Downtown Miami

City is bending rules to ease Ultra’s return to Bayfront, opponents’ attorney says

While Ultra Music Festival and Miami administrators are fine-tuning terms of a proposed agreement to bring the three-day electronic dance music event back to downtown, public records are shedding light on festival organizers’ political activity and city officials’ efforts to maneuver around city laws to allow the festival to return.

City administrators drafting the proposal have run up against rules that limit the amount of days Bayfront Park can be reserved for a private event and set restrictions on noise, lights and hours of operation for such events. Ultra wants to operate outside of these rules, and city staff members have discussed how to make special exceptions for the festival, according to city emails and text messages.

At the same time, festival organizers have recently made campaign contributions to Keon Hardemon, a sympathetic commissioner sponsoring the new contract to bring Ultra back to Miami’s downtown waterfront.

On July 25, their last meeting before taking a month-long break in August, Miami commissioners are expected to decide whether Ultra can return to Bayfront Park in March 2020 under a new revocable license agreement — a proposal commissioners agreed was not ready on June 27, when they postponed a vote on the deal.

The agreement, which has been tweaked since the June meeting, is a year-to-year deal that the commissioners could cancel within two months of the previous festival. Commissioners had this same option earlier this year in the two months after Ultra’s rocky debut on Virginia Key, which left concertgoers and organizers so displeased that in early May, Ultra voluntarily backed out of an agreement before commissioners could vote.

Soon afterward, Miami commissioners publicly wondered whether they should try to woo Ultra back.City Manager Emilio Gonzalez openly shared his support for Ultra’s return, citing the positive impact the festival and its affiliated events have on the local economy.

Even though city regulations appeared to throw up roadblocks that would stymie Ultra, officials have recommended driving right through those barriers. City emails and text messages produced for an attorney representing the Downtown Neighbors Alliance show an internal conversation on how the city can circumvent its own rules about the use of Bayfront Park to clear a path for Ultra.

In late 2018, the commission approved a new law limiting special events and requiring that Bayfront Park be open for the general public for at least 85 percent of the year — the outgrowth of residents’ complains about too many events taking place in the park. In early 2020, two large-scale events are planned for the park, including a fan event before Super Bowl LIV. The city would have to find a way around the 85 percent rule to accommodate Ultra, which says it needs about a month to set up and take down its stages and sound equipment.

The agency that manages Bayfront Park also recently created rules limiting hours, noise volume and lighting of events — rules that would force Ultra to scale back its production.

Several hours before the commission discussed Ultra on June 27, the city’s legal team discussed last-minute changes to the agreement that would address the conflicts. Chief Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas emailed City Attorney Victoria Méndez with recommended language that would override the previously approved rules and give Ultra a special exception — wording to be added on the floor during the debate.

Abby Witt, from Columbia, South Carolina, cheers as Hardwell performs at the main stage during the first day of Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park on Friday, March 23, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER

Sam Dubbin, the attorney representing the downtown group, fired off a letter to commissioners on Tuesday in which he criticized the city for what he called “machinations” by city administrators to ride roughshod over existing rules to accommodate Ultra.

“The city administration has been secretly preparing, without commission or public input, to slip in a provision to eliminate the city’s adopted requirements to be open to the public for 85 percent of the year, and the Bayfront Park Management Trust’s carefully adopted restrictions on sound levels, operating hours and stage placement for park event,” wrote Dubbin.

Another sticking point for Dubbin and the downtown residents: Since commissioners first considered the possibility of Ultra’s return, the city’s legal team has changed its position on how many votes are needed to approve a no-bid license agreement for Ultra, lowering the requirement from four commissioners to three.

Text messages and emails regarding Ultra and the Miami International Boat Show, which has a similar revocable license agreement with the city, show city attorneys agreeing that four of five commissioners need to approve such a no-bid deal. Sometime before the most recent Ultra deal was made public on June 19, the requirement went down to three votes.

Méndez, the city attorney, told the Miami Herald her opinion changed following findings by a Miami-Dade circuit judge in a lawsuit brought by Brickell Homeowners trying to stop Ultra from producing its event on Virginia Key this year. Judge Rodolfo Ruiz, who has since been appointed to the federal bench, denied an injunction to stop the festival while explaining that he did not see how the festival’s agreement to use Virginia Key met the requirements of the kind of contract that would call for a 4/5 vote.

“I will defer to the now Federal Judge Ruiz!” Méndez wrote in an email.

Campaign cash

Since June 27, newly posted campaign finance reports show the commissioner sponsoring the deal, Keon Hardemon, received political contributions totaling $7,000 from Ultra and affiliated entities on May 31 — the same day administrators produced a draft agreement, according to city records. Hardemon is running for the District 3 seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

On June 26, the day before commissioners first considered the new Ultra deal, the festival’s parent company cut a $10,000 check to One Miami Dade, an elections communications committee chaired by Hardemon’s aunt, Barbara Hardemon, who has lobbied for Ultra in the past.

Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon C.M. GUERRERO

Political giving is a familiar play for Ultra organizers, who last year donated $8,000 to Commissioner Manolo Reyes’ re-election campaign. The event has dumped thousands into past campaigns of Commissioners Joe Carollo and Ken Russell, as well.

On Tuesday, Ultra organizers responded to questions about the donations to Hardemon with a brief statement: “We support a vision for South Florida that encourages arts and culture, as well as one that is aligned with the overall strategies of our industry.”

Hardemon did not respond to a request for comment.

Amal Kabbani, president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, was critical of Ultra’s political activity.

“An organization placing a large contribution to a campaign is an overt sign of corruption on Ultra’s part,” she said in a statement. “For what other reason than procuring a yes vote would that contribution be made?”

Some downtown residents have also donated campaign cash. In the last two days of October 2018, one month after Carollo and the other four commissioners rejected an Ultra contract that Carollo negotiated, seven downtown residents gave a combined $4,700 to an electioneering communications committee run by Carollo. The commissioner was using the committee to pay for ads opposing a ballot initiative being pushed by frequent political foe Mayor Francis Suarez that would make the mayor the city’s top administrator.

The donors opposed the measure because they feared if given control of City Hall’s day-to-day operations, the mayor would have tried to bring Ultra back to Bayfront Park, one of them said.

Changes in the deal

Terms in the license agreement first proposed in June have changed in advance of the July 25 vote. Under the latest proposal, Bayfront Park would be closed to the public for 11 days instead of 14 during preparations for the festival, and Ultra would be able to close down portions of the park for 28 days instead of 30.

Ultra would end its three-day weekend festival one hour earlier Sunday night, at 10 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. Maximum sound limits would be lowered from 110 decibels to 104 decibels, measured at 60 feet away. The festival would also be contractually bound to reduce low-frequency bass levels, which is meant to reduce the impact of the rumbling beats Ultra is known for. This is a significant issue for downtown residents who contend the booming music rattles their condos and damages their hearing.

Festival goers dance and cheer as Hardwell performs at the main stage during the first day of Ultra Music Festival in Bayfront Park on Friday, March 23, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER

The festival’s main stage has historically faced west, with an army of loudspeakers blasting music directly at downtown’s residential towers. New language in the agreement requires Ultra to relocate that stage in a way that reduces noise for the neighbors, though no specifics are stipulated.

The neighbors group has produced a document that would call for Ultra to significantly scale back its production, from hours of operation to sound levels and staging. The Downtown Neighbors Alliance wants Ultra to end at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, not midnight. Residents want to limit Ultra’s presence in Bayfront Park to no more than 20 days. They want the festival to fully replace the park’s trampled grass within two weeks after the event ends.

Mayor Suarez has invited representatives from the Downtown Neighbors Alliance and Ultra to a meeting Friday to discuss the deal. It’s unclear if either side will be willing to budge any further.

What is clear is the sustained push-and-pull between proponents of Ultra’s cultural value and economic benefits — festival goers in hotel beds, in restaurants and shops and at bars in the city — and a group of downtown dwellers who don’t want to be inconvenienced by the event and the tens of thousands it draws each day for a weekend in March.

The same batch of emails released to the resident group’s attorney included many residents asking Ken Russell to oppose Ultra’s return, but not all. One wrote that Ultra “creates excitement and keeps the city vibrant.”

Nicole Wilke, a Brickell resident who lived in downtown on Flagler Street for four years while Ultra was in Bayfront each year, said Ultra showcases downtown Miami to a worldwide audience, the kind of visibility that is worth the inconvenience, while bringing energy to an otherwise mellow downtown.

“My main point in support of Ultra in Bayfront, honestly, is that it helps bring the city ALIVE,” Wilke wrote in an email to the Herald. “The streets of downtown on the weekends are typically not bustling — perhaps Bayfront or Bayside has a few tourists, but for the most part, anywhere west won’t have a full throng of visitors. Ultra gives visibility to a whole neighborhood of Miami that desperately needs the tourism in order to keep growing past Biscayne Boulevard.”

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Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, 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 graduated from the University of Florida.