Miami: America's Billboard Sanctuary
As Miami commissioners and concerned citizens contemplate new proposals to enhance the city's billboard canopy, they may want to take into account three recent developments related to the Outdoor Advertising Review Board, the advisory committee created by the city commission last September. (Board members and city staffers are scheduled to present recommendations for changing the city's sign ordinance at this week's commission meeting, Thursday, March 29.)
1. Yet another expressway billboard is under construction in defiance of city law, which allows only ten billboards to face expressways passing through Miami. City officials have long overlooked at least 21 other signs that advertising companies, including Carter Outdoor and Miami Outdoor, have illegally erected during the past four years. But officials will have to look over this one. The dark-green column rises at 261 SW Sixth St., just southwest of the city manager's office on the tenth floor of the Riverside Center. The rectangular frame that would bear a sign has yet to go up, but the colossal shaft already exceeds the 30-foot height restriction on such signs. In fact the structure is so tall that for drivers to view it directly, the billboard panel would have to illegally face the elevated northbound lanes of I-95. "I heard a rumor that one of the guys who used to work for me did it," said Andy Hancock, who owns Miami Outdoor and has erected several of the other illegal billboards. He also is a member of the Outdoor Advertising Review Board. (Hancock was not available for further comment.)
2. In addition to the mysterious new high-rise pole, there is another curiosity involving a 180-degree turn by the Planning and Zoning Department regarding one of its recommendations. New Times recently reported ("Things Definitely Are Lookin' Up," February 15) the department had accepted the review board's proposal to remove a complicated section of the ordinance restricting angles and orientation of signs along expressways. The law allows a maximum of ten signs along I-95, I-395, I-195, State Road 836, and State Road 112 within city limits. All other billboards within 660 feet of any expressway must be "faced away from such highway." The revision would have had the effect of legalizing the 21 expressway billboards that currently are illegal. A document circulated at the review board's February 2 meeting stated, "There are no objections to removing this limitation."
Two weeks later the Planning and Zoning Department reversed its position. A revised draft of the department's recommendations to the commission now notes that removal of the requirement "could increase the number of billboards and visibility of billboards on limited-access highways." Planning and zoning director Ana Gelabert-Sanchez explained the flip-flop by saying she and other planning officials simply did not realize their earlier position would have had that result.
Regarding the maximum of ten expressway billboards, Gelabert-Sanchez affirmed, "We're not going to touch that." In other words several Carter Outdoor and Miami Outdoor billboards east of I-95 in Overtown and Wynwood that went up in defiance of that limit would have to be dismantled or lowered and faced away from expressways if commissioners adopt the staff recommendations.
3. Last month New Times learned the Outdoor Advertising Review Board was even more stacked than previously reported. Not only are five of its seven members either billboard-industry executives or lobbyists, but two actually are business partners in an advertising company. "This was our best-kept secret," revealed the panel's chairwoman Bobbie Mumford, sounding as if someone had just spoiled her surprise party.
The secret was Mumford & Hancock, a Florida corporation she and fellow board member Andy Hancock formed in June of last year. The company, which is not yet doing business, plans to sell "multimedia packages" to advertisers, said Mumford, who operates a Miami public-relations firm. A package would include billboard, print, and broadcast advertisements, she added.
Commissioner Art Teele spearheaded the creation of the review board, which was charged with providing "a comprehensive examination, evaluation, and report on all outdoor advertising in the city boundaries and ... recommendations to the city for regulation of outdoor advertising." Each commissioner and the mayor named an appointee; in addition they named Hancock as an at-large member, undaunted by the fact that he owned at least three of the illegal expressway billboards. Teele appointed Mumford. Commissioner Tomas Regalado delegated Rex Hodges of Carter Outdoor, another of the outlaw companies. Commissioner Willy Gort named a third billboard man, Steven Alexander of Eller Media. Mayor Joe Carollo chimed in with attorney and lobbyist Lucia Dougherty, whose clients include billboard executives. The board would have 90 days to submit its report, and then it would disband.
As the board began to draft a new ordinance that would legalize the illegal billboards, Commissioner Johnny Winton's appointee, neighborhood activist Stephen Hagen, was the sole dissenting voice. When confronted with the unbalanced nature of the board last November, Teele told New Times it didn't bother him. "You need to get them [industry executives] to give you what they like and don't like before you make decisions," he explained. "To practice good government, you need to know what you don't know before you start making policies."
Mumford and Hancock need not worry about their little secret either, according to Miami City Attorney Alex Vilarello. Owing to the transitory and advisory nature of the Outdoor Advertising Review Board, its members are not bound by conflict-of-interest laws. That's because the board's proposals to the commission are not binding, Vilarello said. "There can't be a conflict of interest if their final recommendation is simply advice," he noted. Only members of permanent panels written into the city charter, such as the Code Enforcement Board and the Planning Advisory Board, must adhere to conflict-of-interest rules.
Vilarello said he would be more concerned about possible violations of the state's Government in the Sunshine Law. Under the Sunshine Law it would have been illegal for any two members of the Outdoor Advertising Review Board to discuss business related to that board in private or through a third party. Mumford denied discussing the board's business with the other half of Mumford & Hancock. She said the two didn't disclose their business partnership because they didn't want anyone to steal the idea. "We didn't think anyone else was doing this down here," she remarked. Fellow board member Steve Alexander declined to comment on whether he thought their failure to disclose the information was unethical. Commissioner Gort also had no qualms about Mumford and Hancock's secret. "I think they could have disclosed it," Gort observed, "but I don't see any conflict [of interest]."
Against that backdrop of business intrigue, the review board is boldly pressing ahead with its industry input. For example it will recommend that the commission eliminate a rule prohibiting billboards closer than 200 feet from an expressway (though many are). The Planning and Zoning Department opposes the idea. Another board recommendation is to increase the permitted size of billboards from 750 square feet to 960 square feet. Planning and zoning also opposes that change and instead recommends that signs along highways be no larger than 672 square feet; those along narrower roads and streets should be even smaller. Also thwarted: the board's proposal to allow billboards to rise higher than 30 feet.
There are a few areas of agreement, however. The board and city staff have agreed that billboards along expressways should be at least 1500 feet apart, as currently required by state law. And they concurred on a new spacing requirement of 1000 feet for signs along other roads and streets, for which there is no spacing requirement at present.
A year has now passed since the city manager instructed Neighborhood Enhancement Team offices to inventory illegal billboards in their areas. After giving billboard scofflaws their own committee -- and bringing the code-enforcement process to a halt -- Miami commissioners are now talking tough. A majority have said they plan to vote against the review board's recommendations in favor of the Planning and Zoning Department's. Last week Commissioner Gort told New Times he thought the city should force the removal of illegal signs "as soon as possible." For his part Commissioner Joe Sanchez proclaimed that if any illegal billboards are found in his district, "I will direct that they be taken down."
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