Vote for Culture

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Eventually Burgess and his staff whittled down the bond issue to $2.9 billion worth of projects, the museums' new buildings among them. The manager had planned to recommend only $85 million for MAM and $150 million for the science museum, according to Bob McCammon, president of the historical museum. But Burgess restored their initial requests when a plan fell through to buy the Freedom Tower with bond money, freeing up about $40 million and prompting the historical museum to partner with the science museum.

That was good news for museum advocates. The bad news was the county attorney's determination that the bond would have to be broken into several separate ballot questions in order to comply with state law. MAM's Podhurst, still vacationing in Aspen, called First Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg to plead the museums' case. "Aaron called me up and said, öCan we put the museums in with a lot of other things?'" Greenberg recalls. "I think there was a sentiment that the museums might not get the votes they needed standing alone. And I said, öNo. The answer is no we can't.'"

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.'"

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.

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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