Besides deciding on a mayoral race and two commission seats, Miami voters are also being asked to settle a long-standing fight for a coveted piece of city-owned property on Virginia Key by voting “yes” or “no” on a proposed charter amendment.
The issue has landed on voters’ ballot because the Miami city commission punted on the land dispute between the 30-year proprietor of the Rickenbacker Marina and the high-powered developers who also covet the 27-acre piece of waterfront land on Virginia Key.
After almost six years, failed procurement and bidding processes and many accusations flung, a Miami city commission unable to decide passed the responsibility on to voters — with a badly worded referendum question that raises eyebrows.
The commission is asking voters to allow them to waive competitive bidding and give them permission to exclusively negotiate a 75-year waterfront lease with the current proprietor, Aabad Melwani and his company, Biscayne Marine Partners, whose long-standing lease came up for renewal.
The commission is asking voters to allow them to ignore all other bidders, even those who have offered the city a better rent deal. Alarms should be going off in your head.
However, the referendum question could be in vain. A lawsuit filed by the main company pushed out of bidding, Virginia Key, LLC, led by the RCI Group principal Robert Christoph, seeks to invalidate the ballot question and its results, plus force the city to pay $4 million of their attorneys fees for leading them on what they consider to be a charade. A judge has yet to decide.
Virginia Key, LLC’s lawsuit states that: “It is now apparent that the City Commission never would have awarded the project to [Virginia Key LLC] or anyone other than its favorite, regardless of the merits of its bids because the city all along intended to award the project to [Aabad Melwani] by any means necessary.”
Regardless, when Miami voters open their ballot they will be asked the following question:
Shall Miami’s Charter be amended authorizing the City to waive competitive bidding, negotiate, execute 75-year waterfront lease...of approximately 27 acres with Biscayne Marine Partners LLC? The company would pay the city $2.7 million annually in rent and other financial perks.
The Editorial Board has met with both sides. Virginia Key, LLC detailed for us what they consider to be improprieties in the bidding process during the two Requests for Proposals or RFPs. They say in the last five years, current proprietor Melwani has placed last in two city competitions — yet city commissioners on both occasions rejected all bids and wanted to start over.
We’ve also heard about the failure by Virginia Key, LLC to disclose during the bidding process their role in a major sewage spill that environmentally endangered Biscayne Bay. We’ve heard of accusations made that the company has ties to Cuba, which they insist is not true..
We’ve heard of the support for Melwani, how he should be allowed to remain on the property, despite the badly worded ballot question. We get that this is a complicated and emotional procurement because Melwani’s father first won the city lease back in the 1980s when the property had little perceived value and was favored only by drug dealers.
Now, developers want to build restaurants, retail shops and dry storage on the land west end of Rickenbacker Causeway, likely changing the atmosphere. We get it. We’ve received letters and calls from Melwani’s supporters, including the Virginia Key Alliance, and the boating community that favors him continuing to run the marina because he will follow the Virginia Key Master Plan and cares for the welfare of the waters. We’ve heard you all and believe you.
But we’ll try to keep it simple. First, let us say that it is a dereliction of duty for the commission not to have shepherded this process and taken the advice of the city manager and city attorney and picked a winner during the bidding process.
We are not taking sides, except the side of residents who are the real owners of any sliver of Miami waterfront land.
But as an Editorial Board, we have learned the high cost of approving no-bid contracts in our community.
We cannot, in good conscience, approve of the city waiving competitive bidding to just grant a 75-year waterfront lease, to anyone, under any condition, regardless of whether the ballot wording.
There is a process in place for winning a lease from the city. It’s best that it is followed. Case in point: the recent wildcat selection of Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo. Look how that ended up?
We cannot approve a charter amendment expressly written to circumvent the very process in place. Period.
So on the proposed Charter Amendment for the Lease and Development of the Virginia Key Marina, we recommend a “NO” vote #441.
We would hope the ballot question will be defeated and the matter is kicked back to the commission, who should stop their games and favoritism and just pay attention to the bottom line for the city.
They should make the procurement process fair and square and stringent of environmental concerns. Then award the contract to the winner and let voters give the deal a final up or down.
In other words, the commission: just do your job.