By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"Dade officials and the county's consultant did not provide additional detail showing how the plan would work, despite a request by the Herald under the Florida public records law for more documentation.
"The same request was made to Ridder with similar results. Ridder said he had no additional documentation. Knight-Ridder owns the Herald."
Imagine it -- the Herald serving public records requests on itself. And then being denied information.
Luckily for the Herald and Ridder, the newspaper's reporters never re-examined Ridder's assertion in print. If they had, they would have reached the unhappy conclusion that Ridder had misled them, because he did in fact have additional documentation outlining the Heat's demands, material that, had it been made public earlier, would have given county commissioners an opportunity to ask informed questions and better understand the ramifications of their decision. As it was, Ridder knew far more about the deal than nearly all the commissioners who voted on the project.
When the Herald made its public-records request of Ridder, he had in his possession at least two letters sent to him from Miami Heat officials -- a March 18 letter from Heat attorney Eric Woolworth and a March 21 letter from Marshall Glickman, the arena consultant working with the basketball team. The letter from Glickman outlined, point by point, the conditions under which the Miami Heat would agree to remain in Dade County. Those points included demands that the team be given naming rights for a new arena, a guarantee of revenues from parking, an exemption from any future taxes, and an agreement that the Heat would operate and manage the new arena. The team would also select the architect and contractor, receive 15,000 square feet of rent-free office space in the complex, and assess penalties against the county if the new arena is not open in time for the 1998-99 NBA season.
The March 21 letter, and the March 29 letter of intent signed by Ridder "on behalf of Dade County, the city of Miami, and [the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority]" finally became public in early April -- nearly a week after commissioners had approved the deal, and only after both the Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel filed additional requests for information and threatened legal action. Ridder says he consulted with Knight-Ridder's attorneys -- who are different from the lawyers who advise the Herald -- about what he was required to make public.
The irony of this situation was so blatant it could be appreciated even from afar. Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish, for example, found Ridder's reticence to be in poor taste. "I thought it was a tad on the tacky side," she says. "After all, the Herald is always so critical of government for making decisions in the dark, and yet it had to sue itself to get access to public documents."
The Heat's March 18 letter to Ridder, which consultant Marshall Glickman refers to in his communication of March 21, has never been released. At the time, however, Glickman believed it to be a very important letter and thought that Ridder's response was "critical" to the Heat's ability to judge the feasibility of locating a new arena on the downtown waterfront. Ridder recently denied a request by New Times to make public that letter, and his response. By way of explanation, he says that his attorneys told him he was exempt from the Florida public records law because it applies only to elected officials and governmental bodies. His lawyers, he adds, told him he had to make available only those documents he shared with county officials. The March 18 letter, he says, was not among such documents: "That was not shared with the county, so if it is just between me and the Heat, it is not a public document."
Ridder's interpretation of the state's public records law may not be correct, according to one expert. Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, says that because Ridder received $250,000 in public money to hire a consultant and was granted the authority to negotiate an agreement with the Heat, all material in his possession regarding the arena A whether he shares it with county officials or not A is likely to be a public record. "He is representing the commission, he is acting on behalf of the commission, and the public records law most likely applies to him," she says. "But ultimately a judge would have to make that determination."
Ridder grows uncomfortable when pressed on the seeming contradiction of a newspaper owner withholding from reporters documents concerning a government project. "We were moving fast," he ventures. "Believe me, I do not like being in this position. We spend our lives trying to get government open. I do not like being in the middle of this thing."
But for skeptics such as County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, Ridder's excuses are hypocritical. "It was almost a week before I saw the letter that he signed on behalf of Dade County," Kaplan complains. "If that had been anyone else, the Herald would have criticized them for withholding information."
Ridder's involvement has left the Herald open to other attacks as well, in particular on its editorial pages. The newspaper has published only one editorial dealing directly with the commission's vote to spend taxpayer money on a new arena. "The day was historic not just because a sports team said it would stay or because Dade will get a new state-of-the-art arena," the editorial stated. "It was also historic because it demonstrated so clearly what could be achieved when the county, its largest city, and the private sector all work together toward a common goal." The only hint of misgiving arose from the speed with which the deal came together. "Events moved fast, often behind closed doors, so public understanding lagged," the editorial noted, adding that "a thorough public airing" was now needed to allay the community's "unfounded fears."