Common Cause Florida Protects Citizen Access to the Courts

Friend of the Court Brief Filed in Wake of Miami-Dade's Attempt to Muzzle Citizens

Posted on August 28, 2015

This week, Common Cause Florida joined a friend of the court legal brief supporting several Venetian Isle and Miami residents in an important judicial standing case.

Lead attorney Sam Dubbins has been representing several Venetian Isle and Miami residents challenging the City of Miami’s giveaway of the last parcel of waterfront land on Watson Island for a private mega-development.   Counsel determined, using records obtained after suing the City under Florida’s open records law, that the City is violating several provisions of the City Charter governing disposition of public land.  For example, it is charging the developer rent of $2 million per year based on appraisals conducted in 2002, while 2013 and 2014 appraisals (hidden until revealed by lawsuits) show that fair market rent today is at least $7.2 million.  This violates a Charter provision prohibiting a lease of public land for less than fair market value.  In addition, the City has relieved the developer of obligations imposed under the original RFP and referendum, which are required by the Charter for a lease of public, waterfront land on Watson Island. 

The attorneys discovered that other prominent citizens (Grace Solares and Steve Kneapler) were challenging other major City deals on public lands in violation of the Charter, who were also stonewalled in obtaining relevant public records until after the City finished cutting the deals. 

Unfortunately, three circuit judges dismissed both cases, holding, despite clear Third DCA and Florida Supreme Court precedent to the contrary, that a citizen must allege a “special injury” to challenge a charter violation.   For decades, the law was that any affected resident can challenge a City’s action in violation of its Charter. In other words, no special injury was formerly required.  However, the Third DCA in the Solares and Kneapler cases recently agreed with the lower courts and held citizens must allege a “special injury” to challenge a City’s charter violation. 

Common Cause’s interest in this case is based primarily on a citizen’s right to sue, but also government accountability, openness and transparency. Loss of the case in the Supreme Court would set a dangerous precedent that could significantly deter citizens from holding their institutions of government accountable in the courts.

If the city succeeds in muzzling its residents, the public will lose an important tool in the perpetual battle to hold local government accountable. Read more about it.

Others who have signed on to the amicus curiae brief include Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC Irvine Law School, and recognized authority on U.S. constitutional law, as co-counsel, Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, former Member of the FL House of Representatives, former President of the American Bar Association, Dean of FSU Law School and FSU President.  Sandy is one of the nation's foremost authorities on First Amendment and Open Government Law.  Completing the list of amici is Richard Pettigrew, prominent attorney and former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

Office: Common Cause Florida

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