The readers’ forum

The public’s Watson Island win

 

Cancelling a billion-dollar mega-project can never be easy, especially when prominent developers say that they have spent millions in planning. But Jorge Perez did the right thing recently when he announced that the Related Group would not pursue an expansion of a 12-year-old idea to overwhelm Watson Island with additional hotels, retail, and convention space.

Watson Island is public space; it belongs to citizens and taxpayers, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the city of Miami has behaved. Even harder than withdrawing, though, was forcing the cancellation.

“Good government” means something. Lest the Miami Commission forget, here is a short primer: The public has a right to know what its government is doing, what it is planning, what it is deliberating about and what studies and analyses it is conducting. Citizens have a right to provide elected officials with their views. That is the democratic process.

After city officials in all nine relevant departments — conspiracy anyone? — failed to provide requested documents, I filed a complaint with the court to enforce compliance with Florida’s public-records law. Documents that were finally provided after the lawsuit revealed an extended period during which city officials were busy working away to prepare for a sudden launch of the radical expansion of the Watson Island plan, full blown with supposed state agency acquiescence.

Armed with these documents, and the Miami Herald’s timely reporting, residents of Miami and Miami Beach, as well as the Miami Beach City Commission, voiced their concerns about a massive land-use change taking place without appropriate studies of its impact on traffic, the environment, downtown development, public safety and taxpayers’ subsidies.

Removing approvals from the Downtown Development Authority, a system created by the state to assure local participation in, and a comprehensive review of, such critical decisions, the chairman of the City Commission, who also is the chairman of the DDA as well as the development’s dominant proponent, not only sidestepped what everyone assumed state law requires, but offended the DDA members whose responsibility this is. While a court has not ruled on whether there was a technical reason allowing the city to withdraw the matter from DDA, it was wrong to do it.

The public won this time, and the lessons are clear: Florida’s Sunshine laws are designed to assure that government work is not conducted behind closed doors, that the public has access and that the public has a role.

Stephen Herbits, Miami

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