Is it still possible to fight City Hall? In Miami, unfortunately, City Hall is squandering taxpayers’ money fighting back.

The history of America is replete with stories of courageous citizens who waged and won important civic battles against a powerful establishment on behalf of good public causes. Often, their battles were won in the courtroom, the venue of last resort for citizens who believe they cannot get a fair hearing from elected or appointed officials who make public policy and approve the expenditure of public money.

Now, however, the city of Miami is asking the courts to bar the door against local residents whose complaints city officials find inconvenient. If the city succeeds, it would be a significant defeat for the public’s right to fight City Hall. 

We would like to think that strict regulations are in place these days to require public input at every turn when important issues arise. Increasingly, however, governments have sought to block public participation, manipulate public hearings and curtail the flow of information. And when the threat of legal action arises, attempts are made to shut the public out of the courthouse, where all parties are equal and issues can be fully exposed to scrutiny.

In Miami, as reporter David Smiley outlined in a Herald story this month, almost a dozen citizens have accused city officials of engaging in a variety of underhanded tactics in an aggressive effort to promote lucrative projects for developers at the public’s expense. These efforts include the use of misleading information, hiding public records, ignoring the city’s own laws and delaying the release of relevant information until it was no longer useful, according to the plaintiffs.

In three instances, litigants have asked the courts to protect the public by invalidating three voter-approved projects, in Coconut Grove, behind Bayside and — most important — on Watson Island. The city disputes these allegations, but the public may never get to the truth because Miami has asked the courts to deny the plaintiffs the right to sue.

In legal jargon, this is called a denial of “standing.” In other words, the city is asking the courts to shut the courthouse door to citizens who believe the officials are playing games with the public’s resources, using the argument that they’re essentially nobody, just mere citizens. Who are you to dare sue us

In the case of the controversial Watson Island development, which was approved by referendum back in 2001, the plaintiffs claim — and make a relevant prima facie argument — that the city has changed the project to such an extent that it no longer fits the description approved by voters more than a decade ago. They also claim the city willingly accepted less than valid fair-market value in rent and ignored a legally mandated deadline to begin construction.

Some believe society has become overly litigious, but the greater threat to democracy is losing the public’s right to contest abuses by officialdom. In the Watson Island case, plaintiffs have appealed a denial of standing to the Third District Court of Appeal. 

Given the importance of the project — a mega-development on public land that lies along the route between downtown Miami and Miami Beach (think of what that means for traffic) — we hope the Third DCA gives litigants the opportunity to let their case be heard on the merits.

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

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