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.
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.