Recently, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeals struck down the Nov. 5 referendum for the Miami Beach Convention Center renovation. The political committee “Let Miami Beach Decide,” led by Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, argued that voters didn’t have enough information on the project, as required by the law. The city of Miami Beach has declined to appeal.
In agreeing with those who oppose the project, the court may have unwittingly done a grave disservice to Miami Beach and our entire county, disregarded recent history, caused a chill over future public-private deals and established an unworkable precedent.
The Convention Center public-private partnerships had wide voter support and would have generated enormous benefits for the local economy. In fact, the project was expected to bring $250 million in new tourist spending to Miami Beach annually with an overall economic impact communitywide of more than $3 billion in the next 30 years, along with more than 6,000 new jobs.
This was the ideal time to consult the Beach voters — the ballot also contains elections for mayor, commissioners and various other questions. Moving the question to a special election in the spring will add unnecessary cost to city taxpayers. Moreover, voter turnout may be severely muted.
Historically, voters have approved ballot questions with even less information:
The ruling focused on the lack of material information on the ballot; however, the ballot contained no less information than many other similar referendums in recent years. Take, for example, the 2012 referendum for the Crandon Park Tennis Center renovations and School Improvement Bonds.
Voters approved by a 68.8-percent margin a 30-year property-tax increase to fund $1.2 billion in bonds for school improvement, despite the fact that the actual ballot question featured few details on how the improvements would be carried out.
The Tennis Center, much like the Convention Center, was in dire need of a facelift to continue to compete with other world-class tennis centers that generate enormous economic benefits for their cities.
The ballot question merely asked whether voters approve of new construction and expansion to current structures on the Tennis Center land and surrounding areas with no further details on financing, renovations, new construction, etc.
Voters said Yes by 72.6 percent — well exceeding the county-charter mandate of a two-thirds majority. The final details are under negotiation and will go before the county commissioners for final approval, almost a year later.
In comparison, the Miami Beach Convention Center plan is far beyond any conceptual stage, and there are concrete plans in place for the renovations and new construction — not to mention, the highly competitive bid process, months of public meetings and countless hours of debate by the City Commission. All are available online in detail from public commission meeting minutes.
The agreements would have been finalized after the vote and, not unlike the Tennis Center, voted up or down by the Miami Beach Commission for final approval.
This decision may ultimately have a chilling effect on other public-private partnerships. While private companies are always prepared to have their plans approved by voters, seeing their plans shot down before reaching the voters may make them wary of further dealings with governments.
Meanwhile, the effects may be felt as soon as Nov. 5, when Miami voters decide on a highly publicized referendum on the plan to renovate seven acres of waterfront land in Coconut Grove. Many groups are urging voters to say No — following this court decision — due to lack of specific details about the project. Also, a lawsuit to strike the question from the ballot is pending.
The effects may also be felt when voters countywide decide whether to approve a 30-year property-tax increase to fund $830 million bonds to improve facilities at Jackson Memorial Hospital system.
Requiring a full description of material terms on a ballot is impractical. What would a 99-year-lease plan, filled with all material provisions, look like on a ballot? How would material terms even be conveyed within the state law limit of words for any ballot question? At best the precedent is daunting, at worst unworkable.
Current and future public-private partnerships were clear losers in this decision, as were the voters. By denying voters an opportunity to choose at the ballot box, the court decided for the voters — as did the vocal minority group of opponents of the Convention Center project.
Not so democratic, wouldn’t you say?
Our great democracy encourages voters to make up their own minds — if dissatisfied with the amount of information on the ballot voters always have the choice to vote No. They lost that choice with this ruling.
Jorge Luis Lopez is the government affairs counsel for the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association and served on the Miami-Dade Charter Review Commission. He also was a consultant for the winning bid on the Convention Center.