Photo by Michael Trainer
TRY WORKING WITH MIAMI BEACH COMPLIANCE
by David Arthur Walters
The Code Compliance Division of the City of Miami Beach took one on the chin with the embarrassing arrest of several inspectors by the FBI. City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, forced to resign effective this July, has finally taken a few steps to rectify the chronic lack of oversight and accountability in all departments associated with his tenure. For example, a former police chief was assigned to oversee the Code Compliance Division, and its director was reassigned to cooperate with the FBI investigation and to support audits and reviews of its operations.
George Castell, a veteran of twenty years, remains as the division’s supervisor. I personally encountered him, two years ago, at a neighborhood walkaround meeting at the Las Olas Café. The former U.S. Marine seemed to be a good guy, but I was put off by his authoritarian, bureaucratic demeanor. I took him to task after he suddenly blurted out that there was no such thing as selective enforcement in his division. I conducted my own inspection tour of Washington Avenue, taking photographs of numerous violations of a kind that only one or two restaurants, owned by Middle Eastern gentlemen, had been cited for. All but one of the violations was eventually corrected. In the final analysis, I concluded that the ethnicity of the cited owners was coincidental, and that enforcement was not selective if randomness is not a selection method.
Mr. Castell had an assistant with him that day at Las Olas Café, one Ramond D. Vasallo, Code Compliance Officer I for the Neighborhood Services Department. He seemed to be a sincere and caring person. I wished he would move up the ranks and replace his case-hardened supervisor. As it turned out, he was one of the individuals arrested by the FBI. According to his replacement in the neighborhood, Code Compliance Officer Emmanuel Bastos, Mr. Vasallo was a good worker, but in some respects, particularly in regards to dog and human waste, I have to disagree.
Mr. Bastos was jolly on the spot after I called in a complaint to Mr. Castell last week about the vacant lot just south of 625 Meridian Avenue; namely, OCEAN BEACH ADD NO 3 PB 2-81 LOT 11 BLK 58. I just happened to pass by when he was scrutinizing the property. A banner fifty-foot long was covering the front fence of the property, bearing a huge advertisement for DC Services Corp., a general contractor. The sign did not have permit sticker on it, and the contractor’s license number did not appear on it. The Jetsetrealty.com sign set back on the property had a permit sticker, and the grass on the lot had been cut. The full extent of the back of the property, along the alley, was piled high with junk and trash.
I stopped to chat, observing that he and Mr. Castell had survived the corruption scandal thus far. He took a keen interest in the peculiar history of the property. I recalled that it had been a Jewish temple at one time. After the building was abandoned, the ruins were inhabited by homeless persons including crack addicts. The structure was eventually leveled. The grounds were fenced off and kept up fairly well, except along the property line in the back where we had just met.
That area had been used as a neighborhood dumping ground for several years. Neighbors from the nearby apartment houses that cater to illegal aliens including Guatemalan and Honduran gang members would sometimes gather there to associate and guzzle beer, which they consider to be a food, to smoke marijuana and deal drugs. Sometimes a drunk would pass out on a discarded chair or table.
An entrepreneurial wine merchant used an old desk and a broken to set up a wine shop under the little tree there, having procured several bottles of wine somewhere. He was often so drunk he passed out. At first I thought he was a neighbor of mine, a Honduran man who looked like him, and who was sometimes so drunk when he came home that he fell down and rolled over in the front yard before making it to his apartment.
A homeless fellow, an illegal alien who lived in the alley, asked me to call the police one day because the wine merchant was so drunk he had passed out with his genitals entirely exposed. Furthermore, and the man was a stranger to the alley people. People who do not want to be identified by the police sometimes ask me to call the police because I am known as “the man who calls the police.” Otherwise I do not call the police unless noisy people wake me up late at night, causing me to observe them for criminal behavior since I have nothing better to do when jolted awake. The police arrived in short order and took the wine merchant away. I supposed to the arriving officers that he was relatively harmless, that his wife was probably wishing he would sober up and get a real job.
A year or two ago, No Parking signs were installed, from the area Mr. Bastos was inspecting, along the alley to the street. The No Parking signs were ignored due to total lack of enforcement. Two parking enforcement officials told me that tickets would only be given in that area at their “discretion.” When I objected to their selective enforcement, one of them told me not to worry, that his companion would ticket several cars parked there at that time. Instead, they got into their truck and drove away.
I reminded Assistant Hilda Fernandez of the persistent parking violations right under the No Parking signs. I had sent her photographs of violators along with a recommendation that homeless people in the alley be trained and given a commission for ticketing the violators. She did not respond. A recent Miami Dade County Ethics Commission investigation has revealed that her responses to public inquiries and complaints are desultory. But the last time I called her about the situation she did respond, asking me to prove that I had contacted her before on the matter, which I did. Thanks to her follow ups, violators began to be ticketed.
However, the area along the back of the property being inspected by Mr. Bastos was apparently off limits for ticketing since it was private property. People parked there regularly, sometimes pushing the trash and junk back to get their cars into the safe zone. I asked a tow truck driver about it; he said he could not tow any of the cars unless the owner posted a towing sign.
I was surprised that residents parked expensive cars in that spot simply because they would not have to buy a permit or look for space on the street. There have been a number of car thefts from the parking lot behind the condominium on the corner across the alley; one man actually sold his condo and moved away because of the thefts and other serious problems on the block including knife fights between rowdies from the wall-to-wall nightclubs a block east on Washington Avenue. The crime however has substantially diminished thanks to the police department, and to the fact that the recession has caused many criminals to move elsewhere. A police officer actually apologized to me for the crime and drunken behavior we were experiencing all night long; he said that half of it was the fault of the police, the other half the fault of landlords greedy for cash money.
And there it was: a towing sign was erected on the fence the day before Mr. Bastos arrived to inspect the property. No more cars; lots more junk and trash. He said he would get Sanitation over to clean up again, but he would not charge the owner because that would be unfair. Anyone can dump stuff behind someone’s property without their approval. Indeed, some people on the block do put junk on their pickup trucks and take it a few blocks away to discard it behind someone’s building. He said, however, if the dumping persists, he might finally have to charge the owner. I was at philosophical odds with him on that issue. Let the owner or his agent keep the place clean or pay the city for its trouble, is what I say. In my opinion, confiscatory taxes should be leveled on unproductive property until it is put to good use.
The erection of the towing sign has disturbed the operation of the motor scooter repair company who used the space as an annex to load and offload scooters there and to otherwise deal with customers. One of the owners told me the company has been around for over a dozen years. The company has a shop some distance away, so its owners and mechanics rented an apartment on Euclid so they could repair scooters in the front yard instead of hauling them to the shop. A resident said the business had a special agreement with Code Compliance friends to do that, until several people in the neighborhood, including a gentleman whose motorcycle shop went bust, complained about the front-yard repairs and the frequently double-parked van. Code Compliance officers apologized to the operator but halted the activity. Then the hardworking entrepreneurs moved to the alley. No more. They would be towed. But I hear there is another motor scooter repair shop established in the parking lot of a condo down the street. Maybe they could go into partnership with them.
Mr. Bastos was listening intently to this minutia, so I told him about how I approached a Compliance officer who was chatting up women in an alley nearby, a few feet from where a man had just let his dog lay a huge one in the middle of the sidewalk and did not clean it up. When I told him about what had just passed, he gave me the usual runaround: you have to call it in and wait for an officer to come out. Of course by that time the guy is gone. One could always make a citizen arrest, handcuff the culo actually responsible for the mess, and risk getting sued for false arrest, civil rights violations and whatnot.
That man and his dog do the same thing every day, I said, and I asked him if he had ever cited anyone for dog waste in the neighborhood. No, never, he said, and went back to chatting up the girls. That is why the neighborhood, one known as the “Seventh Heaven” crack-hood, has been redubbed “The Toilet.”
Mr. Bastos was intrigued, and asked for the name of the Compliance officer, who had said he knew me although I did not remember him—was it that nice fellow I met at Las Olas Café who landed in jail? Well, I did not turn him in because I did not feel like complaining at the time, although I was thinking about establishing a profitable whistle-blowing company, Dirty Rat LLC.
Since I had the Compliance officer’s undivided attention, I asked him to check out the sign in front of 634 Euclid Avenue, which reads “Income Real Estate, 305-673-9999, For Rent.” The apartments there are rented primarily to paperless workers who pay cash to the guy that comes around periodically to collect it. The residents were generally quiet and respectful working folk until a criminal fringe from Guatemala and Honduras arrived a couple of years ago, not only there but across the alley as well. The gangs put their graffiti up, and hung shoes over the wires to indicate drug areas. Violence erupted, including attempted murder.
I called 305-673-999 to speak to the management, but was told that Income Real Estate had nothing whatsoever to do with the property. The sign was just a come-on in front of bait, to induce people to call and switch their interest to other properties. I told Mr. Bastos that there was no permit sticker on the sign, which raises the question: I there a permit for the sign? He assured me he would look into it. He advised me to call him directly if any other issues emerged in the neighborhood. He said he would appreciate feedback too, for the positive results that Compliance gets that nobody bothers to mention.
Well, Compliance has in fact been responsive to noise complaints in my neighborhood. Yes, I know that other neighborhoods have expressed rage on this issue. Yet with one exception, when they never showed up at all, they have appeared and quelled the noise in my area, for most residents of this neighborhood think they are cops and would rather not encounter them. My neighbor did say that she overheard a Compliance officer point her out as the person who had called in a noise complaint, and told the noisy man, in Spanish, that the man’s home was his castle and that it was his right to make as much noise as he pleased before 11 PM.
I was surprised when Mr. Castell called me to ask if I was satisfied with the response. Yes, I was, Mr. Bastos seemed like a guy who really cares about enforcement. Mr. Castell also raised the subject of the notorious abandoned property at 1020 Sixth Street. We delved into the details and shared information. The assistant city manager had dropped the ball. She is responsive at random. Her silence on one point resulted in a suspicion of corruption after allegations were made by a city employee. An investigation by the ethics commission ensued. I was not so much concerned with corruption as with negligence, and with getting the property somehow seized to compensate the city and its residents for the disgrace and trouble it had caused, and to protect everyone from the criminal inhabitation of the premises.
Mr. Castell apprised me of what he had done about the property, which was a great deal, including personal visits to the property. The city, whosoever was responsible, did not do enough, however, in respect to the mountain of junk that was allowed to pile up over may moons, and in regards to the continued access to the building to homeless including drug addicts, drug dealers, and a notorious prostitute who eventually migrated to Euclid Avenue to run a casino from a rented studio. She charged an entrance fee and sold several cases of beer every night. The noise, the fighting, the customers banging on doors looking for the casino, created a nightmare for several months despite numerous calls to the landlord and to the police. Compliance officers did show up, but the la misma mierda resumed the next night.
That being said, Mr. Castell made a good impression on me this time. He has a lot of information at his fingertips, he actually sends officers out to respond to complaints, and he knows how to work with offended residents. I believe we should let bygones be bygones, and work with him and his cohort.