In addition to being Miami Beach's mayor, Philip Levine is also among the biggest property owners in booming Sunset Harbour, the neighborhood just north of the Venetian Causeway. That's created some sticky situations in the past, like when Levine voted to put millions of city cash into anti-sea level rise pumps and street work to protect the buildings he owns.
Now, city attorney Raul Aguila is asking for state guidance on another potential ethical conflict. Levine and the commission are scheduled to vote next month on whether to allow billionaire developer Marc Rowan to build a massive luxury condo project along Purdy Avenue.
The problem? The project abuts Levine's own Sunset Harbour properties. Aguila says he believes Levine is conflict-free in the deal, and the mayor adds that he requested the state opinion in an abundance of caution.
"The mayor has taken a proactive step to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, which is why the city attorney has weighed in and requested for the state ethics commission to issue a final opinion," says Christian Ulvert, an advisor to the mayor.
But critics say the mayor should step aside on the vote because Rowan's plan could significantly boost the mayor's property value.
"The adjacent property is Levine's," says Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. "It's just a matter of time before he benefits from this deal."
The project at the center of the ethical debate is called Sunset Harbour Residencies, which would include 15 luxury condos stacked atop a retail building along eight lots on Purdy Avenue.
A group called Deco Capital Group is behind the proposal, but Rowan's RWN Real Estate Partners has a 90 percent stake, city applications show. The group wants to bend one of Miami Beach's most contentious rules: A 50-foot height limit on new properties. The new Purdy project would reach up to 90 feet.
City voters struck down a similar request in a hot-button election campaign last fall, when another Levine ally wanted to build a huge condo tower and resort in North Beach. But the city's land use committee this month backed the Purdy Avenue project's application for an exemption to the height rules. The full commission is set to vote on the exemption next month.
That's where Levine's vote comes into play. And yesterday, City Attorney Aguila asked the Florida Commission on Ethics for guidance on whether Levine can participate. "It is my legal opinion that a voting conflict does not exist," Aguila writes in the letter, because Levine's own properties wouldn't get a height exemption from the vote.
But Rosen Gonzalez argues that's beside the point: Letting Rowan's group build an oversize project next to Levine would raise commercial property values throughout the area. She also fears a loophole in the vote: that Levine or his partners could amend the height change after the fact to include his properties. She's trying to get the commission to hear an emergency item today to address the potential problem.
Rosen Gonzalez also says the mayor shouldn't be backing such large projects when voters have repeatedly favored height restrictions and voted down similar projects, such as the North Beach plan.
"It's very disappointing that we're pushing again to undo all the preservation protections voters have put into place," she says.
Update: Levine weighed in on the debate on Twitter:
@timelfrinkmia No surprise our version of National Enquirer at it again with false headlines and story. Will lend you some Ad sales folks.— Mayor Philip Levine (@MayorLevine) February 24, 2016
We'll update the story if we hear more from Levine.
Update 2/26: The state ethics commission says Levine is conflict-free on the Purdy Avenue proposal and can vote on the deal. "It appears that any gain or loss which would inure to the Mayor from the ordinance is remote and speculative," writes Christopher Anderson, general counsel and executive director of the ethics commission. "He will not be presented with a voting conflict."
Ulvert, the mayor's consultant, says the ruling affirms Levine is on firm ground to vote on the plan.
“The opinion from the independent state ethics commission clearly states that Mayor Levine has no conflict in voting on the ordinance amending the City’s land-use regulations. We appreciate the commission weighing in as it keeps with the Mayor’s commitment to always lead with the greatest ethics and integrity," he says.