Months after a political action committee raised more than $1 million from Miami Beach developers, vendors and lobbyists, fueling a controversy over special interest money in the city’s politics, the City Commission will consider tweaking its ethics laws Wednesday.
The new legislation is being billed as landmark ethics reform for the Beach, which already has stricter limits on who can contribute to campaigns than Miami-Dade County. But while the ordinance does prohibit candidates and commissioners from directly and indirectly soliciting contributions from city vendors and lobbyists, the changes would still leave the door open for deep-pocketed developers to fund Beach campaigns.
The ordinance, which is up for final approval, would prohibit commissioners, candidates and people coordinating with them from soliciting donations from current city vendors and lobbyists for PACs that intend to get involved in city elections.
I think this is the direction we need to go in
Joseph Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust
Any private developer, however, could still give money to PACs because they aren’t covered in the city’s definition of “real estate developers.” Only people or entities who have pending development agreements with the city or a pending application for a change in the city’s future land use map fall under this definition.
Currently, this definition only applies to the developers involved in the proposed Convention Center headquarter hotel and the possible redevelopment of Ocean Terrace in North Beach.
Many Beach residents called for reform in the wake of Relentless for Progress, a PAC chaired by former commissioner Jonah Wolfson that raised $1.4 million from monied interests with business on the Beach.
In the few months that RFP existed, Wolfson and Mayor Philip Levine solicited contributions from people who had significant business interests in the city. This stirred the community, who made the committee’s fundraising a campaign issue during the election.
Some of the biggest contributors to Relentless for Progress were developers like Alan Faena and David Edelstein, who each have built beachfront hotels on Collins Avenue. Sitting commissioners and candidates could still ask them for campaign contributions.
$1.4 million raised by Relentless for Progress last year
City Attorney Raul Aguila said expanding the prohibition to all developers could open City Hall up to legal challenges from developers.
“In order to draft the ethics legislation, because it affects First Amendment rights, you have to draft it as narrowly as possible,” he said Monday. “If the City Commission was going to expand the definition of real estate developer to anybody that has an application before a land use board, then you are saying those individuals cannot exercise their First Amendment free speech right to make campaign contributions.”
Longtime Beach activist Frank Del Vecchio, who decried RFP when it was active, said the ordinance does not go far enough.
“This is in the right direction. But it’s only halfway there,” he said. “You want to write the broadest piece of legislation and let it be challenged.”
Aguila said if the commission wanted to expand the definition, it would require more study. He added that it would make more sense to take small steps toward broader ethics reform because it would require a public referendum to scale back a far-reaching law.
The saga of Wolfson’s PAC created a buzz in South Florida’s political circles, particularly after veteran journalist Michael Putney, WPLG Local 10’s senior political reporter, took aim at the PAC on his Sunday morning show This Week in South Florida and in the pages of the Miami Herald.
Wolfson hit back, firing off a letter in the Herald that ran in the form of a full-page ad inside three editions of the newspaper in August.
The whole affair aggravated Wolfson, who later closed the PAC after he said he reflected upon talking to former Beach Mayor David Dermer about the contentious debate swirling around the issue.
Wolfson, who was term-limited and is no longer a commissioner, first proposed the ordinance in the wake of the RFP brouhaha in October. He told the Herald on Monday he was happy to see the measure come up for final approval this week, saying it is “the right thing to do.”
On whether the ordinance goes far enough, he said the city needs to take the steps it can now.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” he said. “The perfect ends up becoming unconstitutional, or it’ll be come impossible to pass, and they’ll just keep and talking and talking, and nothing will happen.”
Miami Beach already has tougher campaign finance laws than Miami-Dade and other municipalities by prohibiting vendors and lobbyists from directly contributing to candidates’ campaigns.
Joseph Centorino, executive director of Miami-Dade’s ethics commission, said his main concern in the RFP controversy was that elected officials were directly soliciting contributions from people who had business directly before those same elected officials, like city vendors and lobbyists.
He said the city should be commended if it passes the ordinance Wednesday, calling it a good step in the right direction.
“It was narrowly-tailored enough to deal with the problem of the appearance of quid pro quo corruption,” he said.