Coral Gables photographer George Alexander is out of town. His attorney says he's probably on one of his regular photography expeditions to other continents. But the lights are definitely on at Alexander's studio on Alhambra Circle, and not the kind of lights that appeal to the leaders of this sedate, decorum-obsessed city. Above the entrance to Alexander's two-story studio, an electric sign displays in bright red letters a long, endlessly repeating speech directed at Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli. A sample of its offerings: "MAYOR RAUL, YOUR CORRUPT AND ABUSIVE POWER IS TAKING THE CITY INTO A CIVIL RIGHTS CASE.... RAUL, YOUR [sic] ACTING LIKE YOUR BROTHER 'FIDEL'...."
This is just the latest in a series of eye-catching signs Alexander has displayed during the past two years. And it is undoubtedly the most noticeable of several tactics he has employed in an attempt to thwart completion of a thirteen-story building next door to his studio, east of Le Jeune Road. Alexander has filed lawsuits, written letters, and distributed pamphlets. Valdes-Fauli was so concerned about Alexander's sharp verbiage that he got a restraining order against the photographer last year. Meanwhile, the city has fined Alexander more than $200,000 because he never obtained a sign permit from the city.
Alexander first complained to authorities about the neighboring office building and parking garage in mid-1996. He said a crane had damaged the front of his studio, and he insisted the building's foundation encroached on his property. Worst of all, Alexander claimed, rainwater poured down the side of the garage onto his studio and was causing substantial damage. When city and county building inspectors found no code violations, Alexander insisted they had only cursorily examined the buildings. He became convinced that corrupt public officials were kowtowing to his rich neighbors.
In 1996 Alexander sued Coral Gables and building owners Emanuel Edelstein, Joseph Kracauer, and Two Twenty Alhambra, L.C. The suit, filed in Dade County Circuit Court, alleges that inspectors overlooked problems, asks the court to force his neighbors' compliance with city rules, and requests compensation. The lawsuit is still pending. "He's not asking for money," says Alexander's attorney, Manuel Arthur Mesa. "To him it's the principle. All he wants is for the city to enforce its own codes and to treat him like everybody else."
Around the same time Alexander took legal action, he began a letter-writing and sign-posting campaign. During the February 1997 city elections, he put a placard calling Valdes-Fauli "corrupt" on his studio roof. When he started receiving citations, he took it down.
Also during city elections in 1997, Alexander hired a man to drive a truck around town displaying big signs in English and Spanish exhorting citizens not to vote for the "corrupt" mayor, who was running unopposed for reelection. "JUSTICE OVERLOOKED -- At Whose Expense?" read one of the signs. Vigilant Coral Gables police officers ticketed the driver. Then last month the city commission voted unanimously to outlaw "portable" signs. City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez admits Alexander's election advisories -- as well as some garish street advertising -- inspired the commission's action.
The electric sign now outside Alexander's studio isn't covered by that ordinance. In fact, to legalize it, Alexander likely needs to merely apply for a city permit. But since he hasn't obtained the go-ahead, the photographer is accumulating fines to the tune of $500 per day, for a grand total of $200,000. In June a Coral Gables code enforcement supervisor notified the photographer that the city intended to place a lien on the property for failure to pay. In October the code enforcement board will be able to vote on foreclosure, says Hernandez. "It would be very easy for him to come in and get the permits," she sighs.
Alexander even went to the Miami Herald recently to place an ad complaining of the mayor's malfeasance, according to Mesa. When a newspaper employee declined to run the spot unless Valdes-Fauli's name was deleted, Alexander left.
In June 1997 Circuit Court Judge Murray Goldman granted the city's request to forbid Alexander to personally contact Valdes-Fauli. Over several months the mayor had received a stream of letters and faxes to his office and home. One fax, asking Valdes-Fauli to "put an end to these injustices that are being committed against me," is handwritten in Spanish with a return address of room 208 at the Hotel Valadier in Rome. A typewritten postcard from the Spanish port of Marbella begins, "RAUL, YOUR STUBBORNNESS IS WAY BEYOND MY EXPECTATION" and concludes with something that seems like a threat: "I will not allow you to compromise my rights & decisions. BURN THIS IN YOUR MEMORY. Take this to the press, FBI, or your favorite priest ... it will not change my FOCUS as it ZOOOOOMS on you."
But Mesa denies that's a threat. He charges that the city tried to harass his client: A Gables police sergeant visited Alexander at home last year (he wasn't in) to "speak with him," Mesa says, about his letters to the mayor. "You have to understand, this guy tried to do everything the right way," Mesa argues. "But he was ignored and silenced. I know, they'll tell you he's crazy, but he didn't see any option but to go public with this, to exercise his First Amendment rights."
The mayor finds the spectacle slightly amusing; he even has a big blowup of one of Alexander's broadsides hanging in his office. "Even if this were something I could change," Valdes-Fauli says, "my position is that it's like a neighbor claiming a branch is coming over into his property or a dog is barking next door. What am I going to do about it?"
Today it's hard to see through the front windows of Alexander's locked studio, which is papered with 24 citations and three notices of "intent to lien." The only occupants of the lobby are a nice terra cotta-color leather sofa and a few large red, white, and blue signs leaning against the walls. Next door, at 220 Alhambra, men are still at work on the interior of the parking garage.
Since the walls of the garage and Alexander's studio are only four inches apart, it's hard to see the water damage that has incensed Alexander. Manuel Lopez, director of the Gables building department, says he has seen water damage to Alexander's building but couldn't find the source. Lopez adds that the 220 Alhambra building has a proper drainage system, which consists of a two-inch gutter. Retorts Mesa: It's not working.
The owners say they'd like to help, but they complain that Alexander refuses to describe the harm he's suffered. "We said any damages we may have caused to the building because of construction we'd be happy to repair," says Steven Siegfried, the owners' attorney. "But he won't let us into the building to do repairs." Mesa says that's because the water damage is ongoing and can't be quantified until it stops. "There is the concern with time the building will crack and be permanently unstable," he adds.
In time Alexander will return from his trip to find a few more citations on his front door. His lawsuit will wend its way through civil court. And the completed 220 Alhambra building will stand among the other new and elegant high-rises. And until someone removes Alexander's sign, its red letters will continue their incongruous rant.
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