Retiree Frank Del Vecchio has been a staple in Miami Beach City Hall for nearly 16 years. He attends public hearings — often to object to proposed projects that seem out of scale with South Beach or to advocate for quality of life issues.
So the community activist was surprised during an Oct. 2 public meeting when an attorney for a developer called him an occasional paid lobbyist.
Del Vecchio took it personally. He told the Miami Beach Design Review Board that he had never been a lobbyist or taken “a penny” from anybody.
“I’m really offended by that,” he told attorney Wayne Pathman, who questioned him.
Del Vecchio said Pathman, who represents the developer of the controversial Palau at Sunset Harbor — a planned five-story, mixed-use building in Miami Beach’s Sunset Islands — attacked his “integrity” in an effort to intimidate him.
Del Vecchio and other community activists say some attorneys representing developers in controversial projects seem to want to depict activists as lobbyists to discourage them from speaking at public hearings. That’s because activists, who don’t get paid to advance an agenda, may not want to speak up for fear of having their reputation tarnished by misleading information, they said. On Nov. 6, Del Vecchio stood before the same city board demanding a public retraction from Pathman.
Otherwise, he told the board, the lawyer should be sanctioned for making a “false statement.”
Pathman, a partner and land use attorney with Pathman Lewis, told the Daily Business Review he simply asked Del Vecchio a fair question. A video of the meeting shows him stating that Del Vecchio had registered as a lobbyist in the past.
“I asked him politely … he said ‘no’ and that was the end of it,” Pathman said, recalling the event. “He is overreacting by demanding an apology … and [trying to] hurt my good name. I hope he doesn’t go too far with this because it’s kind of silly.”
William Hardin III, director of Florida International University’s real estate program, said he isn’t surprised by Miami Beach’s contentious atmosphere.
“Miami Beach is probably one of the most confrontational zoning areas in the United States,” he said.
Hardin said the city is often the scene of clashes between deep-pocket developers and affluent community activists over the demolition of something old to make way for development.
“So you have a melting pot of components that lead to conflict,” he said. “It is a big money game, that’s why you have more confrontation. The stakes are much higher.”
According to community activists, the dispute highlights what they believe is an effort to harass vocal opponents of controversial projects.
Miami Beach resident Jo Manning said she felt intimidated at a recent meeting where she supported a proposed historic designation for The Miami Herald building near downtown Miami.
On Oct. 2, the Dade Heritage Trust asked the Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation Board to consider preserving the nearly half-century-old building. Malaysia-based Genting Group has plans to demolish the building and redevelop the site into a destination tourist resort.
Manning said she and at least four other residents of Miami and Miami Beach felt pressured by a developer’s attorney and a Miami assistant city attorney to sign a lobbyist registration form in order to speak at the public hearing.
“The implication was so strong that if we didn’t fill the form, they wouldn’t let us speak,” she said.
The Miami city code exempts individuals who express their opinions before a board — and aren’t getting paid to be there — from signing a lobbyist registration form.
At the meeting, Miami Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas tried to clarify the city code on lobbyist registration but failed to tell the activists they were not required to register, according to a transcript of the meeting. Instead, he said “everyone here must register today, if they have not done so already.”
Suarez-Rivas couldn’t be reached for comment this week, but a representative of the Miami city attorney’s office said Suarez-Rivas was referring to any person who was being compensated by a nonprofit like the Dade Heritage Trust.
Still, the activists did as they were told.
“We went to the city clerk’s window and filled out the form,” Manning said. “I wrote all over my form, ‘I am signing this under duress. I am a private citizen.’ I don’t want this piece of paper to haunt me, saying that I am a lobbyist.”
Manning is a member of Miami Beach’s Historic Preservation Board and often advocates on historic preservation issues outside the city.
Genting’s attorney, Vicky Garcia-Toledo, said she didn’t direct the issue of lobbyist registration to Manning.
She said she was referring to the executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, who as a paid official of a nonprofit is required to register.
“I have no idea what [Manning] is referring to,” said Garcia-Toledo, a partner with Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod. She said the Miami assistant city attorney addressed the lobbyist registration issue.
According to Garcia-Toledo, she did ask William Cary, Miami Beach’s chief preservation officer and assistant city planner, if he was appearing as an expert. Experts are required to register as lobbyists in the city of Miami. Cary said he was appearing as a private citizen.
“And yet when I testified I was interrogated by the attorney [for Genting] on whether I had the right to testify,” Cary said, recalling his experience at the same meeting in which Del Vecchio demanded Pathman’s retraction. “It was very disturbing, indeed.”
Like Manning, he filed a lobbyist registration form to speak in favor of the historic designation of the Herald building.
Attorneys Have ‘Advantage’
Katy Sorenson, president and CEO of The Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, said she understands why activists may feel intimidated by land-use attorneys.
“The system works very effectively for the zoning attorneys because they know the system, how it operates and how it works,” said Sorenson, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner. “So they’re certainly at an advantage, and citizens have to learn all those things in order to effectively participate.”
Del Vecchio initially considered asking the city for a rehearing of the Oct. 2 meeting to clear his reputation. But Miami Beach city staff persuaded him to appear at the Nov. 6 meeting to air his grievances. At that hearing, Miami Beach assistant city attorney Gary Held initially sided with Del Vecchio.
“If an attorney begins cross examination of an individual on that point, that question should be stricken and not answered [in the future,]” he told the board.
But a few minutes later, Held changed his mind.
“A question … on whether [someone] is receiving compensation is a proper question and should be answered,” he said.
Del Vecchio said Pathman did more than ask a question, he made a “false statement” on the record.
Pathman insists he was just cross-examining some of the people speaking against his client’s project in case there was an appeal.
“It was an appropriate question,” he said. “There is nothing intimidating about asking someone if he is a registered lobbyist. This is not a matter of intimidation … but I have to do my job, too. I was acting professionally and with respect.”