For years, Miami Beach's towing industry has had a dodgy reputation. The city's two major players — Beach Towing and Tremont Towing — have been accused of charging drivers bogus flatbed fees, forcing people to pay their bills in cash, and benefiting from confusing or misleading parking signage.
Naturally, the city investigates those companies every now and then. But earlier this year, when City of Miami Beach auditors were wrapping up a report that detailed where the businesses lacked compliance, the towing industry pitched a fit. Ralph Andrade, a lobbyist and lawyer for the companies, somehow persuaded the City Commission to scrap the audit and start fresh with a third-party auditing company. Not everyone was happy about that decision — the city's own mayor, Dan Gelber, said as much in June.
"I've never seen an audit being done where the guys being audited said, 'We're preliminarily so unhappy we want a new auditor,'" Gelber said at the June 5 commission meeting. "It's just — it's weird."
After the city handed over the job of auditing Beach Towing and Tremont Towing to a third party, New Times requested a copy of the audit performed by City of Miami Beach employees. But the city's attorneys denied New Times' request because they argued the city's audit was not subject to disclosure.
So this past November 4, New Times filed a public records lawsuit against Miami Beach. And November 14, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria de Jesus Santovenia ruled in New Times' favor, saying the city should release the audit to the public.
But instead of simply turning over the towing report, city attorneys have appealed the judge's decision in an attempt to keep residents in the dark. Miami Beach's lawyers have even argued that if the judge's order stands — that the city must, in fact, release the audit — it would set a "highly dangerous and problematic" precedent.
Rather than fighting for residents' right to know, the city's lawyers say making the audit public "will result in significant, irreparable damage" to the towing companies.
While the Florida Sunshine Law mandates that public record lawsuits go to court immediately, there is no such requirement when a decision is appealed, meaning it could take weeks or months for the courts to reach a final determination. Barbara Peterson, the formidable president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, says "access delayed can be access denied."
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"[If] they won't give you the records and you sue them and win, and they appeal knowing it could be several months or a year before you get an appeal decision, that's one way to obstruct access," she says.
Peterson also points out that in the likely scenario the city ultimately loses its case against New Times, taxpayer dollars would be used to cover all of the attorneys' fees.
"If I was a resident, I'd be asking, 'Why did you appeal? Why are you spending more of our money?'" Peterson says.
As of now, no further hearings have been scheduled in the case. New Times will continue to fight for public access to the city's original towing audit.