By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Unbelievable as it may seem today, all this tightly organized, high-impact activity took place without a shred of publicity, even though Knight-Ridder chairman Chapman, Knight-Ridder president James Batten, and Herald publisher Richard Capen were deeply involved. Not until Herald reporter Celia Dugger broke the story in September 1985 did the Non-Group receive any notice whatsoever -- after existing for nearly fifteen years right under the Herald's nose.
Despite the ensuing debate over conflicts of interest, Chapman remained unapologetic and undeterred. If anything, his activism intensified, even after Batten succeeded him as Knight-Ridder boss. Following Hurricane Andrew, he and Batten launched We Will Rebuild, the massive private-sector relief effort that, initially at least, thumbed its nose at the Sunshine Law. He stepped forward again to help solve the festering problem of homelessness with his Community Partnership for Homeless, in conjunction with Dade County.
One of the most vexing and divisive civic projects Chapman wrestled with was the creation of a performing arts center, a process that had dragged on for years before Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez and Dade Mayor Steve Clark, in early 1988, appointed the proverbial blue-ribbon commission to get the damn thing built. Enter Chapman and attorney Parker Thomson, who were among the notables tapped for the job.
The committee's meetings were not open to the public or the press, and so virtually no one knew that the members had made the highly controversial decision to locate the complex in Bicentennial Park, largely at the urging of Chapman. Eventually the minutes of the committee's meetings were made public, and Herald executives were mortified to discover that Chapman had essentially promised his paper's editorial endorsement of the site. Said Herald editor Jim Hampton: "It makes for a very sticky business when Alvah has a specific position on any issue and makes it known."
The Herald article headlined "Lawyers: Group Likely Broke Sunshine Law" began this way: "Media lawyers say the performing arts center committee that met privately this year appears to have violated Florida's open government law by not notifying the public of its meetings.... Parker Thomson, a member of the performing arts committee, is a lawyer whose firm has represented The Miami Herald in several important Sunshine Law cases. Thomson said he did not believe public notice was required for the committee's meetings because it is 'an informal group pulled together to see what can be done.' He noted that the committee was named by the mayors, not the city and county commissions. But several lawyers said it does not matter that the committee was appointed by mayors."
The article also noted that County Attorney Robert Ginsburg and the Herald's own in-house counsel both believed the committee was subject to the Sunshine Law. Even Dan Paul, Ridder's current nemesis in the arena debate, was quoted: "Thomson's former law partner Dan Paul said of Thomson's contention that the meetings were not covered by the Sunshine Law, 'Parker knows better than that.'"
It's true. Thomson knew better. So did Chapman. And they know better now. And they should have leveled with Tony Ridder before he took the plunge. But bad habits are hard to break, especially when they are born of an arrogance so deeply ingrained it's probably hereditary.