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Soon Huizenga found himself in a supremely advantageous position. He could either extract a huge ransom by selling the Decoma/LMI management contract to the city, or he could drag out negotiations so long that the Heat would have no choice but to accept Broward's offer to share a new arena with the Panthers.
Only one thing stood in Huizenga's way: City Commissioner Joe Carollo.
THEY HAD NOTHING TO SELL, BUT THEY WANTED MILLIONS ANYWAY
By early February, having dispatched Christopher Korge and Bill Perry, Carollo assumed full control of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, which placed him at the center of the Decoma/LMI debate.
Carollo was the only commissioner to criticize the buyout effort as lunacy, especially considering that it would undoubtedly be a multimillion-dollar expense. Though he is no legal scholar, it struck Carollo as ludicrous that the City of Miami and its elected representatives couldn't even talk about building a new arena for the Heat. His efforts to persuade others to his point of view were in vain. Odio and Commissioner J.L. Plummer in particular were intent on resolving the matter financially. On the very day the city commission voted to go to court in an effort to have the noncompete clause of the Decoma contract declared null and void, Carollo attended a Heat game in the company of Micky Arison, a defiant challenge to Huizenga's unspoken threat to sue.
Back at MSEA, Carollo asked Miami lawyer Joseph Portuondo to act as interim attorney. Portuondo quickly adopted Carollo's hard-line approach. In a blistering March 23 letter to Odio, he asserted that the city was being foolish. "The City of Miami has effectively entered an injunction against itself!" Portuondo wrote. "It is frustrating to me to see the Broward County manager negotiating with our teams, and our tenants, to steal them away from us while you feel that you cannot talk to them."
By the time Decoma negotiations began in mid-February, city officials were talking about a buyout price somewhere between $14 million and $19 million, all of that money expected to come from MSEA's bank account. Mayor Clark appointed Plummer as the commission's representative in the negotiations, but Portuondo attended the closed-door sessions as well. "I just had a terrible feeling about the whole situation," Portuondo recalls. "We were outgunned and outmanned by the Decoma team. It just seemed like everything was all very one-sided in favor of Decoma, and it just didn't make sense to me."
The first session took place February 11 in the office of County Manager Armando Vidal. In addition to the manager, Plummer and Odio were there, as was Mayor Clark's aide Lael Schumacher and attorney Ron Krongold representing the city. Also attending: former MSEA executive director and current Decoma vice president John Blaisdell, as well as several attorneys and other representatives for both Decoma and LMI.
When Portuondo strolled through the door, he caught the group by surprise as no one was expecting him. Then he surprised them again by asking that the meeting be postponed because he was still reviewing material regarding the proposed sale. When the others balked, he became adamant, noting that no sale could be completed without the sports authority's approval. "It's our arena," he reminded them. "It's our money."
Plummer went ballistic. "It was an animated discussion," Portuondo recalls. "Plummer was threatening to abolish MSEA, threatening to take away MSEA's budget." Plummer says he was angry because several of the Decoma officials had flown in from Houston for the meeting, but he denies that he threatened to abolish MSEA -- at least not over that one incident.
Soon the Decoma team left the room and the meeting broke up. "It was kind of a nasty ending to my first meeting," Portuondo concedes. "But once I was in this thing for about a week, and I looked at the agreements, I realized these [Decoma] guys had nothing to sell. The noncompete clause was unenforceable. We could negotiate with the Heat if we wanted. But the whole attitude on the part of Plummer and Odio seemed to be, 'Just give them some money to get rid of them and avoid any possible litigation.' And I kept thinking that was crazy."
Undeterred, Plummer and Odio continued negotiating, and struck a tentative deal with Decoma the week of March 18 for $14 million. The city commission was scheduled to vote on it the following week, but in the intervening days the city's negotiating team was surprised to see that Decoma had inserted language into the purchase agreement that would have given approximately four million dollars' worth of lease concessions to the Florida Panthers during their remaining years at the arena.
Portuondo saw this as "undeniable proof" that Huizenga was trying to use his control of Decoma to his hockey team's advantage. "You will recall that the only defense offered by Decoma for this [lease] provision is that they are 'sports fans,'" Portuondo wrote to Odio on March 23. "How insulting! A child can see that the only reason Decoma wants this provision included is to ensure that their Florida Panthers can play in the Miami Arena until such time as the new [arena] in Broward County is ready."