I Am Not a Meddler

Amid a flurry of memos, Miami Beach City Manager Roger Carlton is accused of tampering with a zoning decision. But of course it was just one big misunderstanding.

Poor Dean Grandin. He was simply trying to do his job. As the City of Miami Beach's planning and zoning director, he has one of those unglamorous, thankless posts deep inside the gray factory of municipal government. Important? By all means. He is responsible for enforcing the city's zoning ordinance. He decides which buildings will be allowed to be constructed and which will never make it off the drawing board. But for Grandin there are no ribbons to cut, no fancy charity balls to attend.

Then again, Grandin is known as the kind of guy who just does his job and doesn't look for trouble. An "unclassified" city employee who serves at the will of the city manager, he's regarded by peers as a competent urban planner who, when it comes to zoning decisions, calls them like he sees them. And it was no different last August when plans came across his desk for two high-rise condominium projects in the South Pointe neighborhood below Fifth Street. Grandin tapped away at his calculator and concluded that the designs violated the city's zoning laws. The buildings were too big for the parcels of land on which they were to be built, and the plans would have to be redrawn.

The next thing Grandin knew, his decision was under siege by one very angry developer and was being carefully scrutinized by his superiors, including City Manager Roger Carlton, even though the Miami Beach City Code grants the planning and zoning director semi-autonomous powers. (According to the code, Grandin's interpretations of the zoning ordinance are subject to review by administrative boards and the civil courts, not by the city manager or the city commission.) But that was only only the beginning. In the next few months, this seemingly straightforward zoning matter escalated into a heated debate among top-level city officials concerning the balance of power at city hall. Propelled by a series of often-testy memoranda and punctuated by the thud of colliding egos, the dispute eventually centered on the question of whether Carlton had overstepped his bounds and inappropriately meddled in a zoning matter outside his purview.

The original matter concerned a proposed high-end residential development designed by the well-known Miami architecture firm Arquitectonica and developed by real estate investor Micky Biss. The $20 million project, Biss's first as a developer, consists of two condominiums, one eighteen-story tower on Washington Avenue and one 21-story tower on Ocean Drive, both between First and Second streets.

The project is one of several multimillion-dollar developments planned for the southern tip of Miami Beach, which has lagged far behing the rest of the city on the development curve and for years has been an area of critical concern among city officials. In addition to the various commercial and residential projects currently under way, the city has hired the prominent architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk to create design guidelines for South Pointe.

The plans for the Biss high-rises came before Grandin for review, and he ruled that the buildings exceeded the city's prescribed "floor-area" ratios. Biss, though, disagreed and argued that Grandin had miscalculated the total floor area of the structures.

Within a few weeks, Biss took his complaint directly to Carlton, who says he occasionally listens to the concerns of citizens, including developers, "to ensure that the process of government is carried out in accordance with the law and done in the most efficient way possible." About the same time, Grandin's immediate supervisor, Harry Mavrogenes, approached Chief Deputy City Attorney John Dellagloria to inquire whether Grandin's opinion could be "overruled," according to Dellagloria. The attorney said no. Interpretation of the zoning code is the sole province of the planning and zoning director. If Biss had a problem with Grandin's ruling, Dellagloria said, he could appeal to the Miami Beach Zoning Board of Adjustment. No other city official had the power to change it.

Mavrogenes and Carlton, both jointly and independently, met with Grandin to talk about the matter. Carlton says he was simply inquiring about the zoning decision and didn't seek to change it. "The discussion related to why [Grandin] was taking the position that he was," Carlton explains. "I needed to understand it because Micky Biss had come to me to complain about the decision." Carlton says he then suggested to Biss that the developer might want to get outside zoning experts to comment on the matter. (Grandin says he wasn't interested in a legal opinion but was willing to consider any case law relating to a similar zoning situation if Biss could find it. If a legal issue arose, Grandin says, he was prepared to refer the matter to the city attorney's office.) So Biss hired two prominent Miami zoning attorneys to advocate his position: Carter McDowell and Lester Goldstein, both from the influential law firm Fine Jacobson. (Goldstein once acted as Carlton's attorney on a private matter several years ago, but Carlton says he didn't specifically suggest that Biss call Goldstein.) On October 13, the attorneys sent to Carlton their conclusions explaining why they thought Grandin had erred in his decision.

If all of this seemed slightly unusual, it would only get more so. Five days later, in a letter to McDowell and Goldstein that ignited the war of the memos, Dellagloria accused the attorneys of possibly violating one of the rules that governs the Florida Bar. According to the rule, lawyers from opposing sides of a legal dispute may communicate only with each other, not directly with the opposition's client without the presence of their attorneys. (In this case, the City of Miami Beach, in the person of Carlton, was the client.) "While I am more than impressed with your thorough and exhaustive review of our zoning code as it pertains to the knotty legal issue which is the subject of your letter," Dellagloria huffed in the letter, "you have, amazingly enough, overlooked some simpler provisions regarding the proper procedure for addressing your concerns."

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