Parking and Politics
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.
"To tell you the truth, I really don't understand it," Weitendorf says with a sigh. "A business should succeed on its strengths or fail on its weaknesses. For the city commission to take this much interest in a new business venture in town strikes me as being a little strange."
To those familiar with the stranglehold Beach Towing and Tremont Towing have on Miami Beach, this latest episode is similar to the relationship between the tow companies and Miami Beach city government: strange but true.
Anyone who has been towed in Miami Beach knows the drill. You come back to find your car gone. Maybe you see the Beach or Tremont signs on a wall or a metal pole in the lot. Maybe you don't. Maybe you think your car's been stolen. Whether or not you call police, you eventually end up on the phone with Beach or Tremont. If your car was towed from a private parking area, the cost will be at least $95; and depending on how long ago the car was towed, you might have already begun racking up storage fees. After six hours the companies slap on a $25 storage fee for the first day, plus another $25 every day after that. Did you bring your checkbook with you on your way to that restaurant or nightclub? Didn't think so. And they don't take credit cards. So you hoof it to an ATM, call a cab, head over to the compound, and stand in line in front of the bulletproof window to buy back your car.
Getting booted goes like this: You come back and find this big yellow clamp on your tire and a sign on your window telling you (in five languages) to call FPE's phone number. This note, and the signs posted at the lot, inform you that it'll cost $75 -- cash, check, or credit card. You call the number, someone from FPE shows up. You pay. The boot comes off. You leave.
For the average citizen, and especially the average tourist, booting seems by far the preferable option. So why, you might logically wonder, are Beach politicians so dead-set against allowing FPE to compete with Beach and Tremont? And why in the world would a sitting commissioner and the police chief take the unprecedented step of attempting to dissuade a business from hiring FPE?
The answer to that question seems to boil down to two words: political power. Beach Towing, founded in 1977, and Tremont Towing, founded in 1984, have been the only game in town since 1991, when their last competitor folded. In 1988, ostensibly to save tourists from having to take a cross-causeway cab ride to pick up a towed car, Miami Beach commissioners amended section 106 of the city code to state that no towing company could obtain a license to tow in Miami Beach "unless the towed vehicle is stored or impounded within the confines of the city at an authorized storage facility."
Ever since Magnum Towing gave up its little vehicle storage lot in the northern part of the city seven years ago, all land zoned for such facilities has been owned by either Beach Towing or Tremont Towing. Thus in addition to being the official city contractors for towing from public property, these two firms are the only ones allowed to operate tow-away services from private property. In essence, they were handed a monopoly by the city.
All other county municipalities use the Miami-Dade County towing rule: The towing company's storage lot must be within ten miles of the site of the tow-away. (This same county law also sets a ceiling of $80 for private-property tow fees. Municipalities are free to raise this cap; Miami Beach is the only one that has done so.)
In parking-starved Miami Beach, this shared monopoly has translated into big business. How big? The towing companies aren't saying. They referred this question to attorney Harold Rosen. After originally agreeing to compile the information for New Times, Rosen begged off. "I cannot get that information from them," said Rosen, who represents both firms. "I really can't even give you a rough count."
According to FPE's chief executive officer Hugh Cochran, a Beach Towing employee recently offered him a rough count of that company's tow-away numbers: 450 cars per week. At $95 a pop, that's $42,250 gross per week, and that's just Beach Towing -- and it doesn't include storage fees. Rosen explains that his clients refund money on mistaken tows every day, so not every car towed generates income.
The records on public tows are readily available. In fiscal year 1996-97, Beach and Tremont carried out 7800 city tows. Public-property tows, which cost the offender $90, also make money for the city: The parking department gets a twenty-dollar fee for each city tow.
Beach and Tremont are separate companies, but their owners have close business ties. Beach Towing owner Mark Festa and Tremont Towing owner Edwin "Junior" Gonzalez are partners in eight active Florida corporations, all based in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and all represented by Harold Rosen's law firm, Rosen & Switkes. Festa describes these as "real estate" companies. ("Suncoast Towing," based in Hollywood, and "Festa Transport and Storage," based at the same address as Beach Towing, have unusual names for real estate firms.)
As with many big businesses in the community, Beach, Tremont, and other Festa/Gonzalez ventures (and their attorneys) contribute to current city commissioners' political campaigns. In 1997, for example, Simon Cruz received a combined total of $1500; David Dermer, $1000; Mayor Neisen Kasdin, $1100. In her 1995 campaign, Susan Gottlieb received $1400.
Not surprisingly, when FPE appeared on the scene earlier this year, the towing companies called on their high-powered lobbyist, the same man who serves as their attorney: former Miami Beach Mayor Harold Rosen. Over the past four months, Rosen has aggressively lobbied city staff and commissioners who favor strict booting rules -- and to considerable effect.
Commissioners Liebman, Gottlieb, and Dermer all have explicitly asked City Attorney Murray Dubbin whether the city can simply outlaw booting. His reply: No, but you can regulate it.
"As far as necessary evils go, the towing companies certainly serve a function," says Dermer. "With the booting companies, I don't see what purpose they serve. I've heard arguments from both parties, and I haven't seen a compelling reason to encourage this business. It's just bad for the public. It's too heavy-handed an approach. There has to be a certain level of civility." (Gottlieb could not be reached for comment for this story.)
Dermer asserts that the primary damage to the public is that a parking space is not freed up when a car is booted. But FPE boots only on private property, at the request of the property or business owner. Nevertheless Dermer says that business owners should want the cars removed. "By booting a car, you're keeping it there even longer," he reasons. "I just don't see the rationale."
In hopes of counteracting the formidable influence of Rosen and the towing companies, FPE hired Al Cardenas, a prominent Miami attorney and vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. To date, Cardenas's arguments haven't seemed to carry much weight. For a new amendment or ordinance to pass, the commission must vote in favor of it twice, once on first reading and again on second reading. At least one public hearing must be held at one of these readings. Throughout this process, commissioners can request changes. As the booting issue wound its way through this process, new amendments kept being added -- each one of which would further hinder the feasibility of running a booting business in Miami Beach. And yet, as the proposed revisions to the existing ordinance progressed, each amendment made life progressively tougher for booters.
If passed on September 9 in its current form, the ordinance would
*eliminate rebates from booters to clients
*lower the price of booting from $75 to $25
*require booters to pay the city $10 of each $25 as an "administrative fee"
*require businesses that hire booters to obtain an occupational license
*prohibit the use of the words "parking," "enforcement," "police," or "department" by booting companies
*require booters to maintain a 24-hour, on-site employee at every private lot of 26 spaces or more in order to remove boots immediately
*require a twenty-minute response time for those smaller lots left unattended
*establish fines and criminal penalties for any violation of these rules
The city, in sum, is proposing to cut FPE's revenues from $75 to $15 per boot while at the same time adopting a raft of stringent requirements.
Neither Miami-Dade County nor any other municipality within it has enacted any ordinances to regulate booting on private property. In Miami Beach, however, the proposed ordinance passed by unanimous vote on its first reading. Commissioner Nancy Liebman proposed the original ordinance; the subsequent amendments appeared at the request of commissioners Gottlieb, Dermer, and Jose Smith. The amendments themselves sprang from the word processors of parking director Jackie Gonzalez (who administers the city's towing contracts with Beach and Tremont and is not related to Edwin Gonzalez, owner of Tremont), Deputy City Attorney Bob Dixon, and City Manager Sergio Rodriguez. The commission declined to vote on the ordinance at the second reading on July 15 and tabled the matter until September 9, the first meeting after the commission's summer break.
Mayor Neisen Kasdin helped delay the vote until September. "I felt that, as it was, it created an uneven playing field in favor of towing," Kasdin says. "Certainly we want to regulate any possible excesses with respect to booting, but the regulations should be no more or less onerous than those that apply to towing. The effect of [the current amendments] would be to run the booters out of town."
Kasdin notes that the requirement to keep someone on-site 24 hours per day at large private lots struck him as particularly inequitable. Still, the whole package of amendments, he adds, enjoyed "broad support" at the last commission meeting.
Al Cardenas is firm in his belief that the ordinance as written is unconstitutional, and he has drafted a letter to that effect to City Attorney Dubbin. "I suggested at one public hearing that this should be called the Towing Industry Relief Act of 1998," Cardenas says. "Government is not supposed to guarantee business success. Government is supposed to regulate industry when it's in the best interest of the people it serves, but not for the purposes of one industry over another."
This would not be the first time Beach and Tremont have helped run a booting company out of town. Back in 1996 a company called Universal Parking Enforcement joined the Miami Beach parking fray. UPE had contracts to operate on only a couple of lots, but one of them was a doozy: the Hyde Park supermarket on Fifth Street and Collins Avenue, which had formerly contracted with Beach Towing. Given this lot's proximity to Ocean Drive, it is a magnet for illegal parking.
Universal charged $95 to release a boot from an illegally parked car, the same fee Beach and Tremont charge to release a towed car from their storage lots. Hyde Park liked the results. Attorney Lisa Cicero testified before the city commission in September 1996 on behalf of the supermarket chain. "[Hyde Park] tried hiring the [Beach] towing company, but the response time was inadequate," she said. "Since Universal Parking has been monitoring this lot, Hyde Park customer complaints have declined because the availability of parking spaces is more predictable. Business has picked up tremendously."
Beach Towing's business took a hit because of Hyde Park's decision, and the company responded by sending Harold Rosen before the city commission.
Rosen correctly identified the most obvious difference between the booting and towing businesses: Towing companies are prohibited by state statute from giving money to private property owners for whom they tow. Booting companies are not restricted in that way, and Rosen noted before the commission that Universal routinely gave Hyde Park twenty dollars of each booting charge it collected.
Which was part of what Rosen saw as a larger problem: Universal was operating without any type of city regulation, whereas the towing companies had to abide by state statutes, city ordinances, and their contracts with the city. At Rosen's urging, the city crafted an ordinance in 1997 to regulate booting that lowered the price per booting to $75, and placed other restrictions on the business.
Universal, though, never had a chance to operate under the new booting rules. WSVN-TV (Channel 7) aired a story that fall showing booters at the Hyde Park hiding in the bushes while waiting for people to walk out of the lot; if the people went anywhere but straight into the market, the booters would immediately slap on the boot.
Universal had other problems. An employee, Italo Arias, was arrested after a fistfight with a bootee. (Arias currently works for FPE; the misdemeanor charges against him are pending.) Also an officer of the company turned out to have a criminal record in New York.
At the time, Ralph Andrade was an employee of the biggest booting company in New York City. He heard about the problems Universal was having in Miami Beach and agreed to try salvaging the situation. In September 1996 he joined the company as president. Quickly he realized that between the police reports, Channel 7, and the lobbying might of Rosen, Universal didn't have a prayer. "With all the negative publicity," he recalls, "I thought it would be best to go away for a while and let the dust settle." So in December 1996 he closed up shop.
The city, for its part, passed the booting ordinance last year, even though no one was booting. (The towing companies have offered booting to their clients since 1995, according to Beach Towing owner Mark Festa, though no one has ever requested it.)
But Andrade still believed a private-property booting business could make a go of it in Miami Beach. So earlier this year he formed Florida Parking Enforcement with his old boss from New York, Moshe Saidon, and New York attorney Lawrence Carra. In April he met with Miami Beach Deputy City Attorney Bob Dixon to make sure that "all our ducks were in order." Dixon confirms this meeting, the substance of which was to make sure that FPE conformed to the city ordinance.
Andrade was pleasantly surprised at the positive response from prospective new clients. "They were like, 'Booting sounds better than towing. And I don't have to deal with Beach or Tremont? Where do I sign?'" The early list of contracts included Boston Market on Alton Road, ArtCenter/South Florida, and a handful of small hotels on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue -- all of which, of course, were former Beach or Tremont accounts. FPE began operating in April.
"Two weeks later," Andrade recalls, "all our signs were down." Andrade complained of the theft to police on May 9. According to the police report, "[Andrade] stated that one of his employees was warned by a Beach tow truck driver that his signs would be missing by today, and that a Tremont tow truck was seen in the lots of the above."
Unwilling to wait for the police to investigate the towing companies, which Andrade knew held the police towing contract, he hired a private investigator. And that, it turned out, proved to be a wise move.
Hugh Cochran points to the small color LCD screen attached to his camcorder. "The car's on the hook," he says, indicating the elevated rear end of a sleek, dark-green coupe. The Beach Towing truck driver who hooked the car in the Hyde Park lot appears on screen and stops at the front door of the car. "That's a Slim Jim the guy's got," Cochran narrates. "It's on a hook, but the brake is locked, so they have to burglarize the car."
Sure enough, the driver begins fishing around with the Slim Jim, trying to open the driver's door. "He's not being gentle," Cochran mutters. "And this is so much better than booting?"
Cochran, a retired FBI agent and long-time community activist in Hialeah, did his first work for FPE tracking down the missing signs. The result: Two witnesses, both hotel security guards, one of whom clearly saw a Tremont tow truck driver pull into the parking lot of the Casa Brunello Hotel on Ocean Drive and take down the FPE sign. That same guard talked to the driver, who he says "began to talk negatively about booting companies." The other security guard told Cochran that one of the two men in the Tremont truck said, "Our boss told us to pull down the signs," and that they "have been running the Beach for the last ten years." After this first encounter, Ralph Andrade realized he might need a whole lot more investigative work done, but he couldn't afford Cochran's fees.
Cochran spent 27 years with the FBI, most recently with the major crimes and domestic terrorism divisions. The more he learned about booting, and the towing monopoly on the Beach, the angrier he got. He and Andrade struck a deal, and in June Cochran joined FPE as chief executive officer.
Cochran, who spent early 1998 tracking down questionable absentee voters as part of Joe Carollo's successful bid to challenge last year's Miami mayoral election, calls his position with FPE "his latest windmill." He doesn't expect to get paid -- at least not for a while -- and if the company goes out of business, he won't get a cent.
But as he watches his own videotape of a Beach Towing driver jimmying open a door as three other Beach trucks hook up to illegally parked cars in the Hyde Park lot, he insists he's doing this because he believes in booting. "I'm sorry, but I get mad," says the graying, mustachioed 53-year-old, who retired from the Bureau in 1996. "Even if you booted this many cars, it would be better than what they're doing here." Cochran sees booting as a far more humane way of punishing someone who parks illegally, because the car is still there when the offender returns, instead of having been carted off to a storage lot.
The one criticism of booting he accepts is that it doesn't free up a parking space, but he argues that the sight of a booted car affixed with a sign stating it was booted for parking illegally acts as a deterrent to potential miscreants.
"Booting is the moral high ground," he declares, noting that the tapes he's made, showing four- or five-truck wolf packs descending on the Hyde Park lot, echo the Channel 7 expose of two years ago. "That behavior is predatory, whether it's being done by a booter or a towing company." He's laboring this point in hopes of jolting the Beach commission out of what he believes to be a blatant anti-booting bias, instilled both by Rosen's relentless lobbying and the bad press that accompanied the first round of booting two years ago.
Just as galling to Cochran, though, are the thuggish tactics he claims Beach and Tremont have used to sabotage FPE's operations. In addition to stealing signs, Cochran alleges, Beach and Tremont have harassed FPE clients by refusing to tow abandoned vehicles that mysteriously appear in their lots.
Boston Market, one of FPE's earliest accounts, eventually canceled its contract. Customer Jeffrey Saragosey became incensed when FPE employees interrupted his meal while trying to locate the owner of a car they were about to boot. He responded by tracking down FPE's corporate parent in New York and discovering the company no longer had a Manhattan booting license and had entered into a $5000 settlement agreement to pay off dozens of complainants. Saragosey subsequently brandished documentation of these complaints at a commission meeting; copies made their way to Beach and Tremont, to Rosen, and then to the commissioners.
Shortly after the Saragosey incident, an abandoned car appeared in the Boston Market parking lot and sat there for days. According to Andrade, both he and the manager of the restaurant, Wallace Ponder, called Beach Towing and asked them to remove the vehicle. According to Andrade, the company refused to do so unless Boston Market canceled its contract with FPE and re-signed with Beach. Tremont? Same deal, Andrade says. Rosen acknowledges that his clients declined to tow cars from "a couple" of lots that had signed contracts with FPE.
Restaurant manager Ponder would not comment for this story. "We're a company store," he says, and referred all calls to his supervisor, Jorge Llapur, who did not return calls.
"The abandoned car, yeah. That almost cost me my job," says Mark Alvarez, manager of the Casa Brunello Hotel. In April Alvarez signed a contract with FPE to boot in the hotel's twenty-space lot. Tremont Towing had been the previous contractor.
Shortly after signing with FPE, a derelict vehicle appeared in his lot. "It had enough dust on there that you could use a spatula to take it off," Alvarez recalls. "It was strange that a car should show up here abandoned, registered to a guy who lives all the way up in Hollywood. I called the towing company. They said they would come and remove the car only if we had a contract with them. They said, 'We'll come with a contract in hand. You sign the contract and we'll remove the car.' I said, 'Well, I don't want a contract with you. I have a contract with Florida Parking Enforcement and I don't want to negate that contract. I only want this one car removed.' They said, 'No, we'll only remove it if we have a signed contract.'"
Alvarez notes that Tremont showed no compunction about towing cars away during a period when his hotel was technically not under contract with them or FPE, and they towed those vehicles without being asked to do so. The cars, in fact, belonged to guests of the hotel. "When we called them up and told them it was a mistake, that [the guests] forgot to put their tag in the car and can you bring those cars back, they said, 'Only if you pay for it.' And of course we're not going to let our guests eat that bill. We ended up biting the bullet."
As for the abandoned car, it sat in the lot for nearly a month, angering Alvarez's boss with each passing day. Meanwhile, Ralph Andrade was trying another method to track down the vehicle's owner -- through the Miami Beach parking permit posted on the car. He called the Miami Beach Parking Department in hopes of discovering the name of the person to whom that permit had been issued. He never heard back from the parking department, but within a few days the car was gone. Alvarez stops short of accusing Tremont of dumping the car there, but his suspicions are clear.
Tremont attorney Harold Rosen is equally clear: "How the hell would anybody know where the cars came from? Are they saying we put 'em there? That's nonsense."
Harold Rosen's penthouse office at 407 Lincoln Rd. is a jumble of memorabilia. Two formations of antique warplanes line the walls. The World War I Spads, Fokkers, and DeHavillands appear poised to strafe the building across Lincoln Road, where Florida Parking Enforcement's modest office is located.
The 72-year-old Rosen is smoking Marlboro Reds as he sits with his leg hooked over the arm of the leather chair at his round conference table. He wears suit pants and a chambray shirt with a spray of colorful feathers embroidered over the left breast pocket. The white-haired lawyer is affable, grandfatherly.
Rosen portrays his clients, Beach and Tremont, as model corporate citizens whose de facto monopoly on Beach business is deserved. "We contribute to the community," he begins, speaking as though he is actually a partner in the businesses. "There isn't a charity that comes to us that we don't contribute to. We provide a service. We've been part of the community for twenty-some-odd years.
"Some people don't like us," he acknowledges. "They don't like towing. But we still contribute to the community. These booting companies, they don't contribute anything. They're down here to take what they can, and that's it basically."
As to the allegations of thuggery, Rosen is something less than contrite. "There was one case where there were some derelict cars in one of the lots," he ruminates. "I don't recall [which one]. But I remember an incident where there were some derelict cars, and they called us, and we wouldn't tow them."
"Because I think we were pissed off at the people about changing, to tell you the truth," he says with a chortle.
And what of the allegations that he's trying to politically muscle the booters out of town? "They're right!" he barks, laughing heartily.
"To me, booting is like trapping a wild animal," Rosen goes on. "When people see it, I think they become immediately enraged. They come up on their car and some big burly guy says, 'You want your car unbooted? That'll be $75 in cash.' Whether they take credit cards or not, I don't know. It's always cash." (In fact, FPE accepts credit cards and checks, as required by city ordinance. Rosen's clients accept cash or checks drawn on South Florida banks.)
Towing allows the offender a cool-down period, Rosen argues. "By the time they get over to the towing company, they've sort of calmed down a little bit," he says. "And then when they get to those windows, they sort of get enraged again. It's not a pretty sight. It's a necessary thing, but it's not the greatest thing in the world."
He notes that "city tows" (those from public property) are down by half this year, which he attributes to a "laissez-faire" attitude on the part of the city. City parking director Jackie Gonzalez confirms this, but what Rosen calls "laissez-faire" she calls "kinder and gentler." Her parking officers are under orders to write tickets but to call for fewer tows.
"That's dangerous," Rosen warns. "If you don't tow cars out of alleyways, it can really affect the health, welfare, and safety of your citizens, in case of fires or anything else."
Rosen insists that "other tow companies can come to the Beach to tow cars. We have a contract with the city for city tows and police tows. But private people, if they want to have other people come and tow their cars, they can do it."
But not unless those other companies have a storage lot within the city limits, right?
Do any other companies have a storage facility within the city limits?
"No, they do not," he says, then guffaws. "There's no ifs or ands about that!"
Nor is Rosen shy about discussing his lobbying efforts. He says he communicated with several commissioners, the parking department, and the city manager's office during the fashioning of the booting amendments.
Edwin Gonzalez of Tremont Towing declined to be interviewed for this story. When Mark Festa appeared in Harold Rosen's office for an interview (all cufflinks and slicked-back, thinning hair), he brought a tin of chocolate-chip cookies from Joe Allen restaurant and some terse responses on the subject of booting.
His main problem with the two booting companies that have come to the Beach is that they can charge only twenty dollars less than he does but his overhead is astronomically higher than theirs. "If I could charge nine times what they charged, that would be fair," he says.
Festa realizes that nobody likes to be towed or booted, but he sees the tow-away method as the best solution for dealing with private lots. "People don't want confrontations on their property," he observes. "At our lots we have off-duty police to defuse confrontations. We have incidents here and there, but not many." Ofcr. Ambrose Sims, who patrols that area and works off-duty at Beach Towing one day per week, has been involved in at least three scuffles there, one of which resulted in his charging a woman with assault with a deadly weapon. (She was found guilty of a lesser charge.) Between April and July of this year, Miami Beach Police responded to 60 disturbance calls from Beach Towing and 87 from Tremont Towing.
"We do offer booting, and we have since 1995," Festa adds. "And not one contract has requested it. If booting is so great, why don't our clients ask us for it? Because we're on a small island, and parking is tough. People prefer to have cars removed from their property. Booting ties up the parking space, and it's not a deterrent."
He feels that the proposed changes to the booting ordinance will eliminate the unfair advantage Florida Parking Enforcement currently enjoys. At $25 per boot, he insists, "I think they can make money on this thing if they want to hustle."
Festa recalls the abandoned car at Boston Market but says his company's refusal to tow it without a contract was not out of spite, as Rosen had stated. "There's a state statute that prohibits us from doing that," Festa claims. (He's wrong. According to Deputy City Attorney Bob Dixon, if a property owner asks Beach or Tremont to tow a car from his property, the companies are free to do so, with or without a contract.)
Contrary to Festa's assertions, FPE's clients seem on the whole quite pleased with booting.
Thus far, ArtCenter's Dan Weitendorf says, he likes the idea of the boot and the way Andrade and Cochran's company has used it. There have been only one or two bootings per day on his lot, he notes, which confirms the deterrent effect Andrade had mentioned during the sales pitch.
FPE gets similar good reviews from its other clients. Nazir Gilani, owner of the San Juan Hotel on Collins Avenue, says FPE is doing a "very good job" with the nine spaces near his hotel. "Considering what the tourists tell me," Gilani says, "people would rather have the boot put on than get their car towed away and think it had been stolen."
Things also seem to be running smoothly at FPE's one lot in the City of Miami. "For us booting is a better solution," says Geoff Jackson of the 3300 Rice Street Trust, which has a 22-space lot outside a mixed office and retail building in Coconut Grove. "[FPE's employees] are pleasant, even though they've got an unpleasant task to perform. I recommend them with no hesitation."
"Apparently most of the outrage against booting is coming from Mr. Rosen and the Miami Beach City Commission," ventures ArtCenter's Weitendorf.
Rosen argues that the only way booting companies have developed any customer loyalty is by buying it. In the case of ArtCenter, he recalls speaking to "the lady there" (Jane Gilbert). "I said, 'Why did you cancel the contract?' She said, 'The booting company gave us $5000 to boot on our lot!' They gave it to them cash! They supposedly said it was a donation for cultural things, you know, which is a laugh. They gave 'em five Gs! I said, 'Really?' Well, all these cultural and arts things are short of money, and I said, 'Listen, I can't blame you, but it's sort of unfair.'"
Weitendorf heard Rosen make this very assertion in front of the city commission. "He told the commission we'd gotten $5000. So far we've received one check for $400," Weitendorf states flatly. "Mr. Rosen needs to check his facts a lot better before he goes spouting off. He is woefully misinformed." Weitendorf adds that he and Rosen have spoken and that Rosen assured him he was going to drive the booting company off the Beach.
For the moment, FPE is hanging in there. But it hasn't been easy.
Several weeks ago, for instance, Ralph Andrade returned to FPE's office, a sliver of space in the 420 Lincoln Road building, only to find that the doorknob had been encased in a Kee-Blok, a metal cap often used by landlords to keep evicted tenants out of their former digs. This was not the doing of Andrade's landlord, however. The group claiming responsibility was "Florida Anti-scumbag/Anti-greedmonger Enforcement, Inc."
The irony of the joke was obvious enough: The booter's office got booted. But the humor was lost on Andrade. The slight, 28-year-old New York City native pursed his lips as if he'd just bitten into something bitter as he read the red-lettered, laser-printed sheet of paper taped to the door. "Warning: This office has been 'immobilized,' and any attempt to enter may cause difficulties. For release call 305-471-0404, x 1."
That phone number turned out to be Al Sunshine's Shame on You hotline at WFOR-TV (Channel 4). But Al Sunshine had nothing to do this prank. Nor, Andrade is convinced, was the lockout the work of some citizen outraged at having a big yellow boot slapped on his car.
His best guess is that the people responsible were the ones who have a clear financial interest in ruining his business, the ones who have used political persuasion and juvenile sabotage to pursue that end since he arrived in Miami Beach five months ago. "In my opinion?" he said, folding his arms wearily. "I'd say it was a gofer for the towing companies. Call it an educated guess.
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