Miami officials have long been supportive of the First Tee, a nonprofit that teaches golf and life lessons to thousands of kids at the city-owned Melreese Country Club. City leaders lined up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the charity opened a new learning center in 2013 and praised it for helping local youngsters. More recently, Mayor Francis Suarez became an honorary chairman of the nonprofit's Young Ambassadors Board.
"The First Tee of Miami is an organization that has a great impact on our community by providing character education to the youth of South Florida," Suarez is quoted as saying in a Melreese program.
But the mayor himself is now sponsoring an item on the city commission agenda that says the First Tee has been operating "without authorization" at the golf course. The measure, which commissioners will consider this Thursday, includes a draft of a lawsuit that seeks to eject the charity and 12 other entities from the golf course.
Some see the mayor's move as an attempt to oust the nonprofit amid the effort to bring Major League Soccer to the Melreese site. In negotiations with Inter Miami owners David Beckham and Jorge Mas, the fate of the First Tee has been a sticking point: Scores of kids in matching T-shirts have cried while pleading with commissioners to find soccer a home outside of Melreese, and a petition to save the course collected more than 27,000 signatures. Among those questioning the proposed lawsuit is at least one city commissioner.
"I think this is one of the first steps," Commissioner Manolo Reyes told WTVJ. "And what really amazes me is that it is a draconian decision, that I want you out of there without coming to the commission."
Suarez, however, insists to New Times he is not trying to boot the First Tee. He says he's only considering the lawsuit after months of trying to obtain documents from DeLucca Enterprises, the company that operates the course under an agreement with the city. (Oddly, he also claims the First Tee is not a defendant in the draft of the complaint. He says the city was being compassionate in its handling of the program because of its work in the community. Yet Dade Amateur Golf Association, which is listed as a defendant, is registered with the state as doing business as the First Tee.)
The mayor says after discovering that multiple companies listed Melreese as their address in state records, the city asked DeLucca Enterprises for tax returns, payroll, and proof the entities were allowed to operate there. DeLucca attorney Thomas Korge responded by explaining that most of the firms were either inactive, authorized by the city, directly tied to Melreese's operations, or using the address out of convenience. Korge added that many of the requested documents were already in the city's possession because they are required under the agreement.
But Suarez says the city is entitled to the records and needs them to determine whether the city should be compensated for use of its property. He claims the lawsuit will be filed only if the documents aren't submitted, although that isn't clear from the agenda item. He also downplays concerns over the measure.
"All they have to do is turn over the documents," he says. "If they do, the city is not allowed to take legal action. So I don't see what the big deal is. Just turn over the documents. If there's nothing to hide, there's nothing to worry about and we move on."
Not everyone is buying it. David Winker, a Miami attorney who has twice sued over Beckham's franchise, says the language of Suarez's resolution and the proposed lawsuit make clear it's not about getting information. It's about kicking out the program out of Melreese, he says.
"I think it's all part of an idea that it's going to make it easier to pave the way to give it to Mas," Winker says. "These kids are the problem; they're the political problem. Everyone loves this program; these kids show up at all the meetings. Let's get these kids the hell out of here; then it's just us versus the DeLuccas."
(Suarez denies that allegation and says Winker, who also filed a lawsuit against Miami over Ultra's move to Virginia Key, has "created an industry of suing the city and a practice of suing the city that goes beyond this." Winker says his lawsuits against the city are pro bono and he has "never received a penny to sue the city of Miami.")
Meanwhile, leaders of the First Tee were caught off-guard by the mayor's measure, according to Carlos Rodriguez, a board member who until recently served as general counsel for the nonprofit. He mentioned commissioners' involvement in creating a learning center at the course in 2013.
"I'm not sure how the city can take the position that they're not aware that First Tee of Miami was operating out of the facility when we worked together to raise the funds to construct the facility in the first place," he says.
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Rodriguez's law firm and a company tied to him, Junior Golf Academy LLC, were listed among the unauthorized entities using Melreese's address and named as defendants in the proposed suit. He says his firm used the address only for mailing purposes and because it provided services to the First Tee. When city officials became concerned about it, he changed the address on state records at their request.
As for Junior Golf Academy, Rodriguez says it was created at the city's suggestion for a potential revenue-share agreement that would have benefitted the city and the First Tee. It was shelved once Melreese came up as a possible site for the soccer stadium, he says. Now leaders of the First Tee fear they're about to be thrown out.
"Since the beginning of this, we have been open and willing to discuss the project with the city and the Mas-Beckham group," he says. "The Mas-Beckham group has stated that they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect, expand, and enhance the First Tee program, and our hope, in light of what is happening, is that that is still the case."
This story has been updated to note that Winker's cases against the city of Miami are pro bono.