Keep Off the Park

Harvey Ruvin didn't think it was going to be any big deal.
When the veteran county commissioner met with attorney/activist Dan Paul months ago to discuss a proposed county charter amendment that would require a countywide referendum on major commercial projects in parks, he figured the measure was a gimme. So much so that Ruvin offered to sponsor the so-called Save Our Parks amendment, fully expecting his colleagues would vote to place it on the September 1 ballot, and thus spare Paul the arduous task of gathering the 62,000 signatures otherwise required to put the proposal to a popular vote.

On May 13, Ruvin wrote the commission to outline his support for the proposal, topping his memo with the eco-lyrics of Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone, they've paved Paradise and put up a parking lot."

Ruvin wisely decided to excise Mitchell's potentially divisive addendum, "Ooooo bop bop bop bop." But in the two months since drafting his appeal, he has watched the matter become mired in controversy, tossed like a hot potato from committee to committee, and ultimately voted down this past Wednesday by a deeply divided commission. "It was my hope that we would choose to get out in front on this issue," Ruvin says. "Frankly, I'm disappointed."

Paul, the amendment's author and driving force, isn't just disappointed. He's furious. "Obviously our officials don't believe the public should have the opportunity to decide things for themselves," says Paul, whose signature drive kicked off the morning after the commission's vote. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the public wants parks to be profit centers, but that's their decision to make. Not a bunch of bureaucratic mandarins."

Whatever the amendment's fate, it already has thrown a spotlight on the future of Dade County's parks, pitting a battery of environmentalists against budget-conscious public officials. Nowhere is this rift more pronounced than in the simmering feud between Paul and Miami Beach City Manager Roger Carlton.

Paul, a venerated legal mind with a passion for preservation, first drafted the amendment last year after witnessing what he calls the "high-profile desecration" of park land by commercial endeavors such as the Lipton International Tennis Tournament in Crandon Park and the Miami Grand Prix in Bicentennial Park. "All this amendment does is prevent politicians from rubber-stamping projects without our approval," Paul explains. "Our parks are a finite resource. We can't afford not to safeguard them."

But to officials like Carlton, the plan is more straitjacket than safeguard. Carlton, who learned of the plan just a day before the commission met to discuss it on June 16, emerged as its most forceful opponent. Drawing upon his experience as an assistant county manager in the late Seventies, he reminded commissioners that it was only through a series of carefully tailored public/private ventures that Dade managed to fund its nationally renowned park system. He recommended that the county fund citizens' "focus groups" to determine what the public wants in its parks, before putting Paul's sweeping amendment on the ballot. "It sounds good in editorials to say that the people should decide," Carlton declared. "But this issue is too complicated for impassioned speeches about the `Will of the People' and `Saving the Green.'" His ten-minute spiel drew rousing applause from the usually stuporous public gallery.

It also drew Paul's ire. He says Carlton overstepped his bounds by opposing the measure before the Miami Beach Commission had even discussed it, leaving the erroneous impression that the city officials endorsed his position. "On what meat does Carlton feed that he can take a position not taken by his council?" Paul demands.

Carlton counters that he personally polled elected officials before his appearance and had "a feeling for where they stand on this issue." Further, the city manager argues, guarding the best interests of Miami Beach is not only his right, but his obligation. "When Mr. Paul can't win on facts, he attempts to win on allegation and innuendo," Carlton growls. "When the council took their position, they did not instruct me to fight this matter. Nor did they instruct me not to fight this matter."

County commissioners, ever wary of acting hastily, concluded their June 16 discussion by referring Paul's proposal to the Internal Management Committee, the second time the matter had been farmed out to a committee. That group's July 2 meeting only intensified the dispute. Carlton again assailed the plan, claiming it would cripple cities' sovereignty by forcing park decisions before a countywide referendum. He also requested that Miami Beach be allowed four exemptions -- South Pointe, Pier, Lummus, and Flamingo parks -- should the amendment be placed on the ballot.

Paul dismisses Carlton's fear about municipal autonomy, noting that among numerous revisions to the amendment, he has modified the proposal to exempt any city in which a majority of voters oppose the plan. More to the point, Paul says, Carlton's request should serve as a red flag to Miami Beach preservationists. "Does Mr. Carlton have plans to commercialize those parks?" Paul wonders. "I mean, why else would he ask for exemptions? The more Roger talks, the more I'm convinced of the importance of this amendment."

Carlton insists he has no immediate plans for the parks, only that subjecting their fate to a countywide vote is ludicrous: "What if we want to convert the recreation building in Lummus Park into a mini-convention center with food service? Does that make any difference to Homestead? To Medley? To North Miami? How about when the lease runs out on [Crawdaddy's] restaurant in South Pointe? Should the whole county vote on whether to bulldoze it?"

While Paul and Carlton tangle over specifics, the amendment has provoked a larger philosophical debate among county commissioners. "This is the kind of thing that may dissuade a major sports event, like the Goodwill Games, or a major sports franchise, from coming to Miami," observes Commissioner Alex Penelas, the plan's most vociferous foe. "You could severely hamper a project like the port expansion by forcing this kind of vote. These are the kinds of decisions that affect all two million people of Dade County and we're elected to make them. Just because a group of elitists thinks parks should be used one way or another doesn't mean we have to go for it."

To Harvey Ruvin, the amendment's sponsor, such comments reflect a looming crisis in government: "The public is somehow being made out to be a negative force, as if giving them a voice has become something frightening. The reason people don't trust government is that government doesn't trust the people. It's a vicious cycle, but it's one we can break. Don't be afraid of the public. Trust that the people, if faced with a good commercial project, will vote for it."

The punch line, as Ruvin dryly notes, is that the commission will not have much of a choice, provided Paul and his troops muster the required signatures -- and win a September referendum.

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