A major Miami Beach redevelopment project has been thrown into limbo because a losing bidder said city officials illegally held a closed door meeting to evaluate competing teams’ proposals to lease and develop city-owned land near Lincoln Road.
The City Commission was expected to vote this month on whether to partner with one or more teams to build shops, apartments, restaurants and cultural venues on three city parking lots.
But interim City Manager Kathie Brooks yanked the vote off the commission’s July 18 agenda after Lincoln Road Development LLC, which was ranked fourth of four, said Miami Beach’s selection committee should have discussed the competing offers in a public meeting.
City lawyers says they’re not convinced the city violated Florida’s Sunshine Law as alleged, but it may be better to play it safe and hold a do-over meeting or re-start the bidding process.
“If we’re going to err, we’re gong to err on the side of Sunshine,” said City Attorney Jose Smith.
Brooks pulled the vote off the table on July 5 after the city received letters from attorney Rafael Andrade, a lobbyist for Lincoln Road Development, in which he raised concerns about the city committee that evaluated and ranked proposals on May 11.
Andrade said the city should have publicly noticed the meeting and opened committee deliberations to the public. He also said the committee failed to consider the benefits of a hotelier on Lincoln Road Development’s team, and that the committee’s chairwoman failed to “disclose her association” with the leading bidder.
“It would be in the city’s best interest for the administration to declare the evaluation committee’s recommendation null and void,” Andrade wrote on July 3.
Smith said Brooks, who declined to comment, is now weighing her options, out of caution.
What that means for the teams of bidders is unclear.
For now, as the committee’s recommendations still stand, developer Robert Wennett’s team √No11i remains the frontrunner to partner with the city on a $59 million project to build apartments, restaurants and shops on the two city lots on either side of Lenox Avenue. Terranova Corp.’s second-ranked team proposed a $131 million project. The third-ranked Tri-Star projected its development costs at $100 million. Lincoln Road Development’s costs were estimated at $40.5 million.
Wennett referred questions to a member of his staff, who didn’t return calls for comment.
Attempts to reach Terranova and Tri-Star representatives through their attorneys were unsuccessful.
Evaluation committee chairwoman Elsie Howard, however, said Andrade’s criticisms of her “association” with Wennett, as well as her husband’s, are off-base.
Andrade said Howard should have disclosed that she is associated with several companies that, according to Florida records, have their principal place of business at Wennett’s 1111 Lincoln Road. Howard said she leases an office in that building, but “I’m not sure he [Wennett] even knows my name.”
“I’m insulted by the insinuation,” she added.
As for the alleged Sunshine Law violation, Smith said the issue Andrade raised stems over “a difference of opinion as to whether the deliberations of the committee have to be in the Sunshine.”
The law that regulates meetings in which contractors reveal information about a sealed bid or negotiate with representatives of a government says “any portion of a meeting at which a negotiation with a vendor is conducted pursuant to a competitive solicitation, at which a vendor makes an oral presentation as part of a competitive solicitation, or at which a vendor answers questions as part of a competitive solicitation is exempt from” the Sunshine Law.
Miami Beach interpreted that law, which was changed last year, to mean that the entire meeting must be recorded but closed to the public.
Other governments, however, have closed only portions of the meeting. For instance, the city of Miami recently allowed the public to view portions of a committee tasked with evaluating proposals for new development at the Scotty’s Landing site in Coconut Grove.
“There aren’t yet any Attorney General (or other) opinions, or case law, on point to provide guidance, so this is, in many ways, a new issue for local governments,” Raul Aguila, Chief Deputy City Attorney and the current head of the city’s purchasing department, wrote in an email.
That issue could have broader implications for the city, which also closed its $1 billion convention center redevelopment evaluation committee to the public.
“Nobody has asserted a challenge to the convention center process,” said Smith. “But it’s probably a matter of time before somebody does.”