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The Miami fight over right to sue to block controversial development

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A proposed amendment to Miami’s charter that would help a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping controversial mega-projects on public waterfront land has drawn fierce opposition from City Attorney Victoria Mendez.

Amendment supporters, on the other hand, accuse Mendez of running interference because she fears the lawsuits — if allowed to move forward — would expose her office’s role in violating the city charter, breaking Florida’s public records law and feeding misinformation to city commissioners before they voted on the mega-projects.

“The city attorney has been conducting a vigorous campaign against this provision because if it passes, multiple cases will be brought back to court,” said Stephen Herbits, a Venetian Islands homeowner suing to stop a mega-project on Watson Island. “When the merits of these cases are finally heard by a neutral court with witnesses under oath, the city attorney will find it difficult to explain her own role in them.”

City Attorney Mendez did not return two phone messages from a reporter seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the Miami City Commission will decide whether to place on the November ballot 17 revisions to the charter, including the amendment that would grant residents legal standing to sue the city over the Watson Island mega-project, as well as others in Coconut Grove, Bayside Marketplace and Virginia Key.

Herbits, Miami-Dade School Board member and county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado and prominent Miami businessman Steven Kneapler are among a dozen city activists who have filed separate lawsuits in the past two years accusing Miami officials of misleading voters, concealing and withholding public records from citizens and city commissioners and ignoring the city’s own charter to help developers secure deals to build lucrative projects on public land.

However, none of the lawsuits have had the opportunity to be judged in court on the merits because the city’s lawyers have successfully argued the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue. Local judges and appeals courts have sided with the city in at least three complaints that sought to overturn the redevelopment of city-owned land at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, invalidate a referendum approving the SkyRise Miami observation tower behind Bayside and the Herbits lawsuit challenging the Watson Island project, where the first phase — a mega-yacht marina — opened for business in February.

Hoping for a vote authorization

The plaintiffs are hoping the city commission authorizes the “standing” charter amendment so voters can have the final say regarding who can sue the city. Kneapler, a charter review committee member and the plaintiff in the Dinner Key lawsuit, told FloridaBulldog.org he believes Mendez is fighting the amendment because it would force her to provide neutral advice to the city commission instead of yielding to political pressure.

“It is not the legal department’s position to play politics,” Kneapler said. “I hope it passes.”

If his complaint were heard on the merits, Kneapler said, he would be able to show how the city violated the charter by failing to obtain two separate property appraisals for the Dinner Key seven-acre site, where Grove Bay Investment Group LLC is proposing a new marina, public baywalk, restaurants and a parking garage.

“The city always hides behind the standing issue and no one gets an opportunity to get to hear their cases upon the merits,” Kneapler said. “It is very frustrating.”

According to a four-page memo Mendez prepared for the charter review committee’s May 2 meeting, the city attorney argues the “standing” charter amendment would be “opening the floodgates” to frivolous lawsuits filed out of “spite” by opponents of projects that are approved by a majority of Miami voters.

She noted the Florida Supreme Court last year voted not to review Kneapler’s lawsuit and Regalado’s complaint after an appeals court sided with the city.

“This committee should not allow the charter review process to be used by anyone to force the city to squander time and resources defending meritless claims by disgruntled citizens,” Mendez wrote.

Roger Craver, another Venetian Islands resident who is also a plaintiff in the Herbits lawsuit, claims the city attorney’s office hides behind the “standing’’ issue to mask what he says are their unlawful actions.

“Their defense strategy has prevented all the facts from being laid on the table, Craver said. “As a result, a stable of reputable citizens are getting blocked from publicly exposing the city’s misbehavior.”

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