Miami-Dade to halt all baseball activities until city can "make up its mind'
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade County is taking a timeout on all things baseball, with planned March 9 votes on a proposed Marlins ballpark now postponed indefinitely.
The move means further delay for project plans already eight months behind deadlines set last year.
County Mayor Carlos Alvarez on Monday called for county work on the $629-plus million stadium, garage and infrastructure project to stop until the City of Miami commission "make[s] up its mind" on the stadium deal.
Miami-Dade County commissioners Tuesday agreed to cancel the planned March 9 meeting. They did not set a new date.
The timeout follows a scheduled Feb. 13 county meeting that ended before it began after Miami city commissioners spent seven-plus hours that day debating the stadium before deadlocking.
The meeting marked the most recent in a series of delays.
The governments have long missed a July 1, 2008, deadline to vote on the deal, a benchmark set in the framework baseball agreement they OK'd a year ago.
In November, team and government officials agreed to push a scheduled stadium completion back a year, from 2011 to 2012.
They blamed delays largely on a lawsuit by civic leader Norman Braman that kept ballpark project players tied up in court last summer.
Mr. Braman struck out — though he's appealing — and blame for holdups has shifted now to city commissioners.
At an impromptu press conference Monday, Mayor Alvarez lambasted the city for shifting the dates of its rescheduled vote from March 12 to March 4, then later to March 6.
The most recently announced two-day difference means at least a two-week difference in completely sealing the stadium deal, as a key element of the project — agreeing to hand more than $20 million in infrastructure work to proposed stadium contractor Hunt/Moss rather than bidding for a contractor — calls for two weeks' public notice before a vote.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz moved the scheduled meeting because it was "logistically" better for the city, spokesman Helena Poleo said.
She did not make the mayor available for an interview. He is not responding to Mr. Alvarez's comments, she said, and plans remain in place for a city baseball meeting Friday.
The proposed deal holds the governments responsible for construction delays they cause, but county spokesman Victoria Mallette said the door for "governmentally caused overruns" does not open until the deal is final.
This means the government cannot be blamed for project delays later because of inaction now.
But even if the deal falls apart, the county faces exposure of up to $7 million from money already spent on stadium planning.
When asked at the press conference whether there is a "drop-dead deadline" for the city to cement its votes, Mr. Alvarez answered, "I'm not going to go there."
He did say that "I am not going to put the county commission in a position that they will be voting on half a city deal."
County commission Chair Dennis Moss in a Monday memo cited that as a reason to hold off on a county vote.
The city's remaining vote on part of the stadium deal "could realistically be delayed a number of weeks, potentially creating an awkward position for the Board of County Commissioners" at the meeting once scheduled for March 9, the memo reads.
He did not expand on the topic at the commission meeting the next day.
Vice Chair José "Pepe" Diaz made the official motion Tuesday to cancel the March 9 stadium meeting.
Commissioner Natacha Seijas asked to speak on the issue but acquiesced when Mr. Moss requested she refrain.
"If I open it up," he said, "then everybody is going to want to comment on it."
Mayor Alvarez, however, was vocal about his concerns at the press conference.
He blasted some city commissioners for demands they made at the February stadium meeting and since.
"The art of negotiating has been made a mockery," he said.
He faulted Miami commissioners for putting conditions on the deal "that have absolutely nothing to do with baseball."
The mayor declined to name names or comprehensively list the demands he was referring to but did specify that he did not see what Miami's community redevelopment agency had to do with the ballpark deal — a clear reference to City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones.
She was absent from the deadlocked February city meeting but returned from maternity leave last week to make demands in exchange for support for the stadium.
Among them: expand the boundaries of the city's Overtown community redevelopment agency and authorize a half-billion-dollar bond issuance to fund Overtown redevelopment.
Ms. Spence-Jones declined to comment for this article.
The unrelated demands, as Mr. Alvarez called them, "appalled" him, he said.
If negotiations are conducted this way in the future, he said, the county will never be able to get major projects out of the ground.
Again without naming names, Mr. Alvarez criticized another city commissioner for voting "against what he had voted for in the baseball stadium agreement" approved last year.
He criticized the Miami commissioner for raising issues "that should have been resolved a long time ago."
The mayor called "politicking" on the part of city commissioners "nonsense."
Said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who was in favor of the framework stadium deal last year but voted against it at the meeting last month, "I suspect he meant me."
He said his questions, comments and requested amendments at the February meeting came after he received financing details from the county the same morning without time to digest them.
And as far as his change of heart since last year's vote, "the Marlins [deal] was substantially negotiated in February 2008," Mr. Sarnoff said. "The stock market was at 10,600. Everything about this country was different."
Looking back, "have you ever seen things change so much in one year?" he asked.
Because of rapidly waning tourism numbers, the tourism tax funding sources are "very likely inadequate to pay for the stadium," Mr. Sarnoff said. "And that leaves the general funds. So they will compete with police and fire to pay for the stadium. That is patently wrong."
Mayor Alvarez said differently at the press conference, voicing confidence in the proposed funding plan.
County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who for months has raised stadium deal concerns, defended Mr. Sarnoff in an interview Tuesday.
"I beg to differ that questioning substantive language is political grandstanding," she said.
Ms. Heyman said she continues to be concerned about the deal, with lingering questions about issues such as cost containment and liability.
She said she sees the baseball break as perhaps "the opportunity long awaited to dialogue some concerns.
"I have some legitimate concerns," she said. "For these people who are naysayers, I don't think it's irresponsible. I don't think it's political grandstanding to ask questions."
Mayor Alvarez said he did not speak to the Marlins before making his comments Monday.
Team President David Samson could not be reached for comment.