Bush fires salvo in state battle with Riviera

TALLAHASSEE The battle between Riviera Beach and the state over the city's proposed $2.4 billion redevelopment escalated Wednesday when Gov. Jeb Bush questioned the validity of the city's contract with its master developer.

Riviera Beach believes it can use eminent domain proceedings against dozens of property owners because the city signed an agreement with its master developer a day before Bush signed into law a bill that makes such takings illegal.

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Inside Riviera Beach
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City officials claim they can proceed because their contract was signed under the more lenient eminent domain laws.

But the meeting at which Riviera Beach approved the contract may have violated the state's Sunshine laws because the city did not give proper public notice, Bush said Wednesday. Because of that, he said, the agreement with Viking Inlet Harbor Properties may be invalid.

Bush said he has discussed the legality of Riviera Beach's actions with the attorney general's office and is figuring out what the state can do to force the city to follow the new law.

"I don't think they have a legal basis," Bush said. "This will be proven out in some fashion. To rush to expropriate people's property just seems unseemly to me."

Bush's comments came after a ceremonial signing in his office with legislators who helped pass the bill, including Sen. Burt Saunders and Reps. Joe Negron and Everett Rice, all Republican candidates for attorney general. He actually signed the measure into law in May.

Rice has called Riviera Beach the poster child of eminent domain abuse in America. Saunders launched a political committee Wednesday to urge voters to approve an issue that lawmakers put on the ballot that would place the new eminent domain restrictions in the state constitution.

Bush said that measure should pass easily in November. The widespread support for property rights in Florida makes Riviera Beach's actions especially disappointing, he said.

The legislature began tackling eminent domain issues last summer, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that governments could take private properties for economic development purposes.

That decision sparked a national outcry, with Florida joining other states in crafting laws to eliminate that possibility.

Riviera Beach officials repeatedly visited Tallahassee to defend their redevelopment proposal, which they said would require the forced removal of more than 1,000 residents.

Officials got several legislators to propose exceptions for their redevelopment and other ongoing projects, but those measures failed and the legislature passed the eminent domain bill on May 4.

City officials called an emergency meeting for May 10 to sign their agreement with Viking. Bush signed the bill into law the next day.

Mayor Michael Brown has said that sufficient notice was given for the meeting because the city placed a notice on the doors of the city council chambers 24 hours before the meeting. But Bush and others say that was not sufficient.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine laws state that the public must be given "reasonable notice" of any meeting.

Cities and counties have adopted different policies to lay out their notification processes. Because governments vary so much in size and geography, the definition of "reasonable notice" also varies greatly. Judges handle challenges on a case-by-case basis.

The Riviera Beach charter and city ordinances do not lay out any such process.

The city's charter simply states: "All official meetings of the city council shall be open to the public and the citizens or taxpayers of the city shall have an opportunity to be heard at such official meetings."

City ordinances state that the mayor "shall call special meetings of the city council whenever in his judgment the welfare of the city requires it."

But there is no time frame given for regular or special meetings. The meeting was so hurried that a resident addressing the contract was taken away from the lectern by police because council members felt she took too long.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said she thinks Riviera Beach violated the law.

"So every day, we have to drive by city hall, park our car and go look at the door of the chamber to determine if they're going to have a meeting of critical public importance?" Petersen said. "For a city the size of Riviera Beach, I just don't think that's reasonable. It's fairly stinky."

Council Chairwoman Ann Iles said city policy is to give at least 24 hours notice of a meeting, although she could not cite an ordinance or give an example of another meeting given similar notice.

Iles said she did not remember what process was used for the May 10 meeting but said: "I feel like we gave proper notice."

A judge could decide the issue, if any of the 39 property owners who were given letters of condemnation after the agreement was signed challenges the action in court.

Calls to the mayor, city manager and city attorney were not returned Wednesday.