City keeps development deals a secret

Almost 50 years ago, changes to Florida’s Constitution and laws guaranteed access to public meetings and records, assuring residents the right to know what their government is doing. These reforms were enacted to counter widespread corruption and set a new standard for “sunshine” in state and local government.

Sadly, in today’s city of Miami a small group of officials is aggressively working to keep the public in the dark, employing a cloak of secrecy to advance controversial deals.

That’s why there has been an avalanche of lawsuits against Miami in the past few years. Thanks to news reports in the Herald and elsewhere and available court documents, a disturbing pattern is clear — a pattern designed to keep the public’s eyes off how the government makes decisions on projects worth millions to a few, and a more congested, less desirable community for the rest of us.

Here’s what these current cases reveal about the city’s behavior:

▪ Violating public records laws by failing to provide key documents to the public until after making critical decisions.

▪ Forcing citizens to obtain a court order at their own expense, and even then not fulfilling requests and ignoring court orders when the documents proved inconsistent with city desires. One judge recently ordered the city to show cause why it should not be held in contempt.

▪ Blocking officials from being deposed until ordered by a court.

▪ Manipulating appraisals and traffic studies to hide massive subsidies to developers and inevitable gridlock scenarios from the public.

▪ Misrepresenting facts to alter the outcome of decisions — blatant violations of the County Citizen’s Bill of Rights.

▪ Manipulating city approvals, for instance by labeling major changes as “minor modifications” and intimidating city staff into going against their professional opinions and values, even when the staff knows the action is wrong.

The implications of this behavior are clear: Commission decisions are made while information is deliberately withheld until after their votes. Citizens are discouraged because of the enormous costs to battle the city’s army of lawyers protecting officials’ pet projects, wasting taxpayer funds by forcing everything into court. What is the city hiding?

When challenged with that question, city lawyers resort to fighting the right of the citizen to get his or her day in court. It’s called “standing.” Our “government” is forcing its residents to spend hundreds of thousands of their own dollars in hopes they’ll go broke or go away before their cases get heard — a position that would negate 100 years of precedent to the contrary.

What’s the alternative to the citizen’s right to challenge in court? City lawyers answer with an almost Alice in Wonderland piece of legal make-believe: First, they argue that only the state attorney general can enforce the city charter, an argument for which there is no precedent. Second, they argue that only an “appropriate city official” can force a trial on the city’s own behavior, assigning the fox watch the proverbial hen house.

How ridiculous is that? Dangerously ridiculous when you consider, for example, the city attorney herself is appointed by the City Commission, not the city manager or mayor.

The city also claims that elections are the public’s recourse. This argument is without merit. First, it’s impossible to obtain the full scope of illegal behavior without city staff testimony under oath. Second, the impacts of these decisions are sometimes not felt for years, long after elections are held and those misbehaving elected officials have moved on. And third, as a former chairman of the Dade County Democratic Party, I and my Republican counterparts know full well that even timely elections are badly skewed by the massive amounts of money incumbents raise from the private interests who benefit from their decisions, making successful challenges a practical nonstarter.

Finally, the city raises the “horror” that the courts will be inundated; an insult to the constitutional separation of powers, our fundamental system of checks and balances.

The best way to break open the crust of secrecy is through the judiciary. Consequently, I am distressed to read that some circuit judges have accepted the city’s draconian arguments. We must now rely on the appellate courts to take a position on standing that supports the state policy on open records and the state constitutional guarantee that for every wrong there shall be a viable remedy.

Richard Pettigrew served as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives (1970-72), and was a member of the Florida Senate, representing Dade County.