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The controversial City of Coral Gables sale to of the surface parking lot at 350 Greco Avenue is moving forward.
The item was on the agenda to be taken up on second reading at the May 25th Commission meeting. However, Mayor Vince Lago handed the gavel over to Commissioner Jorge L. Fors, Jr. and made a motion to reengage the issue as a first reading to ensure transparency.
Mena Recuses Himself
As previously reported on Gables Insider, questions were raised about the potential conflict of interest by Vice Mayor Michael Mena regarding the sale to a group owned by his bosses, John H. Ruiz and former Vice Mayor Frank C. Quesada. City Attorney Miriam Ramos gave a verbal opinion that there was nothing inappropriate about the Vice Mayor voting on the issue at the time, and placed it in writing following Gables Insider’s public records request.
At the March 25th meeting, Mena read a statement where he defended his vote on May 11th and admitted that he could see how residents were concerned about his vote on the matter and recused himself, leaving the chamber for the discussion on the issue. Mena did no vacate his previous vote on the issue from the May 11th meeting, he only recused himself from this vote.
Commissioner Jorge L. Fors, Jr. spoke about the deal and mentioned that Quesada only owns a 30% share of JRFQ Holdings, LLC, the entity that would be purchasing the lot. He mentioned this was revealed at the Parking Advisory Board when it was discussed there. However, a search of the minutes and agenda reveal no such information. The minutes also do not show Fors as being present at the Parking Advisory Board meeting. Gables Insider has requested public records for the document that reflects the ownership shares, a week later they have not been provided.
Public comments brought a new issue on this project. The parking lot is mainly used by patrons to Havana Harry’s Restaurant, which is located across the street (4612 LeJeune Road). In a surprising twist, the owner of Havana Harry’s, Arthur Cullen, joined into the meeting via zoom and expressed his disappointment in not being notified about the proposed sale of the lot, which is primarily used by patrons of his business. He explained, “I only learned of the impending property sale several weeks ago and contacted numerous City officials that were not aware of any construction or site plans for the parking lot’s replacement.”
Cullen also raised another issue that had not been discussed previously. “I’ve been fortunate enough to witness the precedented development to this once obscure business area. However, the need for more parking to this area has not kept pace. It’ll be very beneficial to both the residents and the public if additional parking spaces are negotiated as a condition of the sale of this property. My other concern is there doesn’t appear to be any plans in place at present to mitigate the loss of these parking spaces during any construction phase. A construction project of this size would realistically take two or more years to complete. There is no other nearby or alternative parking in the area to replace these parking spaces that our business depends on.”
This issue has long been raised in the downtown area, but it has been affecting businesses along the LeJeune corridor as well, as pointed out by Cullen.
Asset Manager Changes Her Story
Gables Insider reported last week, that the City’s Asset Manager, Zeida Sardinas, had provided an incomplete timeline of events to the members of the City’s Property Advisory Board. In fact, in reviewing the minutes from the May 11th Commission meeting, Sardinas also presented an incomplete timeline at that point to the Commission, excluding the sale of the adjacent properties and the change of ownership group that the City was negotiating with. The sale was to the group, which includes former Vice Mayor Quesada. However, this was changed in the new presentation provided at the May 25th meeting, where she explained that the City was re-engaged by the developer in December of 2019. Still no mention of the change of ownership however.
Realtor Commission Fees
Manager Iglesias used 6% realtor fees as an excuse for continuing with the current deal. He explained that, “there could be a sales commission. Right now, there is no sales commissions. As you know, it’s that 6 percent of that property, it’s over $200,000. And there is no sales commission now because that was a direct deal between the City and the initial potential buyer, so we are saving — and somebody comes in later on, certainly during an RFP process, they could come in with a realtor and we would have to pay that 6 percent commission.” that the City would incur realtor fees if the lot was sold on the open market.
However, the City Charter addresses that issue. “Sec. 2-1093. – Payment of costs. All costs associated with the sale or lease procedures addressed in this article shall be, at the option of the city, paid by the purchaser or lessee.”
In other words, the City charter specifically passes the realtor fees, and all fees, to the buyer not the City. So if there is a realtor fee, which would be 3% and not 6% as the City would not use a listing agent to sell the lot, those fees must be paid by the buyer and not the City.
Iglesias On The Defensive
“I would like to make something very clear for the record that at no time did I ever have a meeting or a discussion with Commissioner Mena or ex-Commissioner Quesada. At no time were there any discussions with me concerning this sale,” he explained. However, meeting minutes and/or recordings of the zoom pre-agenda meeting for the May 11th meeting between Iglesias and Mena are not available to corroborate his comments. (Each member of the Commission meets independently with the City Manager to discuss items on the agenda, in preparation for each Commission meeting).
Iglesias also came out to defend Sardinas. “Concerning JRFQ Holdings, our Asset Manager mentioned that it could have been the father or — that it could have been the father or a member of the family. That is the answer that she had. That is an accurate answer. There is nothing wrong with that answer. So, she was very clear in her meeting to that board that it could be the father or a family member.”
As Gables Insider reported, Sardinas had been asked by a member of the Property Advisory Board on the involvement of former Vice Mayor Quesada and/or his family. She did reply, as the Manager stated to the question on who the attorney representing the buyer was, however, Sardinas failed to disclose the names of the buyers when asked who else was involved in the transaction.
City Attorney Miriam Ramos told the Commission that there is no contract for the sale of the lot. “The purchase and sale hasn’t been signed by the City yet because it hasn’t been approved by this Commission, so there’s no contract with the current potential purchaser.”
However, this is clearly not the case, as Gables Insider has been able to secure a copy of the purchase and sales agreement (pending Commission’s approval), which was signed on February 8, 2021, by the City Attorney herself, along with the City Manager and the City Clerk, with John H. Ruiz of JRFQ Holdings, LLC.
Staff Under Oath
In the past, questions have arisen about staff speaking at Commission meetings. In particular, the fact that speakers are required to swear an oath before speaking, affirming the testimony they will give is the truth. Speakers are also required to provide their home address. However, staff is not sworn in before presenting and speaking to the Commission.
The question on their oath requirement was posed to former City Attorney Craig Leen, who had the following to say on the matter: “Staff is typically not placed under oath. Section (A)(2) of the Citizens Bill of Rights (part of the Miami-Dade County Home Rule Charter) requires “Truth in Government” for county and municipal officials and employees so we are already under a similar legal requirement to an oath. Also, the City’s False Claims and Presentations Ordinance applies as well.”
The Citizen’s Bill of Rights, states in A(2) – Truth in Government: “No County or municipal official or employee shall knowingly furnish false information on any public matter, nor knowingly omit significant facts when giving requested information to members of the public.” The Miami-Dade Ethics Commission is the entity who would investigate staff for violating Citizen’s Bill of Rights.
The Alley Stays
Questions arose at the City’s Property Advisory Board’s March 10th meeting regarding the alley to the East of the property and whether it would be given to the property owner as part of the deal. Sardinas was unable to answer the question at the board meeting. Today, City Manager Peter Iglesias addressed the issue and stated that the alley would only have been vacated by the City, if the sale had been with the property owner’s to the East. In this case, since the sale is to the property owners to the South, it will remain with the City.
Safety At LeJeune
In their presentation, City staff mentioned that a park at the location was not possible. One of the main reasons was safety of crossing LeJeune Road as one of the most dangerous streets to cross in the City.
However, the Manager explained later in the presentation that he was working with FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) on a crosswalk project to make crossing the street to the new development project safer. “The Public Works Department knows that there are issues here, so we are working on a crosswalk that we believe we have approved, and we’ll be working on with the Florida Department of Transportation to actually ask to have better access for crossing Le Jeune Road.”
Gables Insider has made a public record request (immediately following the City Manager’s comments during the meeting) for communications between the City and FDOT about these crosswalks, and whether these conversations began prior to negotiations for the sale, a week later, no public records have been provided.
Following our request, Iglesias mentioned on the record that the conversations with FDOT have been ongoing for years. The public record request is still pending.
The Deal Moves Forward
Following the lengthy discussion, Mayor Lago was open to considering a motion to send the item back to follow the proper protocols under the City’s Charter and go to an Request For Proposal (RFP).
City Manager Iglesias advocated against the move. Painting a bleak picture of how difficult it would be to find a buyer for the lot.
None of the other three Commissioners motioned it.
Instead, Commissioner Fors made a motion to move forward with the current deal. He explained that he believed this was the best deal for the City. “My motion includes capping the maximum parking fee that can be charged there at the maximum of the City.”
Lago added, “along with ensuring that the electric charging stations are in place, the proper signage. There’s ADA requirements that are met, there’s proper lighting, the parking is on the ground floor. I want to make sure that it’s open to the public. I do not want to get into a back and forth with the commercial properties stating that those spaces are being occupied by the building, you know, 24 hours a day, X amount of time. They’re welcome to pay for those spaces as long as they’re paying for them — use them as long as they’re paying for them if there’s people visiting the building. But I want to make sure that those are truly public spaces. I know that the highest appraisal we got was 3.525. I would request from the Manager that you ask the potential buyer to raise their offer to include that $25,000.”
The motion passed with a 4-0 nothing vote and will come up for second reading on June 8th.