News: Paul Pry Pages

Highlights and Actions From Government Meetings

By Anne Newport Royall


Thursday, September 22, 2011

While Memorial Day Weekend was not on the agenda for the City of Miami Beach’s NiteLife Task Force when they met last Thursday, it was on everyone’s mind. Assistant City Attorney Debra Turner was there to present to the assembled group of heavy-hitters in the industry the proposed changes to the Promoter Ordinance. After this years’ 10th anniversary of mayhem and death, the Commission directed the administration to “make the ordinance tighter, and have more teeth” Turner stated. Another benefit of the proposed changes was to make the bond and fee requirements stricter, and allow the bond money put up by promoters to be useable against fines levied on the Clubs that result from the promoters’ events.

A promoter is defined in Section 102-356 of Article V in the City Code sections dealing with local business taxes as “any person who promotes a dance or entertainment event on the premises of a business that is licensed to serve alcoholic beverages.” A promoter does not include those who work for the clubs themselves, is a registered not-for-profit corporation or someone promoting a private reception that is not open to the public.

A person or group who rents out one of the Kevin Barlow Opium Group’s six venues for a party that is open to the public would need to get a license, called a Business Tax Receipt (BTR) in the City to hold it. If Barlow, his wife, or any of his direct employees want to have a public party in his clubs, no special license is needed. In addition to having a current BTR, the promoter is also required to place with the City a performance bond based on the occupancy load of the venue, which currently runs between $2,500.00 and $10,000 per event. Changes to the ordinance would increase the bond ranges from $2,500.00 to $25,000.00, depending on the occupancy load of the venue with out-of-state promoters being charged double.

“This is not intended to be punishment,” said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez. “This is to protect the clubs from a promoter who has no skin in the game.”

In response to this year’s debacle, a review of the City’s BTR issuance showed that there have been fewer BTR’s pulled for promoters and less bonds placed, even though it’s the responsibility of the Clubs to make certain that promoters are properly licensed, insured and bonded.

“Even if the ordinance is not changed,” Fernandez went on, “we will begin enforcement of the ordinance.

It becomes in the best interest of the clubs to make certain all the rules are being followed.” Chairman Steve Polistar stated he was “satisfied that they are having this meeting to update everyone on the promoter ordinance, because at one time the City went after clubs when the promoter was at fault. We’re seeing a little backlash from Memorial Day.” One example cited is the handbill ordinance, which, in most cases, violations of the strict anti-littering law are levied against the benefactor of the advertisement. i.e. the club on the flyer.

“We want to educate the clubs on the code and enforcing it; our desire is not to come in and hammer people,” Fernandez said. Polistar agreed. “The procedures were vague. We need to clarify what the responsibilities of the promoters are, and make it simpler so prompters can come in and register. This is an industry that does not like regulation as a rule,” Polistar quipped, and suggested that the City come up with a one-sheet checklist made available on the Internet. Commissioner Jerry Libbin arrived late, but just in time to make his point. “I asked staff to generate this (amended promoter ordinance) and get your input.

We are trying to help you help us. Instead of you (club owners) getting a fine, there are incentives to have you tell us who the prompters are. This offers protection if your promoter is messing up and gives staff a heads-up on the events,” he announced. Polistar decided clubs do have a “vested interest” in the ordinance either as it is or with the proposed changes, and suggested setting up a subcommittee to review the proposals.

The next item on the agenda also had its roots in the Memorial Day mess, but affects the operation of the City on any given day: the use of uniformed offduty Miami Beach police officers as private security for the clubs. Polistar informed the room that this practice dates back some 20 years.

Assistant Police Chief Ray Martinez addressed the issue. “This is a partnership, he said. “When they spill out into the  street we get called one way or another.” He did note however the perception of the police as being on the club’s, not the residents’ side, when they are working the clubs.

“A good district, a good industry, is when people feel safe,” Polistar opined. “I don’t see any steel mills out there; this is our industry (nightlife), and maintaining a good mature police force helps it.”

Commissioner Libbin agreed. “It’s important the police are there. My two issues are the number of hours that the officers work off-duty, and when they work them, OK?”

Currently, because of the union-designed bidprocess for shifts, the most inexperienced officers work late and overnight shifts, and officers are able to work 72 hours of overtime (or detail-duty) a week. This is in addition to their regular 40-hour shift. Libbin wants to lower that number and make it so officers only work a detail after their regular shift not before their shift starts.

Former commission candidate Tony Guerra and others spoke of the need for better training of in-house club security staff. Since the clubs are required to have one staff member for every 250 persons of occupancy trained in fire-safety issues when the club is open, security training should be incorporated into the program to help everyone be safer.

“We need to look at it and evaluate it and make changes,“ Martinez offered. “We are not making any changes as of yet.”

That led to an interesting segue—the final item on the agenda: ‘To Go’ cups. “Not that there is any linkage,” joked Fernandez. The recent incident of officers drinking in uniform at the Clevelander and joyriding over tourists on the sand was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

‘I hate them because they are a violation of open container laws,” Libbin stated. “Then they become trash and I have to get people out to pick them up”.

“We need your help,” Fernandez pleaded with the industry crowd.

“We want zero-tolerance on open containers,” Libbin said. “Get the message out about what is acceptable behavior.”


Monday, September 26

With 14 items on the agenda, many controversial, this meeting seemed destined to carry on until the wee hours last Monday. However, Committee Chairperson Deede Weithorn quickly slashed the agenda almost in half, deferring 8 items to a future date.

“Anyone here on tennis?”, she asked the crowd of over 75 people jammed into the third floor training room of the new Parking Department headquarters. ‘I will recuse myself from tennis and we won‘t have a quorum” (to take any action), she said to the one lone hand that was raised. That freed up one seat for those milling around the back of the room.

“We will take some quick items while we are waiting for everyone to get chairs,” Weithorn announced, and with that the meeting began.

Commissioners quickly approved items that included the advance refunding of the $17,250,000.00 outstanding left on the first $30,000,000.00 of the

$92,465,000.00 2000 General Obligation Bond passed by voters in November 1999. The GO Bond has been the driving source of funds for most of the aboveground right-of-way improvements promised for the City’s 13 Capital Improvement Office neighborhoods.

In other words, and with the Committee’s blessing, and pending the approval of the full commission at two subsequent public hearings, GO Bond Series 2011 is set to be sold on the basis of a negotiated sale, saving approximately $3.1 million or 17.7% over the life of the new debt versus the old.

The Commission Committee, consisting this day of Weithorn, member Jonah Wolfson and the non-voting Jerry Libbin, quickly granted the Miami Beach Cinematheque’s request for a small outdoor café. In December 2009, the commission approved a lease agreement between the art-movie house run by the not for profit Miami Beach Film Society and the City to lease approximately 2,523 feet of ground-floor space at the Historic City Hall on Washington Avenue. While most agreements like this with vendors and the City require a $15% payment of gross receipts from the outdoor operation and a hefty security deposit, it was recommended the deposit be waived and that revenue- sharing be initially set at 12.5%, until the first year of operation is under their belt. Should the gross revenue exceed expectations, Cinemateque would pay the City the difference between the 12.5% and the customary 15%. Look for eight tables and 16 chairs under two large umbrellas to grace the courtyard before Art Basil this year.

By this time, chairs had been located for the 40 or so members of the public who came to complain about the proposed new recycling ordinance. Wolfson, who worked with the City Attorney’s office and the City Administration, as well as the Sustainability Committee to require a mandatory recycling enforcement program as a way “to encourage residents to recycle”, especially those living in multi-family housing and/or businesses that currently do not recycle at all, said. “Laws are looked to as an answer for everything [but] not enough businesses and not enough condos recycle.”

Yet Wolfson was troubled by the ordinance, an amendment to Chapter 90 of the City Code that would establish more stringent requirements than the current County ordinance the City is following. Currently approximately 6,498 single-family homes receive weekly curbside recycling services through an inter-local agreement with County recycle-hauler World Waste Services. The new ordinance would address approximately 60,000 living units contained in within 1,500 multifamily buildings and 3, 624 commercial establishments.

According to County records almost 30% of known commercial and multi-family buildings in Miami Beach do not have a recycling program. While they are subject to enforcement and fines through the County ordinance, the County does not have the resources to inspect and issue the fines.

Wolfson was particularly concerned at the administration response to the original idea, which required adding from eight to 11 new full-time, pension earning Code Compliance Officers to implement the new requirements. He also took issue with the fine structure, even though the administration proffered that the fines would be cost-neutral to the enforcement.

Commissioner Libbin said he was not supportive of the ordinance (he had voted for it on first reading) because, although he “agreed on the principles the devil is in the details.” He too wanted to incentivize recycling but was against the fines, saying, “The minute it goes the other way, with more staff, I’m out!”

Assistant City Attorney Raul Aguila explained that “if you demonstrate to the County (in the form of a contract for recycling removal) you are in compliance with their law,” and because the resources for inspection are lacking, that’s where the issue becomes one of ‘local preference’ to enforce behavior.

“To rise to a level of enforcement, you must have fines,” Weithorn offered. “The education required needs a professional PR person, not a (City) staff person.”

Currently, in lieu of charging a 20% franchise fee on residents, the City accepts a “donation” from the waste hauler that’s split between sustainability issues and funding the International Baccalaureate program in city public schools. The sustainability funds are scheduled to be used in a recycling awareness program in the coming fiscal year starting October 1.

“This is fraught with peril,” Libbin cautioned, to which Wolfson countered that he was not for adding or keeping code-enforcement officers just for the City to make money.

“That’s what politicians looking to score points do, change the subject,” Libbin snapped.

Weithorn jumped in immediately to separate the brewing schoolyard fight. “No one here is going to pass on an ordinance to hurt people. It’s not moving forward today. I want to send this back to the Sustainability Committee.”

Debra Lebowitz, a member of the Sustainability Committee, blasted elected officials and the administration: “So many condo owners came to complain that they want to recycle but can’t in their building. The Commission stated they wanted to be ‘green’ but their agreement never addressed the reality [and] the City blew this totally out of proportion,” she said. What the Sustainability Committee envisioned, she went on, is a “Mr. Green” akin to “Mr. Miami Beach, Michael Aller,” a point-person to educate condominiums and businesses on how to reduce waste hauling fees through a well-managed recycling program. She believes the administration and commission went overboard with the ordinance in an attempt to kill the idea. “Eleven fulltime people? I’m appalled! What are you people doing? This is just crazy!” she elaborated. She pointed to an open letter by the Chamber of Commerce (where Libbin is president) telling the residents this new ordinance would mean “officials going through your trash!” as an outrageous scare-tactic. “What bothers us is that the majority of people on Miami Beach want recycling but can’t do it” and “I’m done with this four-year project!”

Several others spoke, including ECOMB’s executive director Luis Rodriguez, SoFi activist and condominium president Frank del Vecchio, plus several officials of the Continental Group, including Chris Hevia, a vice president of this condominium management conglomerate, who said, “We have almost 30 building managers here today and we want to be involved.”

Weithorn ended the venting session by looking forward to “the happiest day of my life when Code has nothing to do!”

With the crowd gone, an interesting discussion, lead by Procurement Director Gus Lopez and Senior Assistant Attorney Aleksandr Boksner, ensued regarding allegations against the private security vendor Security Alliance.

According to newspaper articles, and a February 22, 2011 Department of Justice press release, two former Hillsborough County (Tampa) Sheriff’s Office detectives were charged and pled guilty to mail fraud conspiracy in which the two, after retiring from the Sheriff’s office occupied high level security positions at Rooms To Go. They allegedly defrauded RTG in a scheme that involved sham invoices for “consulting” to the private security company employed by RTG, Security Alliance. The two former RTG officials, James B. Loftus Jr. and Brian W. Ouellette. set up phony companies to bill and accept payment from Security Alliance, who allegedly established a subsidiary to pay the phony “consulting” invoices in exchange for consideration in awarding contracts and staffing. While Security Alliance was named and investigated by the FBI for their actions n the matter, they eventually cooperated with the Government and were declared “victims” by investigators. Boksner, after talking to the FBI in Tampa concluded that Security Alliance knew the invoices were bogus and that the separate company created to receive the invoices and make the payments, which totaled more than $1 million dollars to the two accused were involved.

Wolfson, who brought the issue to the attention of the Commission at the April 13, 2011 Commission meeting said, “Anytime we have knowledge that one of our vendors have had issues, we should start a termination process. They are security, not parking (attendants).”

Weithorn had a different view, “I do find the issue very troubling, but the Fed’s call them victims. If we do different, we could be in serious conflict.”

Bill Murphy, Senior Vice President of Security Alliance agreed with Weithorn, “While this predates my time with Security Alliance, I object to you substituting your judgment for the FBI. Security Alliance is one of a number of victims who cooperated with the FBI.”

In the end, with the Security Alliance contract up to bid in April 2012, procurement was given direction to begin the RFP process sooner rather than later.

“Going through the RFP process is the fairest way to settle our concerns” Weithorn offered Murphy.


Tuesday, September 27

Dr. Martin Karp, Miami-Dade Public School Board member, representing the sprawling District three, which stretches from downtown Miami up to the County Line, mostly along the coastline, was the guest speaker at the last TMBC. With only three people in attendance having children in Miami Dade County School system (including Dr. Karp himself), it is not surprising that less than 25 hard-core members of the Club sat around the table to listen to his fact-filled presentation.

He detailed all of his initiatives and accomplishments during his two terms on the Board, including ACTIVE, Active Citizens Teaching Individuals Valuable Expertise, a plan to bring senior citizens and other members of the community into contact with students, implementation of a comprehensive bullying and violence plan for the district, a push toward more on-line electronic progress report and report card distribution and a plan to look at the feasibility of placing fruit and vegetable snack machines in schools. He also proudly spoke of a new partnership between M-DCPS and auto-art magnate and Norman Braman to open a training facility for high school students interested in careers in the automotive industry. He addressed the issue of reapportionment, which will affect his district, which grew by approximately 40 thousand residents as well as the other eight districts, bringing a map of the proposed redrawing of lines for anyone to see.

He lamented the Districts loss of Broad Prize for Education – “the country’s largest education award honoring school districts that is awarded each year to the school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students” according to their website Miami-Dade County Schools was a finalist for the forth time, but lost the $1 million in college scholarships to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. (Broward County Schools were also one of four finalists in 2011).

“We had better scores than the winners did!” he crowed.

Karp also announced that when he seeks reelection to his third term in the summer of 2012, it would be his last. While there are no term-limits for School Board representatives, he has imposed his own 12-year limit.

“I am currently the third longest-serving Board member” he stated, “I have a few things left to do: fully implement the International Baccalaureate program in the eight schools in the Miami Beach Senior High feeder pattern and adding more technology” to students and schools.


Tuesday, September 27

With Commissioner Michael Gongora on vacation in Martinique according to his Father and his Facebook page and Commissioner Jonah Wolfson also AWOL from the special budget Commission meeting (repeated attempts for comments from both their offices went unanswered), the remaining four Commissions and Madame Mayor were left to agree in unison on the budget and accompanying resolutions that require a 5/7 majority to pass.

Kathie Brooks of the Office of Budget and Performance Improvement and City Manager Jorge Gonzalez took the lead in presenting the highlights of their 5 month effort to balance a budget to win over the elected officials. The budget they presented had no increase in the millage rate from last year, and showed only a slight increase in the debt service millage rate, that is formula driven, inching higher as property values decrease, which they have for the third year in a row. Given that, the tax levy proposed is $1 million less than budgeted in 2010/2011 and approximately 2.9 mills less than in FY 2006-2007 by 20%. The comparisons to 06/07 continued throughout the night, as property values have returned to that level, despite an additional $3 billion in new construction seen by the City over the last four years. During that same period, the Consumer Price Index rose 13% and the City’s pension obligations rose to a whopping 80%.

In his usual approach, always showing a glass three quarters full, the City Manager praised those on the dais for the “good, solid decisions” that have been made to make the City “live within its means but not sacrificing our services or amenities” a true feat of budgeting and staffing alchemy where 73% of the operating budget goes to salaries and benefits. While touting the 250 positions lost and the $50 million cut from the budget over the past several years, the Manager reminded those watching on TV that the City’s portion of the overall tax bill was only 31%.

Commissioner Ed Tobin while singing the Managers praises, “You are a nationally recognized manager,” countered with the statement “what is troubling to me is the shifting of some of our obligations from the general fund to the resort tax fund instead of cutting. I think you did good on reducing fees (water, sewer and storm water rates remain flat due to the City absorbing over $750,000 in increased pass-through from the County for storm water charges, offset by a “true up” of almost a million back from County) “but we wanted a decrease in the millage, even if it was a token amount.” Tobin stated.

The discussion turned to how to trim $2 million from the budget, to reduce the millage by one mill with talk about a hiring freeze that would exempt police and new fire hires. The City is always seeking to reach its perfect level of 370 sworn police offices, and currently sits 18 short.

“With all the great articles about pensions in the paper, it’s a big world, we should be able to find 10 people who want to be millionaires” Tobin quipped about the Police Departments ongoing and lengthy efforts to fill their open positions.

Mayor Bower weighed in, “This Commission has held the line on unions,” she said, “as a politician, and I am running now, I want to be able to say I lowered taxes. I don’t want to do anything that cuts services. We must be careful not to lower taxes just to say we lowered taxes.”

A new problem surfaced regarding the Commissions move to defer signing a new 30-year Florida Power and Light franchise agreement. At the last commission meeting, the legal opinion proffered by Assistant City Attorney Raul Aguila leaned toward the City still being able to collect the franchise fee, even with no agreement in place, as is being done in other Cities in Florida. However, upon a more careful reading of the County’s FPL agreement, which expires in eight years, it seems as if the County may, through a reservation of rights clause, be able to collect the 6% added tax instead.

Things began to get heated, with Tobin calling for the Mayor to call an adjournment, so things can be hashed out to reach a compromise.

“This is not how we budget” the Manager pleaded, “I appreciate what you are trying to do.”

In the end, the administration and the elected officials agreed to freeze police overtime, transfer more funds from the Resort Tax pool to cover operating expenses to reduce the millage rate by .05 mills.

Expect for the residents of Normandy Isle who will have their special taxing district levy increased to continuing staffing their private guardhouse at current levels, with the implementation of the adjusted living wage.

Commissioner Tobin asked for an update on the hiring of a new Police Chief that was a contentious carry over from the last Commission meeting. Gonzalez whipped out a multi-page memo outlining a timetable, which included a 60-day window for accepting applications. “People need time to decide if they will put themselves in the public record” Gonzalez said. Commissioner Jorge Exposito pointed out that the current Chief, Carlos Noriega had been in the DROP program for three years: His retirement in three months should have come as no surprise to anyone.

Tobin was especially perturbed and wanted more input into the process, stating that State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle should be involved in any selection.

Gonzalez, always looking to preserve the bright line between the legislative branch and the administration pushed back, offering to discuss the concerns one-on-one and not on the dais. “My job is to bring you a candidate and your job is to approve them (or not).”

Exposito rattled off key personnel who will be retiring in the next six to 12 months, including City Clerk Robert Parcher and Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Smith. Gonzalez promised an update on those recruitment processes at the next commission meeting.

The final word of the night went to FOP union President Sergeant Alejandro Bello. During the consent agenda, where items are passed, en masse, with no discussion, the Commission approved spending money to place GPS and other tracking devices in the cars of several City departments, including the Police. Bello objected, saying that addressing the dead radio zones and non-working equipment was more important. He particularly wanted radios in all patrol cars. Gonzalez countered that the City has regular meetings with the radio vendor, Motorola, and that the concerns will be addressed.

“Can we get an LTC (Letter to Commission) on the subject?” asked Tobin.

“Can we go home?” asked Commissioner Weithorn.

And with that, they did.

Speak Your Mind