Miami-Dade County

Candidate’s lawsuits at issue in Miami’s District 2 race

Miami District 2 candidate Grace Solares
Miami District 2 candidate Grace Solares

On a slice of Coconut Grove’s waterfront, a team of businessmen wants to plunge $18 million into a marina, restaurant and rehabilitation project. Behind the outdated Bayside Marketplace, a developer is itching to build a $430 million tourist attraction.

Both projects have been approved by Miami voters. Both promise millions in revenue to the city. And both are sitting idle amid a series of legal challenges with a common thread: Miami City Commission candidate Grace Solares.

Over the last decade, Solares has made a name for herself as an activist by challenging some of the largest deals coming out of City Hall, from Museum Park to the hugely controversial Marlins Park. But now that she’s looking to parlay that activism into an elected post, she’s in the awkward position of courting voters’ support while fighting projects that were passed at the ballot box.

So is Solares a white knight trying save the city from bad, underhanded deals? Or is she a litigious NIMBY-er threatening to cost Miami taxpayers millions?

“As a longtime resident and citizen of Miami, I’m concerned about the taxpayers of Miami. And when I see [commissioners] passing laws that are giveaways, I have no other choice,” Solares said during an interview in a conference room at the Carroll Law Firm, where she works as a paralegal.

Since 2009, Solares has been a party in lawsuits challenging the Marlins Park deal, Museum Park, the Grove Bay project on Dinner Key and the SkyRise Miami observation tower behind Bayside. The Carroll Law Firm has also represented a client in multiple lawsuits seeking to dissolve Miami’s tax-funded Downtown Development Authority, though Solares is not a party in the suits.

Solares and attorney Linda Carroll say they are defending the taxpayers of the city, a role Solares hopes to continue as District 2 commissioner. But in the early stages of the race, which will be decided in November, Solares’ foes have used the litigation against her.

Current term-limited District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff — whose wife, Teresa Sarnoff, is running against Solares — has twice noted during televised commission meetings that the city is potentially losing millions due to lawsuits holding up the SkyRise project, which would fetch the city a $10 million payment, and Grove Bay. He never named Solares.

“You know, the shame of this is $760,000 has been lost to the city as a result of various lawsuits,” Sarnoff said in December when the Miami Commission extended a lease with Grove Key Marina LLC to run the marina while Grove Bay waits for legal challenges to be resolved. “That’s actual revenue that will never come back.”

And this month, Jay Solowsky, an attorney who represents the city’s semi-autonomous Downtown Development Authority, told DDA board members in an overtly political memo that Solares has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Solowsky, whose firm is affiliated with the Sarnoffs, referenced Solares’ own lawsuits and those filed by the Carroll Law Firm against the DDA, writing that Solares is the firm’s only paralegal.

Solowsky and DDA counsel Thomas Scott sent the memo after Solares’ intentions with the DDA, should she be elected, came into question and caused her to send an email to the board. In a statement, Solowsky and Scott said the board has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the DDA and they have a duty to inform the board about legal matters.

“The truth is, Ms. Solares’ past actions have been anything but collaborative,” they wrote. “Ms. Solares has spoken publicly in support of ongoing litigation intended to disband the DDA and she and her law firm have filed numerous lawsuits that have cost the City and DDA more than $1 million in legal fees and lost revenues.”

So far, Solares’ lawsuits against the Pérez Art Museum Miami and Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science have been resolved in the city’s favor. Five suits against the DDA — which Solares notes she’s not a party to — are currently pending, four on appeal. And the SkyRise and Grove Bay cases are being considered by the Third District Court of Appeal.

Between lost rental payments and legal fees, Sarnoff, Solowsky and the city attorney’s office say, Solares has threatened to cost the city close to $12 million — a number they say grows every month. Sean Foreman, a political science professor with Barry University, said that’s a message that could hurt her in what right now is a wide-open race.

“If the lawsuits end up costing the city too much money and too much time to fight and address these concerns, then they could backlash against Solares,” Foreman said.

But Solares isn’t flinching. She has accused the city of crafting misleading ballot questions and ignoring its charter by failing to ensure fair market return on its properties and extending leases far beyond what was allowed. She says she’s fighting for the taxpayers, and accused the city of manipulating, inflating and fabricating costs associated with the cases to attack her because she’s running for office.

“They’re creating a scenario that’s nonexistent,” Solares said.

In regards to the $450,000 in legal fees the city attorney’s office says it has spent due to attorneys working on the Solares cases, the candidate says those attorneys are employees of the city and would have been paid regardless of whether she sued. Solares also argues that her lawsuit isn’t legally keeping Grove Bay Investment Group from taking over the property, and the city is currently taking in rent from businesses that continue to operate.

Solares isn’t the only one suing the city over Grove Bay and SkyRise. Grove businessman Stephen Kneapler, who supports Solares, is also suing over Grove Bay. And Mayor Tomás Regalado’s own daughter, Raquel Regalado, is now suing to invalidate the referendum that approved the project.

Until the SkyRise litigation is resolved, it’s likely that a $10 million payment to the city will sit in escrow. If the referendum is invalidated, the city doesn’t get the money.

“I’m not costing them anything,” Solares said. “That is an absolute, total lie.”