish folk.. Otherwise, if the Miami Heart Center building is demolished, the zoning would revert to the residential restrictions of abutting property, as Commissioner Bower had recommended. Mayor Dermer said he would call a special meeting to push this plan through before newly elected commissioners are sworn in.

When Assistant City Manager and Communications Officer Hilda Fernandez was asked why economic impact studies had not been required for certain other motions made by the city commission, she responded that impact studies are only required for referendums and not for ordinances and resolutions. On second thought, she said that she had, in her eagerness to be helpful, responded too hastily, and referred me to her subordinate, the City Clerk, for a civics lesson.

I asked Mr. Parcher about the “referendum madness.” He was pleasantly instructive. He said it is wise to look upon commission meetings as a sort of classroom. To get thing going, I threw the book at him, and pointed out that Miami Beach Charter Section ‘VII INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM’ does not explicitly authorize the City Commission to resolve to put referendums on the ballot except to adopt, amend, or revoke the Charter itself. The Charter of course is not the Code, and the provisions of the Code should be constitutional, in accord with the Charter. Now Charter ‘Section 7.01 Power of Initiative’ provides that the electorate can cause a proposed ordinance to be submitted to the electors. And ‘Section 7.02 Power of Referendum’ provides that the electorate can cause an ordinance adopted by the City Commission to be repealed.

Mr. Parcher responded that the commission “can do anything it wants,” and that it did not need explicit authorization to initiative non-charter referendums. It could in fact and has often done just that at its discretion. After all, the commission can make all sorts of resolutions that are not legislation, and there is nothing that prohibits a referendum resolution from being made.

“The People decide. Isn’t that what we want?” he rhetorically asked. The County, he said, was not about to refuse to put a question on the ballot because the question on a non-charter issue was initiated by a municipal commission.  When paper ballots were used, he noted, sometimes questions might be refused simply because there was no room for them on the ballot. Otherwise the question is put on the ballot along with regular election items. He said he considers the questions to be “special election” items, for which a special election could have been called if so desired. So it is silly to speak of the lack of explicit charter authorization for commission-initiated referendums on non-charter issues.

As for economic impact studies, he said lawyers might differ on the point, but that in his personal, unofficial opinion as a layman, economic impact studies are not required for referendums. But, I said, the press gave the impression that that issue was precisely why the commission backed off the park bond referendum. Note well, he said, that the commission went ahead and passed the resolution despite the mayor’s objection.

But why did Mayor Dermer not make the same objection on other matters, like Commissioner Bower’s proposed referendum? I wondered. That, Mr. Parcher said, was a zoning issue, and objections had been raised in meetings that it should have been referred to the Planning Board for consideration in the usual manner, where all the necessary impact studies would be conducted as a matter of course.

But the matter had been taken up by the Planning Board on August 28, and it decided not to make any recommendation, so the restrictive rezoning proposal could not reach the Commission before the election.  Coincidentally, two board members intimately related to Mount Sinai did not recuse themselves, but that is not unethical, said their City Attorney, as long as there is no proof they did not personally gain from their official conduct.

Anyway, why the rush for referendums? I asked Parcher. Politics, obviously: the elections are coming up.

All right, I said, but why should the commission submit anything to the electorate as a referendum when it can do anything it wants, get things done on its own accord?

Because voters would want to decide on questions that would have a major impact on the community. Take the $95 million park bond issue. The estimate was raised to $180 million. How much would it really take? Nobody knows. An economic impact study was not done.

So, I observed, any mayor in his right mind would demand an economic impact study before a big number is thrown before the electorate, whether the study is required by law or not.


So what is the cut-off? How big does the number have to be before conducting a study and resolving to submit the matter to the electorate?

Good question.

On October 17, shortly after my conversation with Parcher, the City Commission unanimously voted to put Commissioner Bower’s restrictive zoning proposal for the disposition of the Miami Heart Institute on the ballot as a referendum item. And, on October 23, the Planning Board backed an ordinance that would allow hospital properties to keep their current zoning when sold if converted to acute care living and other health-related facilities. Now Mount Sinai executives are livid and Commission Bower is pleased. There is a lawsuit in the offing.

As for the mayoral race, Commissioner Bower, an advocate of affordable housing, is not likely to win it. Simon Cruz said there will be no more affordable housing in Miami Beach, and that is precisely what the majority of people who usually bother to vote, about 10% of the electorate, want to hear. Mounting housing costs, after all, appreciates the value of their property and keeps the riffraff out of their neighborhood.







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