Packed, Stacked, and Hijacked
It might be called the Andy Hancock Review Board, even though its official name is the Outdoor Advertising Review Board (OARB). Hancock is the owner of at least three illegal billboards that have gone up along Miami's expressways over the past three years. He was a high school buddy of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and inherited his billboard business and political connections from his late father, Eugene. "As they say in North Florida, he's a good old boy," Commissioner Art Teele said of Hancock.
Several of Hancock's billboards and dozens of others are the subject of a good old criminal investigation launched by the Florida Department of Transportation's inspector general earlier this year. The case remains open. And now Hancock sits on the good old OARB, which the Miami City Commission created this past September 14 to review the very law he is breaking. Hancock is the OARB's "at-large" member. In addition each commissioner and the mayor appointed a member individually for a total of seven.
Then again the panel might be called the Rex Hodges Review Board. Hodges is one of the principals of Carter Outdoor Advertising. In the past three years, under Hodges's direction, Carter has erected at least five expressway billboards east of I-95 in violation of a city law enacted in 1985.
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The ordinance Hancock and Hodges will be reviewing stipulates that only ten expressway billboards be allowed within Miami's city limits. It also prohibits any billboards east of I-95 in that part of Miami between I-195 and I-395. As New Times reported earlier this year, 31 billboards now stand alongside Miami's expressways ("Everywhere a Sign," March 23; "Signs of Negligence," June 1; and "A Sign of Victory," July 20). That means at least 21 are illegal. Among the most prominent are the two Carter signs that tower above a modest Wynwood home occupied by 65-year-old Joe Jackson, Jr., and his wife, Ella Mae.
Hodges is Commissioner Tomas Regalado's pick. "I appointed him because my chief of staff, Tony Crapp, recommended it," the commissioner explained. "I trust him." Later, when New Times stopped by the commissioner's office, Crapp said he did so because a lobbyist named Bobbie Mumford had recommended Hodges to him. Crapp dutifully shared a manila file containing a "B. Mumford and Company" fax cover sheet signed "Bobbie." Following that were two pages on Carter Outdoor Advertising letterhead containing a few paragraphs of background information about the company, including short biographies of "Our Team Members." A paragraph on Hodges that has an asterisk penned next to it, reads: "If you've seen any of the Miami locations, you'll see firsthand how successful Rex has been in developing new bulletin locations." Rounding out the thin file is a Regalado memo to Miami City Clerk Walter Foeman in which the commissioner states his belief that Hodges's "background and expertise will be an asset to this board."
Regalado said he was unaware that Hodges's company owns 8 of the 21 illegal billboards lining I-95, I-395, and I-195. He also pleaded ignorance of Andy Hancock's signs, which not only violate the local ten-sign cap but also scoff at state laws requiring billboards along interstate freeways to be 1500 feet apart and more than 660 feet from the edge of the roadway. The commissioner did admit he has known Hancock for several years and has received campaign contributions from him. "Andy helped me in my first campaign," Regalado acknowledged. "And he's been very nice to me." But the commissioner signaled a lack of interest in the sign issue. "Billboards are not my priority," he declared. "My priorities are storm sewers, sidewalks, and streets."
Commissioner Willy Gort's appointment to the OARB is Steve Alexander, an executive with Eller Media, one of the biggest outdoor advertisers in the world. Mayor Joe Carollo named land-use attorney Lucia Dougherty, who is a registered lobbyist for two companies seeking zoning changes so they can erect giant video advertising screens in Coconut Grove and downtown Miami.
For his appointment to the board, Commissioner Teele tapped Mumford, the same Bobbie who lobbied for Hodges, even though she was not on file as a registered lobbyist at the city clerk's office.
Commissioner Joe Sanchez, after suffering weeks of anxiety about the mounting presence of billboard-industry members on the board, designated José Cancela, president of Radio Unica (WRNU-AM 1700). He also is a recent former chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Why Cancela? A Sanchez aide put it this way: "He is knowledgeable about advertising and crap like that."
But for those who appreciate the beauty of trees, sky views, and ethics, hats off to Commissioner Johnny Winton for selecting Indonesian-hat importer Steve Hagen. As the group's token billboard critic, Hagen is primarily riled about ugly signs that besmirch neighborhoods of Miami's Upper Eastside, where he resides. In a recent telephone interview he said he wasn't much concerned about the expressway billboards -- that is, not until New Times informed him of their illegality. "If 10 was what was agreed to, well, then what are these other 21 doing there?" he responded.
He grew more disturbed when he learned the advisory board was stacked with billboard men. "Oh, God," he moaned. "These are actually people who work for the billboard industry? How the hell can they be on it? This is supposed to be a citizens advisory board, right? Well, that would be my first objection right there. If anybody's connected with the industry in any way, then they should excuse themselves from the committee."
For a while this year, it seemed the city was going to crack down hard on the illegal billboards. After the first New Times report last March, the city manager's office ordered inspectors to survey signs all over town. By July zoning sleuths finally had issued dozens of citations to billboard owners. The violators were due to appear before the city's Code Enforcement Board beginning late that month. But someone had another idea: Instead of dragging these captains of the advertising industry before that notoriously churlish court, why not give them their own advisory board? "Whoever thought of the board wanted to please the industry," Regalado confided cryptically.
The "whoever" to whom he was referring is Teele, who introduced the resolution to authorize the Outdoor Advertising Review Board at the September 14 commission meeting. It passed unanimously and instructed the board to "provide recommendations ... for regulation of outdoor advertising" within three months. It also directed the city manager to initiate an audit "of all outdoor advertising facilities within the city's jurisdiction and to recommend a remedial, corrective, and transitional plan for compliance."
Teele explained his motives during a recent interview in his Dinner Key office. He said that after reading about illegal billboards in New Times, he wanted to "understand the situation." Hence the review board idea. "It was pursuant to the fact that these billboards were proliferating into the minority communities," he elaborated. Moreover the commissioner warned that whatever the OARB advised, he would push to change the law so as to (1) "require a public hearing before any billboard goes up" and (2) "to create no-billboard zones, or at least to create zones to make putting up billboards difficult."
Would he support the forced removal of all illegal billboards? He could not answer until he was fully informed on "the status of the law today." But he hinted: "When somebody puts something on a house illegally, we don't automatically tell them to take it down." Teele also raised the specter of lawsuits filed by outdoor advertisers. "People have made more money taking billboards down than they made with them up." He might know a thing or two about that. In 1985 he lobbied on behalf of billboard companies before the county commission.
Regalado, for his part, insists he's going to ignore the recommendations of Hodges and the other OARB members even though he voted to empower them. "I'm going to follow planning department ideas on this issue," he promised, perhaps sensing a need to distance himself from the board.
Of course it was planning department personnel who issued permits for the illegal billboards in the first place, including zoning administrator Juan Gonzalez and his assistant, Javier Carbonell -- the same guys who, along with planning and zoning department director Ana Gelabert, will be meeting with the Hancock-Hodges Review Board to consider its suggestions for changing the billboard ordinance.
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