Miami Beach enacts developer-specific ethics ordinance

Mayor Philip Levine and an aerial view of North Beach
Mayor Philip Levine and an aerial view of North Beach

Miami Beach commissioners unanimously enacted a new ordinance on Wednesday that prevents commissioners, political candidates and their supporters from soliciting contributions from vendors doing business with the city or lobbyists for PACS.

The legislation was proposed after developer contributions became a heated issue in citywide elections last year that saw three new commissioners elected and Mayor Philip Levine re-elected. A PAC linked to former commissioner Jonah Wolfson raised an estimated $1.4 million – an unprecedented sum by Miami Beach standards – from a slew of developers and others with significant business interests at City Hall.

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Commissioners and the mayor praised the new legislation. Commissioner Michael Grieco called the ordinance “the strictest in the state” when it comes to ethics and Levine told The Real Deal that the city now “has a code and ordinance that specifically defines developers,” and said “developers are defined as those coming before the city for a development agreement.” Levine added “those particular class of developers would be unable to directly or indirectly contribute to candidates running for office in Miami Beach.”

But critics said the ordinance does not go far enough. Civic activist Frank Del Vecchio said that while there are positive aspects to the new ordinance, the legislation was drafted “so narrowly, it’s like the eye of the needle.” Del Vecchio said the city’s definition of what constitutes a “real estate developer” is so narrow that the ordinance would only cover two of the 63 developers with city projects in 2015, leaving 97 percent of developers free to make political contributions to candidates or campaigns.

Some commissioners on Wednesday voiced support for expanding the definition of what constitutes a real estate developer, but city attorney Raul Aguila cautioned commissioners that any such move to do so could be challenged in court on First Amendment grounds. “As all of us know the Supreme Court of this land is becoming increasingly liberal with regard to campaign contributions,” Aguila told the commission. He added, “We’re pushing the envelope as far as we can but at the same time we have to be conscious of the law of the land.”