Stacy Ritter v. The Miami Herald: Who's Right?

The Miami Herald broke a story Sunday on Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter's alleged vote that favored the firm that runs BankAtlantic Center, Arena Operating Co., at the same time her husband was a paid lobbyist for the company.

In the story, Ritter admits that she supported the move to shift insurance risk at the stadium to the taxpayers to help keep the Florida Panthers in town. She also appears to have admitted during the interview that she voted on the matter on the agenda item during the May 13, 2008 commission meeting.

"Ritter explained her vote by saying that her husband does not lobby for AOC," wrote reporters Dan Christensen and Amy Sherman. "She said he is a lobbyist for Sunrise Sports & Entertainment -- a Panthers holding company that owns AOC."

Now Ritter is saying that she couldn't have voted on the matter because she wasn't there. In a letter she wrote yesterday on county letterhead, Ritter states: "The news report is not only inaccurate, it's blatantly false."

Redundancies aside, Ritter writes that she wasn't in the chambers during the vote and, in fact, wasn't at the governmental center during the meeting, either. Perhaps she was out on that 63-foot yacht her husband co-owns with Mark Ginsburg, another Klenet client who Ritter once voted to benefit.

Interestingly, the Herald hasn't run a correction. And I think I know why: The transcript of the meeting indicates that Ritter was, indeed, present on the morning of the vote. According to the transcript, Ritter was there when the meeting was called to order at 10:17 a.m.

The AOC item was part of the morning's consent agenda (meaning that it wasn't discussed before it was unanimously approved). The item was approved by the commission unanimously at 10:38 a.m.

This would lead one to believe that Ritter, who then vice mayor, had voted on the thing. But votes on other items that were pulled for public discussion -- including one that occurred just one minute later, at 10:39 a.m. -- indicate that she had left the room.  

The transcript shows she returned later.

I haven't seen the videotape for the consent agenda vote, but let's assume that Ritter is right that she didn't vote on the AOC matter. 

That means the Herald blew it. No excuses. But if it was a mistake, it was one easily made and made easier by the apparent fact that Ritter didn't dispute the vote when she spoke to the reporter (I'm guessing it was Sherman, since she's not real fond of Christensen). It was more unfortunate than reckless, one of those uncanny Murphy's Law moments. If the story was wrong, Ritter deserves a correction and she'll surely get one if it's proven out. 

But the known facts are still not flattering to Ritter. When she took office, she and Klenet promised that he would cut ties to companies that were related to the county in any way. He didn't do that in this case.

Also, Ritter by law is obligated to abstain from the vote and file a conflict disclosure form in cases like the one involving the arena company. An elected official can't just not show up for the vote (though it's done all the time, right Al Capellini?). It doesn't appear Ritter filed any such form in this case, which would be contrary to Florida's Code of Ethics. 

Not that we should concern ourselves with the silly ethics commission. The feds are digging into the Ritter-Klenet-Mutual Benefits connection with both hands. We'll see how that turns out.


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