Tony Ridder and the Heritage of Arrogance

Sometime this week Judge Robert Kaye is expected to rule on a lawsuit this newspaper brought against P. Anthony Ridder, chairman of Knight-Ridder, Inc. As we all know, Knight-Ridder owns the Miami Herald (and more than two dozen other newspapers).

Tony Ridder, one of the nation's top media executives, unceremoniously dragged into court by a pipsqueak free weekly paper amid allegations he violated Florida's Sunshine Law -- a law his very own newspapers righteously brandish against those who would dare to conduct the public's business behind closed doors. How embarrassing.

If we prevail in our lawsuit, and if Ridder then suffers the sting of professional humiliation, he can place the blame squarely at the feet of his advisers, who failed to give him proper warning of what he was getting into.

The legal dispute arose when Ridder, acting as a "community facilitator" to strike a deal for an expensive new arena in order to keep the Miami Heat in town, announced in response to a public records request from the Miami Herald that he was not subject to Florida's public records law. After a similar request by New Times was rebuffed, we took the matter to court.

The fact that Ridder stiff-armed his own newspaper certainly qualified as ironic, but it also strained credulity. No fewer than three public agencies -- the Dade County Commission, the Miami City Commission, and the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority -- had authorized him to pursue a daunting series of tasks: open negotiations with Heat owner Micky Arison; assume leadership in deciding the fate of two parcels of publicly owned waterfront land; develop complex financing plans; and fashion lucrative commercial incentives for Arison & Company. They also granted him freedom to spend $250,000 of taxpayers' money along the way. Yet Ridder had the gall to say he was not subject to the Sunshine Law.

Here's a succinct explanation of why his claim was questionable at best: "Public agencies may not conduct the public's business in secret through the use of an alter ego." That pronouncement is taken from Florida's official Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual. Could there be any doubt Ridder was acting as the "alter ego" of the three municipal agencies?

Here's why that edict also suggests that Ridder was snookered by the very people he trusted for advice: It was quoted in the Miami Herald on May 8, 1988, as part of a story headlined "Lawyers: Group Likely Broke Sunshine Law." The group in question was very similar to the ad hoc committee Ridder created after his appointment this past February as community facilitator. The problem the earlier group sought to resolve was very similar to the problem Ridder was appointed to solve. And implicated in the suspected wrongdoing back in 1988 were two people who could have and should have explained to Ridder the legal obligations inherent in accepting weighty missions on behalf of public agencies: former Knight-Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman and Parker Thomson, the high-profile attorney now representing Ridder in the New Times lawsuit.

In Judge Kaye's courtroom last week, Thomson, a seasoned litigator and blood-oath member of the Miami power elite, excoriated New Times for everything from committing alleged procedural missteps to harboring bizarre motives in suing Ridder. Not once, however, did he mention his own involvement in the scandalous controversy of 1988 regarding open meetings, open records, and private citizens secretly conducting important public business.

Too bad. If he had, we might have been able to explore the true source of Tony Ridder's current troubles and establish that they began long ago, when Alvah Chapman and a few of his friends concluded that the business of governing this rapidly changing metropolis was too important and too complicated to be left to mere politicians.

Had the subject been broached, it certainly would have begun with that fateful day 25 years ago when Chapman and Southeast Bank's Harry Hood Bassett sat down for lunch, got to talking, and ended up vowing to create a brain trust of business executives who would set the political agenda for Dade County and then catalyze its implementation.

In retrospect it's hard to find fault with the depressing conclusions those two drew from their astute analysis of Dade's feeble political institutions, way back in 1971. Indeed, many students of government would agree that generations of citizens here have gasped for breath in a cesspool of incompetence and corruption. But the Chapman/Bassett solution to the problem contained a fatal flaw: By definition it was anti-democratic. When Tony Ridder stepped forward to conduct the public's business, and when he accepted the advice that he could do so secretly, he was acting in the grand tradition of his imperious predecessors.

Chapman and Bassett founded the secretive "Non-Group," a dozen local business executives who met privately to discuss civic affairs and arrive at a plan of action. Over the years, the Non-Group's membership grew to include more than 50 movers and shakers, though it has always been dominated by white males. They quietly mobilized around the most pressing issues of the day -- infrastructure, transportation, race relations, crime, drugs -- and played a pivotal role in raising funds and spurring government to action.

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.


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