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Lobbyists converge on courthouse task force

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

As Broward’s courthouse task force steamrolls ahead with its $328 million building plan for a new downtown government high-rise, it will have to do so without Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.stackingdiagram3

Finkelstein has resigned, claiming the task force established to assess the need for a new courthouse has morphed into a body that’s now looking to decide “who gets contracts and for how much.”

“I also find it distressing that members, myself included, are now being approached by lobbyists and companies who want a ‘piece of the pie’ dollars for construction issues,” Finkelstein said in a March 26 letter to task force chairwoman, County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman.

The letter was posted on JAABlog, an online source of Broward courthouse coverage run by local lawyers.

The task force is made up of a dozen lawyers, judges and elected officials who came up with plans for a new courthouse that were approved by the county commission last summer.

In February, commissioners voted to tax property owners to help pay for the new 20-story main courthouse immediately west of the existing 1960s-era courthouse on county-owned property. The decision meant voter approval was not needed. Voters rejected a more costly proposal in 2006.

Last week, following through on a recent task force recommendation, commissioners authorized staff to seek letters of interest from developers for a 1,400-space parking garage that would be located nearby. The projected cost of the garage – $31 million – is part of the total project cost of $328 million.

The exact location of those new parking spaces hasn’t been decided. And that’s where the lobbyists come in.

Officials have identified eight potential sites within walking distance of the courthouse, including two parcels controlled by influential downtown landowners represented by high-powered lobbyists.

One of those sites is the old Coca-Cola bottling plant property along South Andrews Avenue.

Legacy Development of Broward, owned by real estate investors Jack Loos and Fred Fazio, paid $6 million for the property in 2005. They and their builder, developer Terry Stiles, have hired attorney John Milledge to lobby the county to choose their site for the garage.

Prominent Republican attorney and downtown landowner William Scherer wants to add three floors to the existing county-owned parking garage across Southeast Third Avenue from the courthouse. Scherer, who has a 99-year lease with the county for 243 spaces to supply residents at his nearby New River Village, wants to build more spaces to accommodate future development. He has hired lobbyist Jim Blosser.

Scherer has so far waged an uphill battle. County planners think his plans would worsen the peak-hour traffic backups that plague the garage’s Third Avenue entrance.

A few days before the task force’s March 26 meeting, Scherer began reaching out to members about his idea to add three floors to the east garage.

One call was to Finkelstein’s lieutenant, Steve Michaelson.

“Howard was a voting member and Scherer wanted to know if I could set up a meeting between Howard and his son to discuss it. I said, ‘I’ll let you know,” said Michaelson.

Scherer’s son John is president of the Gulf Building Corp. and a partner in his father’s law firm, Conrad Scherer, which share the same corporate address.

“They were just trying to educate the committee members. It wasn’t so much lobbying as to let the members understand what’s happening,” said Scherer spokesman Kevin Boyd. [Boyd is a member of Broward Bulldog’s board of advisors.]

The Finkelstein-Scherer meeting never happened.

Finkelstein quit the task force the day of the meeting. He acted after getting the phone call from Scherer, and a second call from another landowner who claimed the process was skewed against him, Finkelstein said.

“I don’t want lobbyists calling me,” he said. “I didn’t have a problem in deciding if we needed a new courthouse, but I wasn’t elected to hand out millions of dollars in contracts and services.

Finkelstein wasn’t the first task force member to depart.

Broward Chief Judge Victor Tobin resigned in January. Chairwoman Lieberman told members he left because “he is going to be working very closely and it would probably be a Sunshine (law) issue if he stayed on the task force.”

Another circuit judge, former state senator Peter Weinstein, remains on the task force.

Pete Corwin, the assistant to the county administrator who is working with the task force, said a formal request for letters of interest about the garage is now being prepared.

In addition to adding floors to the existing garage, the county could buy land and design and build its own garage or arrange for a landowner to build a garage and then lease all or part of it to the county. The latter approach was considered and rejected a year ago because, under its bid rules, the county could not ask the proposers to tell them the price of their project.

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  • We knew the writing was on the wall for abuses in this contract. Its like a sitcom, you pretty much know where its going due to past performances. I read a file on one of the earliest meetings concerning this issue and the players were pretty much making a Christmas list for what they wanted in a New Courthouse. This is a “construction project”.. you dont ask lawyers to design and build it. Courthouses are being built all over this country, there are protocols and designs configured for a city this size. When projects like this are on the table one must follow the money. In Broward’s case, we must put our laborers, carpenters, electricians back to work. The last thing I want to see on my drive everyday to work are illegal workers or out of state subs brought in for this job. If they cant put legal local workers on this job, then they better downsize it to accomadate the very people they are demanding subsidize it. We arent building rocket ships here and transparency is paramount on this project to allow taxpayers to even swallow it. All one has to do is look at the “airport expansion” project to get the template of how “NOT TO DO BUSINESS”. I appreciate “Broward Bulldog” for watching this issue..it should play out for some interesting fodder and tangled webs..but with the Bulldog’s watchful eye, maybe just maybe this can turn out to be a project that is well run, well thought out, comes in on time and underbudget…with NO Regrets…

  • Thank you “BROWARDBULLDOG.ORG.( Dan Christensen) FOR KEEPING US INFORMED AND SHINING THE LIGHT ON THE MASSIVE APPEARANCE OF ONGOING IMPROPRITIES CONCERNING THE ILLFATED DECISION TO BUILD A NEW COURTHOUSE.From the very beginning of this conflict of interest motivated scam, without the renovation of proper sewer lines and infa-stucture, problably blocked with sludge from files flushed down the toilets the last 50 years,there will be a promise of problems, expensive and distructive.

    Without strategic planning or the proper experts(Engineers, specifically Sructural and Electical, maintenence efficiency & constuction experts) on the task force making any decisions concerning the ‘new”Courthouse is a guarantee for another horror story about the Courthouse opening Day( just like many of the “new” schools in Broward County).
    In the meantime, who is solving the problems about the functioning of the Courthouse now!
    Stay tuned at Beverly4broward.com…..I promise to reveal a much better Plan.based on the implementation of Electronic Filing which was an part of my Strategic Plan of my Campaign for Clerk of the Courts 2008, which has been implemented by the Florida Supreme Court dictate to begin Oct.1, 2010! Beverly KENNEDY, 954-463-5688
    P.S. OUR PUBLIC DEFENDER HOWARD FINKELSTEIN DESERVES OUR PRAISES AND APPRECIATION FOR HIS WITNESS OF THE REAL FACTS!

  • Florida’s 2008 Missing Persons Act was named for Jennifer Kesse and Tiffany Sessions, and their parents helped get it passed. It requires the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to accept young adults into their missing persons database; requires entry of a lost individual into federal databases within two hours of when the person is determined missing and, if the person is still lost after 90 days, law enforcement agencies must collect DNA samples for use in the investigation.

    NOW SPEED UP TO August 2010 and this project is not funded:

    Florida is now #2 with the amount of Registered Sex Offenders in a state with more transient ones passing thru daily. I am not comparing apples to oranges here, but it makes no sense to install mahogany woodwork, flat screen TV’s and expresso makers in a courthouse, making sure this project is funded and FULLY FUNCTIONAL with no excuses. We are now subbing out DNA testing to private labs when a city this large, with this much crime should have access to something as basic as this ability to speed up its efforts in crime fighting and more accurate detection of criminals.

    Commissioner Rodstrom stated ““Now we don’t take DNA until conviction,”. “How do you pass something and not fund it? It’s disheartening. It is very hypocritical in my opinion. We should take the opportunity to solve crime. That’s our job. So it ought to be mandatory for felony arrests.”

    I agree and Broward from what I gather at this junction will have the item on their August 31 agenda, I suggest if you cant make the meeting you e-mail your commissioners and strongly recommend if they can “find the money” for a $328 million and rising everyday courthouse? They should certainly find the money, less than $1.5 million for this important project..

  • Hey Val, NOONE cares what your old, gun-toting, shoot first-ask questions later ass thinks. You have nothing to offer accept your Opinion. You believe that because you scream the loudest and type the most comments, people will “side” with you. You want to “keep the tide going in the right direction”. Fine, fine. I don’t know about you, but i’ld rather have a sex offender who had sex with an underage GF living next door, than a deranged mad woman, who thinks it’s ok to pull her gun on an Unarmed sex offender, simply because he disagrees with her HARASSMENT. Geez, Val, looks like we ALL have skeletons in our closets don’t we? Look up Valerie Parkhurst (valigator), and HER police record. Good luck with your crusade, Val.

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