Parking and Politics

The friendly folks in Miami Beach who tow away your car and charge you big bucks to get it back will do anything to preserve their monopoly. Absolutely anything.

Like many other property owners in South Beach, ArtCenter/South Florida has a problem with people parking illegally in its lot. For years ArtCenter had used Beach Towing, Inc., one of two towing companies operating in Miami Beach, to tow away offending vehicles from behind the artists' exhibition and work spaces at 800-810 Lincoln Rd.

But this past April ArtCenter officials decided to try something different. A company called Florida Parking Enforcement (FPE), which immobilizes vehicles by clamping a steel-boot device on one wheel, offered to boot illegally parked cars found in ArtCenter's lot. As part of the deal, FPE agreed to give ArtCenter $4800 in "sponsorship" money over the first year of their contract.

Facilities director Dan Weitendorf, the man responsible for maintaining ArtCenter's contracts, says he thought Beach Towing had not been as responsive as it could have been. He gave the company 30 days' notice in May that the contract would be terminated. Jane Gilbert, then director of ArtCenter, approved the change.

Weitendorf told FPE director Ralph Andrade to remove the Beach Towing signs from the lot and to begin booting. Andrade returned the signs to Beach Towing's office at 1349 Dade Blvd. and put up his own signs. Soon, though, the FPE signs disappeared. Andrade says he called Beach Towing and was told they were holding his signs for "safekeeping." He filed a report with the Miami Beach Police Department charging that the signs had been stolen; after completing the report, he went to Beach Towing and retrieved them.

This spat quickly registered on the radar of Miami Beach's political elite. "Well, I got some calls," Jane Gilbert says drily. "Commissioner Nancy Liebman called." Gilbert says the commissioner wanted to know why she had chosen to sign up a booting company. "It was weird," Gilbert recalls. "It surprised me. I just didn't expect Nancy Liebman to be on top of who I use to tow out of my lot. The news traveled fast."

Liebman says she can't recall how she first heard about the dispute, but her main concern was that ArtCenter was getting a $4800 "kickback" from the booters. "The tow truck companies are not allowed to do that. It's against state law," she explains.

"In thinking about it, I had our legal department draft a couple of amendments to our booting ordinance," Liebman adds. "One to disallow any payback to the property owner, and the other was to have somebody there [to take the boot off]."

Liebman says she is generally averse to booting: "Towing achieves something by freeing up the spot. With the booting, you put the boot on and wait for someone to come back. So I wonder, what is the purpose of all this?"

Dan Weitendorf, who inked the contract with FPE and canceled the one with Beach Towing, had a heavy hitter call him, too. "Police Chief [Richard] Barreto called me," he recounts. "He felt somehow there would be fistfights in my parking lot."

Barreto says he phoned Weitendorf in response to a call from Beach Towing complaining about the sign shenanigans. He says public safety was foremost in his mind, and he cites the abuses of the booting company that briefly appeared on the Beach two years ago.

"I definitely don't condone [booting]," Barreto says. "I don't think you need to be a genius to figure out that if cars in a lot get booted, there are going to be altercations. The owners come back to find their car booted, and someone is there saying, 'Give me whatever the fee is or you don't get your car back.' There's going to be fistfights." He admits that no such scenarios have yet materialized with FPE.

Weitendorf says he asked Ralph Andrade to stop booting until Beach Towing's contract expired, but even that was not the end of his headaches with the parking lot. "At that point Beach Towing was towing cars [from ArtCenter's lot] out of spite," Weitendorf asserts. "They towed a staff member's car, a board member's car. Their contract was coming to an end and it was a bit of retribution." He says that when he and Gilbert went to Beach Towing to claim the cars, they were returned without charge.

Since the booting at ArtCenter's lot began in earnest in June, Weitendorf says, he's been happy with FPE's service. "It's like day and night compared with Beach Towing," he reports. "They generally check with us before they take action, which was a problem we had with the towing company."

And none of those who have been booted have resorted to violence. "They're not happy about it," Weitendorf says, "but most realize they shouldn't have been there and that it's better to have the boot than to have your car opened up by a stranger and towed across town. And the $75 fee is less than a tow fee." And if a boot is put on by mistake, Weitendorf points out, it can simply be removed, free of charge.

Opposition to booting hasn't been limited to Liebman and Barreto, though. Within weeks of FPE's appearance on the Beach, the city manager's office, at the behest of the city commission, drafted a set of proposed rules so restrictive they would effectively prohibit booters from doing business in the city. The commission will vote on these next week.

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