Friday, May 29, 2015

What is wrong with the City of Miami? When did citizens start becoming enemies of the state? ... by gimleteye

Former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Dick Pettigrew writes an OPED in the Miami Herald today, concerning the way in which city government appears to have institutionalized secrecy; thwarting people from having access to information related to complex development schemes that, in effect, allow developers, their lobbyists and engineering consultants to sit in the same room with agency staff far, far from the sunshine that government is supposed to provide.

How did this happen? And is it worse today than it has been in the past?

As a civic activist for over twenty five years, I don't recall any golden era of open government in Florida. From my first dealings with the South Florida Water Management District and state agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or of Community Affairs, I understood from staff positioning on public information or details on permitting, that in their view the citizen is the enemy.

How this works is on display every time citizens go to County Hall or the City Commission to protest a zoning approval. The developers and their representatives are chummy on the sidelines with regulators while citizens in the audience are on the defensive. Before they even get to the microphone to speak to elected officials on the dais, they are already victims of "due process".

Tragically, as Pettigrew notes, the courts are not much help. The judicial system should provide the fabled check and balance, but -- as Pettigrew also notes -- the expense of keeping up with judicial processes is most times more than ordinary citizens can bear.

At Eye On Miami, we witnessed the relationship between government and citizens take a nose-dive when local freedom of information requests began to be accompanied with outrageously high bills for copying documents. It was as if to say to the inquisitive, "fuck you".

The insider deal for the Marlins Stadium, after the Miami Heat Arena and the Performing Arsht Center, was a watershed event in the suppression of open government in Miami. For the Marlins Stadium, there were so many false pretenses and lies used by the City of Miami and the County, together, that insiders -- especially those with a conscience -- thought to themselves, "if we can invent an economic argument that sounds reasonable, we can get anything done." To leaders of that era, these are credentials not black marks on their personal histories.

In state government, Gov. Rick Scott raised the secrecy bar to unattainable heights. And in the federal arena, the continuous war against terror has been a de facto surrendering of privacy in favor of government secrecy. There is no question that local elected officials are influenced by the atmospherics of secrecy from above.

I don't yearn for a past golden era of open government in Florida, because there was none. What exists today, though, does feel qualitatively different. Some insiders gloat, "Miami has grown up as a major American city". Too bad it has grown into a bully; insulted from criticism and hardened against reform.

May 28, 2015

City keeps development deals a secret

Almost 50 years ago, changes to Florida’s Constitution and laws guaranteed access to public meetings and records, assuring residents the right to know what their government is doing. These reforms were enacted to counter widespread corruption and set a new standard for “sunshine” in state and local government.

Sadly, in today’s city of Miami a small group of officials is aggressively working to keep the public in the dark, employing a cloak of secrecy to advance controversial deals.

That’s why there has been an avalanche of lawsuits against Miami in the past few years. Thanks to news reports in the Herald and elsewhere and available court documents, a disturbing pattern is clear — a pattern designed to keep the public’s eyes off how the government makes decisions on projects worth millions to a few, and a more congested, less desirable community for the rest of us.

Here’s what these current cases reveal about the city’s behavior:

▪ Violating public records laws by failing to provide key documents to the public until after making critical decisions.

▪ Forcing citizens to obtain a court order at their own expense, and even then not fulfilling requests and ignoring court orders when the documents proved inconsistent with city desires. One judge recently ordered the city to show cause why it should not be held in contempt.

▪ Blocking officials from being deposed until ordered by a court.

▪ Manipulating appraisals and traffic studies to hide massive subsidies to developers and inevitable gridlock scenarios from the public.

▪ Misrepresenting facts to alter the outcome of decisions — blatant violations of the County Citizen’s Bill of Rights.

▪ Manipulating city approvals, for instance by labeling major changes as “minor modifications” and intimidating city staff into going against their professional opinions and values, even when the staff knows the action is wrong.

The implications of this behavior are clear: Commission decisions are made while information is deliberately withheld until after their votes. Citizens are discouraged because of the enormous costs to battle the city’s army of lawyers protecting officials’ pet projects, wasting taxpayer funds by forcing everything into court. What is the city hiding?

When challenged with that question, city lawyers resort to fighting the right of the citizen to get his or her day in court. It’s called “standing.” Our “government” is forcing its residents to spend hundreds of thousands of their own dollars in hopes they’ll go broke or go away before their cases get heard — a position that would negate 100 years of precedent to the contrary.

What’s the alternative to the citizen’s right to challenge in court? City lawyers answer with an almost Alice in Wonderland piece of legal make-believe: First, they argue that only the state attorney general can enforce the city charter, an argument for which there is no precedent. Second, they argue that only an “appropriate city official” can force a trial on the city’s own behavior, assigning the fox watch the proverbial hen house.

How ridiculous is that? Dangerously ridiculous when you consider, for example, the city attorney herself is appointed by the City Commission, not the city manager or mayor.

The city also claims that elections are the public’s recourse. This argument is without merit. First, it’s impossible to obtain the full scope of illegal behavior without city staff testimony under oath. Second, the impacts of these decisions are sometimes not felt for years, long after elections are held and those misbehaving elected officials have moved on. And third, as a former chairman of the Dade County Democratic Party, I and my Republican counterparts know full well that even timely elections are badly skewed by the massive amounts of money incumbents raise from the private interests who benefit from their decisions, making successful challenges a practical nonstarter.

Finally, the city raises the “horror” that the courts will be inundated; an insult to the constitutional separation of powers, our fundamental system of checks and balances.

The best way to break open the crust of secrecy is through the judiciary. Consequently, I am distressed to read that some circuit judges have accepted the city’s draconian arguments. We must now rely on the appellate courts to take a position on standing that supports the state policy on open records and the state constitutional guarantee that for every wrong there shall be a viable remedy.

Richard Pettigrew served as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives (1970-72), and was a member of the Florida Senate, representing Dade County.


Gimleteye said...

BTW, I also hope that both former Gov. Jeb Bush and US Senator Marco Rubio, in their quests to be GOP candidate for president, address this Miami issue so the nation can understand their views on "Florida's government in the sunshine."

Anonymous said...

It's an embarrassment for residents. But for city officials they too dumb to even understand there's a problem.

Geniusofdespair said...

I believe that Grace Solares had standing for that suit. I think the Judge was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Multiple lawsuits is just the cost of doing business.the business of special interests, that is. Everyday the City is willing to ignore or change own planning and zoning documents, deed restrictions, masterplans, citizens bill of rights for the right "constituent." Or change the laws as needed. What are the city's legal bills for outside counsel to defend all these citizen lawsuits? Or costs in staff time? Probably in the millions that should be better spent on serving the city's real needs. Shameful. Disgusting.

Gimleteye said...

The last commenter is correct. I learned long ago that local governments fiercely protect citizens and taxpayers from knowing the true costs of their own legal efforts to fight citizens. For example, I always wanted to know the dollar value of county legal resources allocated to fight for HABDI, during the Homestead Air Force Base fiasco in the 90's and early 00's. This information is closely guarded. It shouldn't be. The lawyers know exactly, to the minute in most cases, how much time they are spending on specific issues. Shouldn't it be the right of the public to know that information? I believe so.

Malagodi said...

The whole world is abuzz about the FIFA corruption scandal, said to be worth $150m over 26 years. Key figures in the scandal were, not surprisingly located in Miami.

Yet I would suggest to you that $150m over 26 years is pocket change compared to what is happening in the United States.

We may arrest a few people every once in a while who happen to fall afoul of some enemy or are grossly incompetent with their thievery, but this mostly theater. It's just done for appearance sake.

In every other place in the world, when we see this kind of system of graft operating at this extent and on this kind of level, we call it systemic corruption. Until there is wide recognition that this is the way things are done as a matter of routine at all levels of business and government, top to bottom; until there is that recognition and we call it is, system corruption, and until we realize that there is no legal or political remedy, then we will never have anything like a democracy. And it's not like we ever did.

"The first step in escaping a life sentence in prison," said William Burroughs, "is realizing you're in prison."

Anonymous said...

Yep, Malagodi is right. It's government as criminal enterprise.

Anonymous said...

We needs the Feds to come in. Once again. To clean house. Oversight Board, anyone?

Geniusofdespair said...

Hey Malagodi:

I looked at your profile --- you don't even follow our blog?

Anonymous said...

Hey what do you expect when it is becoming apparent that our former Speaker of the House, speaker of the people, was allegedly a pedophile. Talking about checks and balances. Is it time we lowered our standards by a couple of dozen degrees?

Anonymous said...

I am no fan of County Mayor Gimenez. The outrageous and corrupt cronyism he has displayed when shuffling his unqualified and incompetent buddies from one department to another makes me wretch.

But one thing I do give Gimenez credit for is his transparency. The county is much more transparent than it was with disgraced mayor and bodybuilder Carlos Alvarez. Gimenez has since put all county financial records online. No request is required. And best of all, all county employee salaries are now online and we can see how much those overpaid hacks have made in any given year. I call that progress.

Check out the county's online public records page here:

Geniusofdespair said...

Not so last comment. Try to look up some of those records. How much are we paying to send everyone to France for the airshow?? what is their itinerary? Did Osterholt get reimbursed for something? Not much is there of any use.

Anonymous said...

The Asst director of the airport department told commissioner Z that he could NOT see the 5 year plan for aviation, even-though there is an airport in the report that belongs to the commissioner.

He also denied Zapata access to the proposed plans for retail on the east side of the Tamiami airport site. This all happened in a public meeting.

You environmentalist types need to be aware that the hammock vegetation area on 128/137 will be building and parking. I can not believe that the burrowing owls that are living all over the airport have not moved into the trees. The asst director is days from signing the long term lease with his secret entity.

Anonymous said...

See Citizens are getting screwed. How about the promoter trying to get a 60 story LED billboard passed. He even put Commissioner Hardemon's aunt on his payroll.

Anonymous said...

Got a guy down in Homestead called Doc Justice he has been putting comments on the City facebook site. They removed his comments because they are critical of city government and in particular the police. Little did they know they are restricting his right to free speech because it is run by the city. The politics of free speech and sharing information which is what facebook provides is becoming lawsuit material. When you can throw cement at police as was the case in Baltimore and not be prosecuted but you can't criticize police on a city run website you are a thin skinned and paranoid organization.

Anonymous said...

This op-ed fits so many development proposals in the City of Miami: Miami World Center, Watson Island, MiamiBoat Show, Little Havana rezoning. And yes the city officials do treat residents who dare question their plans as enemies, complainers, obstructionists at city hall when all they are doing is trying to find out why the city is siding with special interests and private developers at the expense of citizens quality of life while using taxpayer money and/or public property to benefit these private interests. What a sick situation. Wish more residents would wake up and notice how they are being swindled on a daily basis year after year. Though even if they knew, what could they do about it?

Anonymous said...

Sarnoff is at the heart of almost every sleazy City of Miami scam.