Homestead - South Dade

Confused: Homestead leaders vote for land deal — but ‘nobody knows what they voted for’

Homestead leaders approved a deal paving the way for a car dealership on the site of a city-owned former bowling alley.
Homestead leaders approved a deal paving the way for a car dealership on the site of a city-owned former bowling alley.

Members of the Homestead City Council put their final stamp of approval on a controversial proposal to sell a city-owned bowling alley to a car dealer planning to build a Hyundai outlet.

Or so they thought.

The next day, some elected officials were unsure of what they had done.

City administrators, including City Manager George Gretsas, could not say exactly what provisions council members had directed him and the city attorney to put in the contract with Jay Rivchin, operator of Dadeland Dodge. Mayor Jeff Porter, who ran the Tuesday meeting, said he was as confused as staffers.

The project has generated controversy since the Miami Herald revealed last month that the deal’s most vocal proponent, Councilman Jimmy Williams, had carried on a series of undisclosed contacts with Rivchin over Williams’ city-issued cellphone in the time leading up to a vote. Williams and Rivchin had more than 400 interactions, none of them made public until the Herald reported about them.

Less than two weeks after the council voted in favor of the project, the councilman’s goddaughter bought a car from Rivchin’s dealership after the three engaged in a late-evening conference call. Both Rivchin and Williams said there were no special considerations, although neither would produce a sales invoice.

The story also cited evidence that Williams doesn’t live in Homestead, which would make him ineligible to serve on the council. Williams says he does live in the city.

Tuesday’s meeting came about after Rivchin sought a concession in the agreement that would change the construction timetable. Some council members, meanwhile, wanted to question Rivchin on why he was incorporating parts of the existing structure — a dilapidated eyesore — into what he had promised would be a state-of-the-art dealership. They thought the bowling alley was going to be razed.

Rivchin’s architect, who flew in from Atlanta Tuesday, said it made more sense from an environmental standpoint to use part of the existing structure in erecting the dealership.

Toward the end of the meeting there were two motions on the table. The first would give Rivchin approval to purchase the property and build before obtaining a dealership license.

Typically the state won’t grant a dealership a license until the structure is built and passes inspection by the Department of Motor Vehicles. However, under the original Homestead agreement, Rivchin could not build until he had a license. He asked for the order to be flipped.

The motion passed 4-3, with Mayor Porter, Vice Mayor Stephen Shelly and Councilwoman Judy Waldman dissenting.

The city also added a clause to the contract that would prohibit the property to be anything other than a Hyundai dealership — and that would prohibit the sale or transfer of the property from Rivchin to someone else.

A corollary to that motion caused the most confusion Wednesday. This involved imposing a penalty if Rivchin disregarded the clause and sold the property.

With Gretsas and City Attorney Richard Weiss requesting some clear direction before drafting the final contract, Councilman Jon Burgess asked if his colleagues would consider adding a requirement that Rivchin pay the city $250,000 if he were to sell in violation of the contract. Such a requirement was part of earlier negotiations but was scrapped. Councilman Elvis Maldonado seconded the motion.

Williams shook his head, stressing that the contract already included protections for the city.

“With all due respect, I have no qualms with what you’re trying to do as to your fiscal responsibility,” he told Burgess. “My only concern is that some of the things that we had taken out [of the contract] was because of financing only. . .  I’m just trying to understand. I’m just a little bit confused on the manager’s piece. I don’t know how to bifurcate what all of this is. What remedy? I thought all of these things that we have each stated . . I thought we were putting those safeguards in place as policy makers.”

The measure prohibiting the sale was passed by a 5-2 vote, with Porter and Waldman in opposition. The meeting was adjourned. However, the next day, staffers, including Gretsas and Weiss, were unsure whether the penalty had been approved as part of the contract. So was the mayor.

“Nobody knows what they voted for. The manager, attorney and the clerk are not clear on what was actually said last night,” Porter told the Herald.

Porter said the clerk will come up with a verbatim transcript of the meeting and then the city attorney will review it and try to determine the council’s intent.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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