Vote for Culture

What exactly does that mean? Today we know it means that two museums will receive hundreds of millions of dollars to build hulking structures in a waterfront park. But on November 2, most people had no clue

MAM wasn't the only one worried that multiple bond questions would expose individual projects to harsh scrutiny. Burgess was also concerned, and wanted to lump everything into one ballot question, thus making it impossible to identify individual projects. "The county manager and the county administration, relying on the political advice, would have loved one [bond] question," Greenberg notes. "We collectively felt that eight was the fewest we could get away with." And so the $2.9 billion bond would be broken into eight separate ballot questions, with the $275 million Museum Park proposal landing at the bottom, in #8.

The fears of exposure and scrutiny were confirmed this past June, when the Vizcaya board commissioned Dario Moreno to poll likely voters about the bond projects. "We did focus groups and we did other things and what we found is the more you explain to people what's in all these bonds, the less likely they are to support it," says Moreno, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. "It's very easy to get people to concentrate on one thing they don't like -- for example, the Haitian museum for whatever reason, or the Cuban Historical Museum, or the Black Archives, or for some reason Vizcaya or the science museum. So if you advertise that this money is going for Vizcaya, someone who might like some other museum would say, öWell, why is it going there?' The rule of thumb is you talk about general issues like öculture.' With parks, you don't mention specific parks, you mention öparks.'"

Urban Environment League president Nancy Liebman risked fragmenting her group over an agreement with the museums
Jonathan Postal
Urban Environment League president Nancy Liebman risked fragmenting her group over an agreement with the museums
In opposing museums in the park, Steve Hagen was a voice in the wilderness
Jonathan Postal
In opposing museums in the park, Steve Hagen was a voice in the wilderness

And you don't mention "Miami Art Museum." Polls continued to show high approval ratings for the science museum, but MAM's numbers were hovering just over 50 percent. Thus the museum needed to hide somewhere in bond issue #8, and stay under the radar during any public campaign to win support for the bond issues. "There are folks who would say the more you get into details, the more you'll create perhaps confusion, and concern, and opposition," Burgess acknowledges.

To make matters worse for the museums, Mayor Alex Penelas was threatening to blow their cover. Demonstrating concern for fiscal responsibility while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Penelas in July threatened to veto bond issue #8 unless the county manager put the museums' request for $275 million in a ballot question by itself. Citing the Performing Arts Center's nearly $68 million in cost overruns, the mayor also insisted on assurances from the museums that they would not drag the county into a similar debacle. And he wanted their commitment to preserve "a substantial" part of Bicentennial Park as open space.

The museum boards dutifully responded. "Please be assured that we will not seek additional capital funds from the county," states a July 26 letter to Burgess signed by MAM board chairman Podhurst and co-presidents Rose Ellen Meyerhoff Greene and Nedra Oren. The letter assures that 21 of the park's 29 acres would remain "green space." That, plus a similar letter from the science museum, did the trick. Penelas dropped his opposition.

Had the mayor scrutinized MAM's letter the way he thought voters should examine the entire Museum Park project, he might not have backed off. Here is the sentence that followed the words green space: "Within this 21-acre green space, four acres will be MAM's open sculpture park. The Museum of Science will also create a four-acre nature park." It was a neat bit of linguistic legerdemain. The museums still planned on claiming sixteen acres of Bicentennial Park, not the eight they wanted Penelas and Burgess to believe.

The letter's deviousness was in keeping with the language of bond issue #8 itself: "To construct and improve libraries, cultural facilities, and Head Start learning centers for preschool children to offer multicultural educational opportunities and activities, described in Resolution No. 919-04, adopted July 20, 2004, shall Miami-Dade County issue General Obligation Bonds to pay cost of such projects in a principal amount not exceeding $552,692,000, bearing interest not exceeding maximum legal rate, payable from ad valorem taxes?"

Even though half that $552.7 million was slated for MAM and the Miami Museum of Science, there was no mention of any museum. In contrast, the specifically named Head Start projects on the list are to receive a small fraction of the total -- just over $5.9 million. (Twenty-eight library projects and sixteen preservation projects were also on the list.)

"I have no idea how that occurred," Podhurst says of the curious ballot language. David Lawrence and Dusty Melton also say they had nothing to do with the phrasing.

County manager Burgess proudly takes credit for grouping Head Start, libraries, and cultural projects together in #8, and formulating the language of the question. "There was a lot of input from staff," he says. "I doubt very much that you had a landslide of support for Question 8 because of Head Start. It wasn't like, öOh, let's throw Head Start into Question 8 because that'll create a groundswell of support. That just wasn't the case."

According to Burgess, the word "museums" was omitted from the ballot language because of the legal limit of 75 words per question. (There were 65 in #8.) "Should I flag two projects because somebody out there has a real philosophical problem with those projects?" he asks. "Why didn't I flag three other projects that somebody doesn't like?"

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