Wednesday, March 18, 2009

6555: Strike Three—You’re Out!

From The Miami Herald…

Race-based construction deal for Florida Marlins stadium crumbles

By Jack Dolan and Charles Rabin

The Florida Marlins’ pledge to steer millions of dollars in construction contracts for their proposed ballpark to black-owned businesses is dead.

Just four days after the team and local black leaders signed the deal, hailing it as a historic breakthrough in county race relations, they agreed to kill it because Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert Cuevas said the pact would violate court rulings prohibiting governments from awarding contracts based on race.

“We are very disappointed in the County Attorney’s interpretation of the law,” Bill Diggs wrote in a statement released late Tuesday, announcing the dissolution of the compact. Diggs is president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, which represents black-owned businesses.

“We have always believed, and continue to believe, that the Community Compact between three private parties does not conflict with Federal law,” Marlins President David Samson wrote in the same statement, referring to the team, the chamber, and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Marlins had pledged that black-owned businesses would get 15 percent of the work from the team’s $120 million contribution to the stadium’s construction. The club also promised 15 percent of the operations budget to black-owned businesses once the stadium opens—now envisioned for 2012.

But Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami are funding the rest of the $639 million stadium, parking, and public-works project. That means the rules that apply to public projects apply to the stadium deal, Cuevas argued.

The abrupt death of the deal caps four days of drama that leapt from the back corridors of County Hall to the airwaves of local black radio.

The saga began innocently enough, with an upbeat signing ceremony at Jungle Island on Friday around noon.

“For so long, promises have been made to the African-American community, and those promises have been easily broken,” Victor T. Curry, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said before reaching for his pen.

“Today, the Marlins have kept their promise to include our community,” he added.

Samson noted that nothing he could do would change the past, but promised the deal they were signing would change what happens in the future. Then he added: “I always tell people, don’t take on a commitment you can’t meet.”

By late afternoon Friday, however, Cuevas had reportedly told county commissioners that he couldn’t approve the stadium deal, or even allow it to come up for a vote, as long as the compact remained in place.

At a hastily arranged meeting on Monday with Samson, Curry and attorneys from the city and county, Cuevas reportedly refused to budge.

Cuevas refused to comment for this story.

Tuesday morning, Curry, a minister and powerful voice in Miami’s black community, took to the airwaves of WMBM 1490 to denounce Cuevas as “mean-spirited and condescending.”

Curry went on to call the entire process “disheartening, discouraging.” He said he’d only been trying to make sure “everyone can come to the table and walk away with something.”

But nothing is simple in Miami’s ever simmering cauldron of race and politics.

On Tuesday afternoon, Miami-Dade Commissioner Carlos Gimenez—a stadium critic—accused the Marlins of knowing the compact was doomed, but going ahead with it to court support in the black community.

Gimenez said the county attorney’s office warned the Marlins weeks ago that the proposed compact would violate the law and put the future of the stadium in jeopardy.

“The Marlins knew very well what they were getting into,” Gimenez said. “Samson is either disingenuous or incompetent.”

Late Tuesday, an indignant Samson responded that the Marlins have been working on the compact with Diggs for the past nine months and that nobody from the county attorney’s office warned them that it should not be signed.

“Absolutely not,” said Samson. “If Carlos Gimenez is intimating something was said, the answer is no.”

Though contracts for black-owned businesses are no longer guaranteed, the companies will still be able to compete for the work if the stadium is approved.

The Miami commission votes on the stadium deal on Thursday. If it passes there, county commissioners vote on Monday. The outcome is expected to be decided by close votes at both commissions.

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