Miami-Dade County

City of Miami wins lawsuit challenging referendum on Beckham soccer stadium

A Miami-Dade judge has upheld a referendum approved by Miami voters over a proposed soccer stadium and commercial complex planned to be the game-day venue for David Beckham’s upcoming Major League Soccer team.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mavel Ruiz’s decision, handed down Thursday, preserves the results of a November referendum in which 60 percent of Miami voters authorized city administrators to negotiate a 99-year lease with the MLS team’s ownership to develop Miami Freedom Park. The $1 billion stadium, hotel, office park and commercial campus is to be built on 73 acres of city-owned land, currently Melreese golf course. The team would also build an adjacent public park. The MLS team, Club Internacional de Fútbol (Inter Miami) would play 17 home games in the 25,000-seat stadium.

Voters were asked if the city should amend its charter — the city’s constitution — in order to waive competitive bidding requirements so the government could quickly negotiate a lease for the massive development.

Bruce Matheson, descendant of a pioneering Miami family, sued the city to invalidate the referendum weeks before the vote. Matheson’s lawyers argued that the ballot question did not contain enough information to properly inform voters of the nature of the deal — in part, because a lease had not yet been negotiated.

The question printed on the ballot provided a broad framework for the deal:

Shall Miami’s Charter be amended authorizing City to negotiate, execute 99-year lease with Miami Freedom Park LLC, for approximately 73 acres of City land, waiving bidding, converting Melreese Country Club (1400 Northwest 37 Avenue) at no cost to City to:

soccer stadium;

minimum 1,000,000 square feet office, retail, commercial uses;

minimum 750 hotel rooms;

living wage for on-site employees;

$3,577,365.00 minimum annual rent;

$20,000,000.00 for 58-acre public park or other green space?

Ruiz found that the ballot language was legally sufficient.

“It would be unreasonable and untenable to include all possible lease terms in a 75-word ballot description,” the judge wrote. “The summary explains the essential details of the proposed changes to the City’s Charter within the 75-word limit. It is not clearly and conclusively defective as is required to strike it under the law.”

Matheson told the Miami Herald: “We will appeal.”

The Inter Miami group recently beat an ethics challenge over the team’s lobbying activity. The Miami attorney who filed the complaint with the county ethics board, David Winker, also filed two lawsuits against the city over the referendum and lobbying. Both suits have yet to get a hearing in court.

The ruling in the Matheson lawsuit hands the Beckham group, led locally by MasTec chairman Jorge Mas, a legal victory at a time when the team is trying to hash out a lease while simultaneously pursuing a separate stadium project in Fort Lauderdale. The owners aim to spend more than $60 million redeveloping the now-shuttered Lockhart Stadium into an 18,000-seat exhibition stadium and training facility for Inter Miami.

Inter Miami officials expect the team to play its first two seasons in Lockhart while a stadium is constructed to Miami. The team’s front office, including business operations and ticketing, would be housed in Miami, while operation related to the athletes would be based on Fort Lauderdale.

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On Tuesday, Fort Lauderdale commissioners unanimously agreed to start negotiations with the Beckham group for the Lockhart deal.

After the win in Fort Lauderdale, Mas fired off late-night tweets dissing Miami-Dade’s parks and saying the county has “ZERO ability to build world class complex.” Mas had tried to take over a Miami-Dade park for the training facility but backed away due to a county charter amendment that requires voter approval to build in a park.

Mas later sent a conciliatory tweet, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez dismissed the jab as a late-night error.

Meanwhile, Miami commissioners recently voted to impose a Sept. 12 deadline for the Miami Freedom Park lease, which puts pressure on city administrators and Inter Miami to quickly hash out a document so commissioners can vote on it before this year’s municipal election. The election could tilt the balance of the commission in favor or against the stadium deal.

Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
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