By Michael E. Miller
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Squat and hefty, at first glance Miami lawyer and civic activist Dan Paul doesn't look like a man who would take on the combined forces of the Miami Heat, the Dade County Commission, and the chairman of Knight-Ridder.
But think bull terrier. When Dan Paul sinks his teeth into the flesh of an opponent's argument, he doesn't let go. He tears false promises to shreds. His rhetoric has teeth.
Paul is commencing to circulate a petition calling for a referendum on the county's plan to build a bayfront basketball arena and related structures that he says will cost taxpayers nearly a half-billion dollars. On Wednesday, July 24, a day after picking up a copy of the official petition from the Dade County clerk, the staff at Paul's Brickell Avenue law office is working the phones, folding papers, and stuffing envelopes while the Harvard-trained lawyer yaps instructions, cheerfully obsessing over details, punctuating his commands with a shake of a stubby index finger: A number of stuffed envelopes have accumulated. Wouldn't it be better to mail them now? Have the envelopes been weighed to confirm that they require only one stamp? By the end of the day, the staff will have mailed out 450 petition packets to people who have called about the arena.
"This is my fourth petition drive, and I've never had such active participation this early," Paul marvels. Hundreds of calls came from all quarters, he reports -- even from Heat ticket holders.
"They're glad somebody's doing what's right," says Claudia Gomez, a receptionist for Jorden Burt Berenson & Johnson, where Paul is senior counsel. "They hope it works, but if it doesn't, they are glad it won't go on without a fight."
Paul estimates that in order to put the arena question to the public at large on the November 5 ballot, he'll need to have collected precisely 34,976 signatures and have them certified by the Dade County Elections Department and approved by the Metro Commission by September 10. It will take that many signatures, he calculates, to ensure that 30,414 of them -- four percent of Dade County's registered voters -- are actually valid. The petition, which calls for barring the use of taxpayer money to build the arena, would also give the populace the right to vote on any plan to interfere with public access to Biscayne Bay. To collect the $65,000 he figures he'll need to fund the drive, Paul also created the aptly named Stop New Arena Committee, a political action committee co-chaired by Frec Baggs, the widow of the late Miami News editor and public-parks proponent William "Bill" Baggs; architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jorge Espinel; former Miami commissioner Athalie Range; and Paul.
Day two of the petition initiative finds the bespectacled Paul, dapper in a dark blue suit and bow tie, recruiting at the Dade County Public Library downtown. His audience, about twenty local professionals, has been convened by Espinel, who is trying to form his own group, the Urban Environmental Coalition, in an effort to guard against helter-skelter development. It's an organization of Paul's kind: intellectuals who are willing to devote time to the cause.
"When you, as a private citizen with limited resources, fight a battle against the establishment, you must be dedicated and persistent," says Paul's long-time friend Leonard Turkell. "Because when you're tired and done and going about your business, that machine is still going. That steamroller never stops. Unless you are dedicated, and clear in your objective, and persistent, you will not win your battles."
Paul is here tonight to assure those present that this battle, at least, is one worth fighting. "This [arena project] has really touched a raw nerve," he asserts, adding that he's extremely gratified at the response. "But we cannot lean back on it. Before we know it, September will be here."
He also gives the assembled group a little history lesson. Twenty years ago, he recounts, he helped persuade the City of Miami to rip out the old warehouses that lined downtown's waterfront and build Bicentennial Park. In 1985 a court ruling allowed the city to purchase from the Florida East Coast Railway a 32-acre parcel adjoining the park -- with the proviso that the land be committed to public use. And now he refuses to sit by while the county ruins land that has been placed in the public trust.
A favorite hobbyhorse of Paul's is what he considers to be misinformation about the arena's projected costs. Again and again in the Miami Herald, he complains, the price tag is put at $165 million, of which the Heat is to put up a total of about $50 million. Not so fast, says Paul. Metro commissioners voted to cover the county's share not by paying in cash but with municipal bonds, which would result in 30 years of interest payments. Taxpayers will also foot the bill for a parking garage. Interest alone might add $300 million to the cost, Paul asserts.
"Every reporter I talk to, I say, 'Quit talking about "the $165 million arena" and come up with an accurate figure,'" Paul fumes.
He also mentions the traps built into the proposed contract with the Heat, including a provision requiring the county to pay the team up to nine million dollars if it can't move in by 1998. But he prefers not to dwell too long on visions of a partially completed structure. "I always think it's a good idea to let a sleeping dog die," he quips. "Particularly when it has rabies."
A prominent First Amendment attorney who has successfully argued landmark cases in support of freedom of the press, Paul has long been devoted to empowering Dade residents. In the Fifties he helped write the Dade County charter. In 1972 he headed Miami's Parks for People campaign to support a bond issue for park land. During the Eighties he helped the Matheson family fight to limit the size of the Lipton tennis stadium on land the family had donated to the county. In 1992 he gathered 108,000 signatures to force a referendum the following year to have voters in each Dade municipality decide whether proposed commercial use of their park land should always be put to a public vote. (That referendum passed in the county and in some cities but failed in others.)
Now, with Paul taking on the arena issue, it looks as though Knight-Ridder chairman Tony Ridder, who has been appointed by Metro commissioners to negotiate with the Heat on the county's behalf, has a fight on his hands. (Ridder was out of the country and could not be reached for comment for this story.)
"The way I see it," says Metro Commissioner Alex Penelas, "if Mr. Paul is successful getting a core group of volunteers, he'll get the signatures. He only needs 30,000. I would predict he'd be successful in getting it on the ballot." And if the voters get to decide, Penelas thinks Paul has a good chance of achieving a majority. "If it's on the ballot, my guess is the arena proposal will go down," says the commissioner, who voted against the deal this past month.
Although the wording of the petition doesn't mention the Port of Miami by name, its broad language is clearly meant to counter port director Carmen Lunetta's plan, approved by Metro commissioners earlier this year, to expand his domain into Bicentennial Park. And with Paul's initiative under way, Lunetta is doing his best to distance his proposal from the arena project: He intends to seek an administrative order for his own spot on the November ballot. "We know that this is a high priority with the people in the community," Lunetta says of his port project. "We'd have on the ballot a provision to vote for the maritime park."
Mustering his recruits at the library, Paul doesn't hesitate to give his opinion of Lunetta's proposal to house new cruise ship terminals on park land by creating an artificial hill that would blot out the public's view of the bay. "If that's a 'maritime park,'" he posits, "they must climb a tree to catch a fish.