Downtown Miami

Ultra Music Festival gave thousands to Miami campaigns. Will donations sway votes?

Angela Rivero, center, from Mexico City, dances during the first day of Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park on Friday, March 23, 2018.
Angela Rivero, center, from Mexico City, dances during the first day of Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park on Friday, March 23, 2018.

The fate of Ultra Music Festival’s future in Miami is in the hands of Miami city commissioners, who are expected to soon consider a new five-year contract to keep the three-day electronic dance music event at Bayfront Park.

The vote will be a test of Ultra’s stature and political sway: A worldwide electronic dance music brand that stages its marquee event on Miami’s downtown waterfront needs the votes of four commissioners to stay there. Ultra’s organizers have dumped thousands of dollars into some commissioners’ recent campaigns.

Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the deal at a meeting Thursday. The contract was on the agenda as of Wednesday afternoon. But late Wednesday, representatives from Ultra Music Festival requested the vote be delayed until the next commission meeting on Sept. 27.

For several months, downtown residents who have grown increasingly frustrated with the noise and traffic that accompany the three-day concert hope commissioners will reject the contract and force Ultra to relocate. The residents of condo towers that have sprung up in the last decade want to have fewer large-scale events occupying Bayfront Park because the number of days the park has been closed off for events has more than tripled from 35 in 2011 to 115 in 2017.

Apart from the complaints over Ultra’s impact, an attorney representing a group of neighbors also claims the city is breaking its own rules by not holding an open bid for the use of Bayfront Park. The legal argument focuses on the difference between a “license” and a “lease,” which could set the stage for a legal challenge should commissioners approve a contract.

The proposed five-year contract has an option for a five-year renewal and guarantees the agency that manages Bayfront Park a minimum of $2 million each year from Ultra — more than double what the festival pays the city now. Depending on ticket sales, that number could increase.

The length of the proposed contract necessitates approval from the City Commission. Multiple commissioners have received political contributions from Ultra and related corporations.

Among them is Commissioner Joe Carollo, who doubles as the chairman of the agency that manages the park, the Bayfront Park Management Trust. Carollo helped negotiate the terms of the proposed deal this summer.

When Carollo won the District 3 seat last November, he had received $12,000 from Ultra entities. Organizers also hired Tania Cruz, an attorney who represented Carollo when his election was challenged, as a lobbyist.

Ray Martinez, the former Miami Beach police chief who serves as security director and lobbyist for the festival, said Cruz was not principal negotiator during contract talks, but she was hired to “facilitate the meeting process” with Carollo.

Carollo was miffed at the suggestion Ultra needed help getting a meeting with him. He said campaign dollars will not sway his approach to working out a deal with the festival.

“They don’t have a right to think that because of that contribution that I’m going to vote their way,” he said.

On the hiring of Cruz, Carollo said it was “absurd” to think Ultra needed help to access him.

“Nobody needs to hire anybody to start any conversation with me. They’ve been able to speak to me directly,” he said. “They’ve hired people for the sole purpose of thinking that they can get votes.”

Another beneficiary of Ultra’s political support: Commissioner Manolo Reyes. He received $5,000 during his 2017 campaign. Because he is finishing a term vacated by Mayor Francis Suarez, he is up for re-election in 2019. For that bid, Ultra corporations have already given him another $8,000.

On Wednesday, Reyes told the Miami Herald he is not beholden to any of his contributors.

“Anybody who contributes to my campaign, they know that there’s not strings attached,” he said. “Nobody controls me with a contribution. I vote my conscience.”

Reyes did not share his vote on the contract. He would say only that he has met with downtown residents and will speak on the topic during discussion Thursday.

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Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes downtown, received $3,000 from Ultra entities in 2015 after defying predictions and making the runoff. During his brief bid for Congress earlier this year — he dropped out of the race — Ultra’s top attorney gave him $2,610.

Ultra officials have not met with Russell in at least a month, the commissioner said. He reiterated a stance he took earlier this year, that the Trust should be deciding on this contract before the commission weighs in.

“The Bayfront Park trust should be vetting this first,” he said.It should not be decided on its own but rather in the context of the hundred plus events that they run per year.

When the contract is considered, commissioners will debate the agreement and hear from angry downtown dwellers who would rather see the festival kicked out. An attorney representing some of those residents sent a letter to the city Wednesday outlining a new argument against allowing the commission to approve the proposed contract.

Commissioners are considering waiving public bidding to allow Ultra to have a “license” to remain in Bayfront Park. Four of the five commissioners need to approve the waiver. But attorney Sam Dubbin cites Miami’s charter when he argues the city should be using an open bidding process to grant a “lease” to the best bidder for use of the park. That process involves land appraisals and a discussion of fair market rent for the lease.

Dubbin contends that case law bolsters his position that Miami should not give Ultra a contract without public bidding.

“There is simply no legal way for this commission to approve the proposed Ultra agreement until the city conducts a proper competitive bidding process, obtains the necessary appraisals, ensures a return of fair market value to the city and meets the other protections for the public set forth in the charter,” Dubbin wrote.

An earlier version of this story was published before Ultra asked for a deferral late Wednesday.