SkyRise Miami can join the legal defense of its county funding, a judge ruled Wednesday, letting lawyers for the proposed 1,000-foot observation tower intervene in a court fight serving as something of a proxy for the 2016 county mayoral race.
Raquel Regalado is suing over a $9 million subsidy for the Miami project, funding championed by the incumbent she hopes to unseat, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Her co-plaintiff is Norman Braman, the auto magnate who is also Regalado’s top campaign contributor.
The original defendants were Miami-Dade and Miami, the city where Regalado’s father, Tomás, serves as mayor. A former SkyRise ally, Mayor Regalado now backs his daughter in claiming that developer Jeff Berkowitz misled voters before winning an August 2014 referendum that described a “privately funded” project. Berkowitz, a top contributor to Gimenez in past races, notes that he was public about seeking state dollars and that his pursuit of county funds was known to city officials before the Aug. 26 vote.
In December, Miami-Dade authorized a $9 million subsidy for SkyRise. Braman and Regalado, a radio host who serves on the county school board, claim that the allocation violates the terms of the referendum.
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In February, Regalado and Braman filed their suit, which seeks to overturn the August 2014 election unless the $9 million funding package is either withdrawn or rejected. This month, Berkowitz’s lawyers asked to join the case. At a morning hearing, Circuit Judge Samantha Ruiz-Cohen briskly granted the motion, making SkyRise Miami a defendant alongside Miami and Miami-Dade.
Ruiz-Cohen also granted a motion by SkyRise’s landlord, Bayside Marketplace, to become a defendant, too. The waterside mall rents land from Miami and will sublease some of it to SkyRise. The 2014 referendum extended Bayside’s lease by about five decades, and mall lawyer Alan Dimond said a decision to strike down the vote would be a blow to the popular tourist attraction.
“We have a 99-year lease,” he said. Should the referendum be overturned, “we would lose 53 years of ownership, or control, of the marketplace.”
In the brief arguments before Ruiz-Cohen, SkyRise lawyer Julie Feigeles said the project spent heavily since August preparing its waterfront site for the tower, which would include amusement-park rides, restaurants and lounges. “SkyRise is already out millions of dollars based on an election that approved the lease,” Feigeles said.
County attorney Oren Rosenthal endorsed SkyRise and Bayside joining the defense, as did J.C. Planas, the private lawyer representing Miami (the city outsourced the defense, citing the mayor’s connection to the case). Plaintiff attorney Enrique Arana objected to letting Bayside and SkyRise intervene, saying the issue of the ballot question’s validity does not need extra input from the two companies.
“If the court agrees with us,” Arana said, “then there needs to be another election.”