A Fine Mess
Georges William, a Little Haiti businessman and property owner, received a $500 ticket from the City of Miami this past September. William was being fined, the ticket stated, for illegally dumping trash in front of a building he owned on NE 46th Street in Little Haiti. He was ordered to clean up and pay up.
William found it odd to receive the citation: There was no trash in the road at that address. And William, the 46-year-old owner of a real estate management company and a community leader with impressive anti-garbage credentials, would be a real hypocrite if he had made the mess. He gathered debris every Saturday morning for sixteen weeks last year as a volunteer in a massive neighborhood cleanup. Then there was the puzzling fact that the city code inspector who wrote the ticket worked out of the Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office in Wynwood, not Little Haiti.
"I said, 'This can't be,'" William exclaims, emotionally recounting the indignity of it all. "I'm a good citizen. I picked up six tons of trash in Little Haiti, and now they're stabbing me in the back! First I called the inspector and she told me she found this dumping somewhere in Wynwood. She never gave me an address, but she was fining me because she found papers in the trash pile with the name of a tenant I evicted in 1996. Because of this they punish me! I had nothing to do with it! But the inspector said, 'She was your tenant. You have to pay.'"
And so began William's five-month-long battle against bureaucratic boneheadedness. He long ago ceased to care about the money. He just wants someone to listen.
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That has proved difficult. Code inspectors routinely track down outlaw dumpers by sifting through garbage. The somewhat unsavory task, according to city officials and property owners, is often the only way to connect the violation with a perpetrator. "It happens all the time," affirms Sergio Guadix, administrator of the Wynwood/Edgewater NET office. "Somebody decides to dump somewhere, they might live in a different part of town, and we find evidence in that trash pile that enables us to track them down. Usually it's not just one piece of evidence; usually it's letters or bills and stuff like that. Once we get that, we send the whole package down to the central NET office, and they keep it stored until we have a hearing."
The enterprising sleuth in this case was code inspector Doreen Barham. Last fall Barham searched through a trash pile in Wynwood (the exact address is not mentioned on William's ticket) and found several snapshots of Ana Joseph, William's former tenant, as well as a four-year-old job application and a piece of junk mail labeled 192 NE 46th St., which is in Little Haiti. Barham then checked county records and discovered that William owned the 46th Street property. On September 17, 1999, she sent him a citation by certified mail. For some reason the ticket indicated the illegal dumping had occurred at William's property rather than at the Wynwood location. (William owns two blocks of commercial and residential property along NE Second Avenue at 45th and 46th streets. Dumpsters sit there, as on most other commercial lots; thus William contends he doesn't need to dispose of garbage elsewhere.)
After he received the ticket and spoke with Barham, William complained to her boss, NET administrator Guadix. He advised William to appeal the fine to an administrative law judge. That's what he did. Five months later, on February 16, 2000, William appeared at the Wynwood NET office before Judge Ed Swanko. Neither Guadix nor Barham, who had by then left her city job, attended the hearing.
William tried to convince Swanko to cancel the fine on the grounds that the landlord had no connection to the Wynwood dumpsite, where he believes his ex-tenant Ana Joseph lived after moving out of the Little Haiti apartment. (Joseph's former boyfriend says she died several months after relocating.) William presented records showing he had evicted Joseph in November 1996.
"I kept asking the judge: 'What law did I break?'" William recalls. His entreaties apparently were insufficient to sway Swanko completely, though the judge reduced the fine to $200. "But I didn't do anything!" William protests. "I'm not asking for leniency; I'm asking for my legal rights. I shouldn't pay for something I didn't do."
Too bad. If William decides to ignore the $200 fine, the city will slap a lien on "the property from which the violation originated," according to a notice issued after the hearing. His only alternative is to appeal the decision to circuit court. William says he has been preparing to file the legal papers, a move that will mean more than $200 in court costs.
But his ordeal may end happily. Guadix checked into the matter after New Times called him. "We're going to reschedule the case for another hearing before a lien gets placed," Guadix says. "The judge will probably at that time throw it out. We didn't write on the ticket the location where we found the evidence, and based on that, I think it would be unfair to go through with it."
Not all unfairly accused dumpers can count on a paperwork glitch, though. The city has received some attention recently for stepped-up code enforcement. The current (low) standard of proof could be making it a little too easy for the city to pick up a quick $500 or $1000 fine. "If they find your name on a piece of paper," advises a local landlord who asks not to be identified, "you're dead meat."
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