Pocket the Difference

Miami commissioners use a well-worn strategy to avoid public notice of their sweetheart deals

Florida's Sunshine Law encourages citizens to participate in government. Among other things the statute forbids elected officials from privately discussing issues and mandates that governments publicize the topics of future meetings. Such openness is expensive. The City of Miami spent $391,271 of taxpayers' money last year to advertise in local newspapers.

The law doesn't require governments to publicize every detail of every meeting. Indeed the Magic City's charter, originally approved in 1921, allows elected officials to -- in limited circumstances -- vote on legislation without advance public scrutiny. By proposing a so-called pocket item, a commissioner can call for a vote on an issue regardless of whether citizens have been forewarned. This exception was intended to allow leaders to address last-minute problems.

The charter generally limits each commissioner and the mayor to one pocket item per meeting. City Manager Donald Warshaw (who was fired last week by Mayor Joe Carollo) is allowed two. By protesting, any commissioner can block discussion for several days or weeks.

A scruffy parking lot is part of the legacy of Commissioner Arthur Teele
Steve Satterwhite
A scruffy parking lot is part of the legacy of Commissioner Arthur Teele

Pocket-item strictures were tightened in 1998 as part of the fallout from the corruption convictions of former City Manager Cesar Odio and Commissioner Miller Dawkins. In November 1998 Commissioner Arthur Teele proposed a requirement that the city manager review and recommend, in writing, all pocket items with budgetary impact. Although the measure took effect immediately, it had no teeth. Only after January 1, 2000, would violators have to pay fines up to $500.

Bring up the subject of pocket items with employees at Miami City Hall, and many recall the Bedminster deal. In 1996 former commissioner and convicted felon Humberto Hernandez proposed the city pay a company, which was represented by several commissioners' political cronies, millions of dollars to dump the city's trash on Virginia Key. Hernandez submitted the contract as a pocket item around midnight, when the audience was sparse. It passed unanimously. Two years later, soon after he was appointed to his job, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo alleged the city would lose about $130 million on the contract and tried to extricate it from the deal. The process drags on today.

Despite the contentious debate over Bedminster, the practice of improperly proposing pocket items continues. At least 34 times during 1999, sometimes more than once per meeting, commissioners employed the practice to reduce city fees, steer public dollars toward pet projects, and approve other questionable acts. (Overall the commission assented to 255 pocket items in 1999.) The beneficiaries of this rule-bending occasionally were elected officials' associates. "The guy who is flying in from out of town doesn't get a pocket item," Teele says. "It happens to the political insiders."

Among the most egregious: handing a sweetheart contract to the Miami Heat basketball team to park cars and dock boats near the new American Airlines Arena; steering $250,000 toward the oft-delayed renovation of Little Havana's Tower Theater; appropriating $52,000 for repairs to the financial morass of Bayfront Park; and temporarily converting parts of Bicentennial Park into a parking lot.

In some cases commissioners agreed to these outrages because it was in their interest

to do so; if they vote for a colleague's pocket item, that colleague will likely return the favor. City Attorney Alex Vilarello is paid by the commission, so it is in his favor to let the issues slide. And Warshaw contends enforcing the rule is not his responsibility.

So far this year commissioners have refrained from breaking the regulation. Attorney and community activist Dan Paul says pocket items may be illegal. He should know: In 1957 he helped write the Dade County charter, which included pocket-item standards similar to Miami's. "The Sunshine Law requires the agenda be done in advance and that everything to be discussed in the meeting be placed on the agenda," Paul says. "No question. [Pocket items] are probably a violation of the law."

If you believe city documents, Commissioner Teele recently ignored the very pocket-item rule he advocated. This past October 26 Teele proposed, and his colleagues approved, an unadvertised resolution allowing the Miami Heat to use public land to park cars and dock boats near the American Airlines Arena. The decision provided the team with the chance to make a tidy profit from taxpayer-owned land.

The 57,000 square-foot tract in question, on Biscayne Boulevard between Bicentennial Park and NE Eighth Street, these days is surrounded by a sagging chainlink fence. Like any other abandoned lot, it is filled with pebbles, cracking asphalt, and weeds.

Last fall, following heavy lobbying by the Heat, Teele proposed the following: Lease the property to the basketball team for three years at $2500 per month, and permit floating docks in an adjacent boat slip. The Heat would spend $600,000 on improvements ranging from paving and landscaping to repairing the sea wall. The team also would give the city eight percent of the dockage.

Because Teele presented the deal (which was negotiated by Vilarello) as a pocket item, there was no advance notice in newspapers. The only member of the public who spoke was Heat president Jay Cross. The agreement passed unanimously.

A quick analysis of the numbers seems to indicate the Heat received rights to the 119 parking spaces and 33 boat slips for far less than they were worth. If the team charges the $25 parking fee that is demanded by other area lots when events are scheduled, it could make $2400 per night. Since opening the arena has staged about thirteen games and other affairs per month. Assuming the lot can be filled with cars, the Heat can turn a $345,000 annual profit. Using the same assumptions, the dockage proceeds could equal about $435,000 per year.

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