Ethics questions swirl around Miami mayor’s veto of a rezoning in Brickell

Miami Mayor Suarez vetoes Brickell rezoning

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has vetoed a rezoning in Brickell that allows for a taller tower — but an ethics complaint from the property owner adds a new wrinkle to the land-use debate.
Up Next
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has vetoed a rezoning in Brickell that allows for a taller tower — but an ethics complaint from the property owner adds a new wrinkle to the land-use debate.

There’s a fight in Brickell over the future of a sliver of land where one of the neighborhood’s most distinctive buildings used to stand: the ziggurat-shaped Babylon Apartments. The zoning issue has taken a turn after an ethics complaint accused an attorney in Mayor Francis Suarez’s office of playing a dual role as government adviser and unregistered lobbyist for the Babylon’s neighbors.

The property rights battle has pitted neighbors who don’t want a 24-story tower next door against landowners who believe they should have that right under a complicated unraveling of legal restrictions on the property.

The most recent skirmish ended July 25 when Miami commissioners approved a rezoning for the long, thin lot shaped like a small slice of pie. Property owners won the right to build a taller building where the now-demolished Babylon once stood, as reported in Miami Today.

Suarez vetoed the vote Friday morning, sending the matter back to commissioners, who can overrule his decision. In Miami, the mayor has limited powers in the government’s day-to-day operations and in legislative matters. One of those powers is to veto legislation.

Dozens of residents cheered Suarez in his City Hall office as he said he was pushing back against development that does not conform with the neighborhood, a stance held by many residents of Brickell Bay Drive who have fought a significant upzoning for years.

“The zoning designation approved by the commission for Babylon is also out of scale with the remaining zones in the immediate area and will exacerbate an already existing traffic problem without a concomitant benefit to the residents of Miami,” Suarez wrote in his veto message.

But attorneys representing the property owners contend that the veto is weighed down by ethical lapses because Suarez’s legal counsel, Eddy Leal, has openly advocated against the rezoning.

In a complaint filed Thursday with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, land use attorney Jeffrey Bercow alleges that Leal illegally lobbied on the zoning matter in multiple hearings, some of which occurred after Suarez hired Leal in April this year.

babylo_fitted (1)
The Babylon apartments in Brickell, the first building designed by Miami design giant Arquitectonica. Miami Herald file

Leal, who lives in a nearby condominium, spoke against the rezoning in public meetings this year before and after his hiring. He said he represented or spoke on behalf of resident groups who live in neighboring condo towers. Public records show Leal has never registered as a lobbyist — a violation of city law, Bercow wrote.

“Mr. Leal submitted public records requests relating to the Babylon; procured meetings with our firm on behalf of organizations he represents; corresponded and met with city officials regarding the Babylon’s requests; and advocated at multiple public meetings in opposition to Babylon’s requests without registering as a lobbyist, and as an employee of the city,” Bercow wrote. “These actions clearly violate the city and county codes, and constituted attempts to prejudice the Babylon’s entitlement proceedings with the city.”

Bercow included city emails obtained through a public records request that show Leal requested a meeting with a senior planning official the day after an advisory zoning board voted in favor of the Babylon’s owners — a public meeting where Bercow alleges Leal spoke to the city administrators off the microphone.

“Mr. Leal’s actions at the [zoning board] meeting were improper and could have resulted in an unjust result for our client,” Bercow wrote.

On Friday morning, Leal disputed the idea that he was lobbying illegally, saying he was “not paid” by any residents to represent them, which would trigger the requirement to register as a lobbyist. He insisted he had no special access to administrators and no undue influence.

“It’s a hit job that has no basis,” Leal said, “because if you look at what I did, in terms of meeting as a concerned resident with my neighbors and meeting with members of the administration, the same thing occurred, before and after I was hired.”

The issue of attorneys speaking as individual property owners can be thorny. In one case in February, during a discussion of changes to building codes in Coconut Grove, one of Bercow’s partners spoke against the proposed changes. Melissa Tapanes Llahues, a Grove homeowner and land-use attorney who frequently lobbies the city, called the changes an “illegal rezoning.” A tense moment ensued when Russell asked her if she was representing anyone. She maintained she was speaking as a resident.

Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez signs a document vetoing a rezoning of a sliver of land on the Brickell waterfront at Miami City Hall on Friday, August 2, 2019. SAM NAVARRO Special for the Miami Herald

Friday morning, Suarez told the Miami Herald the complaint was a “ridiculous” attempt to intimidate him on the eve of the last day he could legally issue a veto. He said he has kept Leal out of all discussions related to the Babylon and has not discussed the rezoning or the veto with his attorney at all.

The mayor said his decision stems from opposition from residents, whom he referred to as his bosses, and from the fact that the commissioner representing Brickell, Ken Russell, was the lone no vote on the rezoning.

“My decision to veto this legislation is based on what my employers think, not what my employee thinks,” Suarez said.

Suarez also pointed to the recommendation of the city’s planning department, which was to deny the 24-story zoning in favor of a designation that would have allowed less height.

Brickell residents crowded into his office Friday as he used his veto pen for only the second time since he was elected in November 2017. The other instance was another controversial item — a Miami commission vote approving a Miami-Dade County plan to renovate the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

“As residents of the neighborhood, we made our wishes very clear,” said Megan Tamaccio, vice president of the Emerald at Brickell Condo Association, after the signing. “We have a petition of, at this point, 799 signatures in support of keeping the neighborhood zoned as it is.”

The fate of the Babylon property, at 240 SE 14th St., has been a lightning rod in recent years.

The property is owned by Francisco Martinez-Celeiro, a former spaghetti western star, through the company Babylon International Inc. In early 2018, he successfully lobbied the city to reject its own preservation board’s determination that the distinctive, red-faced original building — an early design by Miami-based design giant Arquitectonica — merited protection from demolition as a historic structure.

With permission to demolish the structure, Martinez-Celeiro sought hotly contested upzoning that his attorneys maintain is simply a correction to a mistake made in the Miami 21 zoning code, which took effect in 2010. Neighbors strongly opposed an earlier attempt to increase the property’s zoning to allow a 48-story tower.

When commissioners considered a 24-story limit, which was recommended 6-3 by the zoning advisory board, neighbors vehemently opposed the upzoning. They argued that they purchased their condos with the knowledge that the area’s zoning would keep buildings within the scale of the neighborhood. Some questioned the motivations of commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes, who received campaign contributions from Bercow’s firm in past campaigns.

Both commissioners pushed back on the suggestion, calling the donations insignificant and denying that the money has influenced their votes. Reyes said money will not sway his vote.

Many Brickell Bay Drive residents touted Suarez’s veto as a major victory in preserving the scale of their neighborhood. After the Herald published an early version of this article online Friday, one resident said she and her neighbors felt the article over-emphasized the ethics complaint and downplayed the residents’ strong support for the veto.

Jessica Melendez, a resident in the Emerald, said she was happy to see Suarez maintain the opposition to the upzoning he had when he was a commissioner. To her, his veto affirmed the will of her neighbors.

“We’ve been fighting really hard for this for a long time,” she said.

Brickell residents gathered to protest the installation of the artificial turf along Brickell Avenue to replace real grass.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, ranging from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He attended the University of Florida.