The trial finished up Wednesday, but the timetable for stadium construction got even murkier.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen listened to closing arguments on whether a $515 million ballpark at the site of the Orange Bowl serves a “paramount public purpose” under the state constitution, or is just, as auto dealer Norman Braman alleges, using public tax dollars to subsidize a private enterprise.
She heard from Braman’s attorney, Bob Martinez, about democracy and protecting the people’s money, about the county and city financing the Marlins, “a commercial business operation,” and orchestrating “backroom deals.” She was reminded that the county and city have no proof the Marlins can meet their obligations to a stadium funding plan and the team has the lowest attendance in Major League Baseball by far.
“The residents of South Florida have voted with their wallets and their feet. They have made the Marlins the lowest in the Major Leagues,” Martinez said. “They just don’t want to go.”
Attorneys for the city, county and team questioned why they should even be arguing the issue since courts have repeatedly ruled stadiums do serve a “paramount public purpose.” They reminded Cohen the ballpark will be a publicly-owned venue that will add to the community’s image. And they said there is nothing in the law that requires a team to open its financial books.
“It’s their burden to show the stadium serves a paramount private purpose,” Assistant County Attorney David Hope said of Braman’s legal team. “Plaintiffs have not satisfied that argument.”
And then Cohen decided she still couldn’t decide. Although stadiums historically meet the test, Cohen said she was still having difficulty with the arguments. She asked the lawyers to bring her additional information by Tuesday and she’ll rule within 10 days of receiving it.
She’s also set a Sept. 15 deadline to rule on the other remaining count in Braman’s case: whether a portion of the financing for the $3 billion in Miami projects must go to a public vote. Cohen believes by then the Florida Supreme Court will issue rulings in two similar cases. She thinks she needs the rulings to guide her decision on whether the use of property tax dollars to pay off bonds on long-term projects must go to a vote.
To be sure, Cohen has been exceedingly deliberate in her decisions. She made clear she is being prudent – her decisions are legal ones, not emotional and have nothing to do with whether she thinks a ballpark is a good idea.
So, what does all this mean for the ballpark?
That’s still unclear and even Marlins President David Samson says the trial has caused delays that the team has yet to quantify. The team hopes to break ground later this year and be in a new ballpark by 2011. But that date becomes more tenuous the longer the wait to finish negotiating definitive construction management, assurance and other agreements that spell out the terms for the ballpark. Those agreements will need approval of both the city and county commissions before bonds can be issued for the project.
“We certainly had expected that by now this project would be moving forward faster than it has been,” Samson said. “[The trial has] caused delays. We haven’t quantified them yet, we’re not sure what it all means yet. This case continues to be ongoing and we will see what happens in the next couple of weeks up and through early September.”
Samson declined to get into detail about the count in the case dealing with a referendum but simply said it does not affect the stadium.
“The fact of the matter is, from our standpint, there’s nothing in this complaint that would lead to a referendum for the baseball stadium,” Samson said.
But Braman’s attorneys believe that it does because the stadium is linked to the other Miami projects – at least on paper – because the $3 billion plan includes plans to use more property tax dollars meant for impoverished neighborhoods to pay off bonds on the performing arts center to free up hotel bed taxes that could be used for the ballpark.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who did not attend the trial, also agrees with Samson. Even if Cohen rules a referendum is required, it would not apply to the stadium, he said. He said he remains as committed as ever to the ballpark project and the city, county and team will continue working on the project, even as the case makes its way through the legal system and any appeals Braman is expected to file.
“I believe we’re going to win on every legal issue here, because the law is very clear,” Diaz said. “We’re allowed to do everyting we’ve done.”
Diaz said in a “representative democracy,” voters get to choose their political leaders to make decisions.
“The last time I checked [Braman is] not the mayor of city of Miami, he’s not the mayor of Miami-Dade County,” Diaz said. “If he wants to run for office, then he should run for office.”
As always, stay tuned….