Fueling the Feud

A recently released report commissioned by Miami Beach police and development officials that addresses disorder on the streets of South Beach contains a section titled "Whining." It refers to owners and managers of SoBe nightclubs, whom the author -- a Washington, D.C. consultant -- characterizes as chronic complainers unwilling to follow city law.

The results of the study were presented at a September 2 public meeting by Rob Teir, president of the Center for Livable Cities. The city and clubs have long blamed each other for mayhem on the streets of the nightclub district, especially on weekend nights, and have bickered over the best means to control it. The report did nothing to improve relations.

South Beach at night gives the impression of "being out of control"; visitors are encouraged not just to enjoy themselves but to "be as wild as they want to be," Teir wrote in his 37-page study. He calls for the city to crack down on people, including the homeless, who clog sidewalks and streets; raise the age for nightclub admission to 21; lock Dumpsters to end foraging; and increase the number of police. The city commission may use his recommendations to help write new ordinances.

City leaders applaud Teir's report. "I think he did a good job," says Assistant Police Chief Jim Scarberry. The police department used funds confiscated from criminals, mainly drug dealers, to pay $8000 of Teir's $10,000 fee. The Miami Beach Community Development Corporation (MBCDC) paid the rest from a state grant. "It reinforced our position that ground rules have to be laid and followed," says Scarberry.

The club owners don't applaud. A major complaint concerns the report's tone, which they find offensive. "To accuse the club owners of whining shows a tremendous irresponsibility and insensitivity," remarks Steve Polisar, an attorney who represents club owners. "It's arrogant and based on a lack of knowledge of the history here. If the commissioners had gotten out into the club scene, which they never do -- if they had been out there doing their jobs -- they wouldn't have had to hire somebody from the outside and pay him good money to tell them the same things we have been telling them for a long time."

Polisar and other members of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, which represents club owners and other business people, say Teir's hiring had more to do with politics than fact-finding. "They brought this guy in because they wanted more leverage to make decisions that will affect the clubs," says David Kelsey. As president of the association, Kelsey has been an ardent supporter of the club owners' right to participate in the decision-making process. Further, he contends the city wants to use Teir's report to justify taxing Washington Avenue businesses.

To some, Teir is a modern urban version of the Western marshal, albeit without a gun. He has been hired all over the country to help clean up the streets. He is an attorney whose consulting firms have participated in drafting anti-panhandling ordinances in cities including Atlanta, Phoenix, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Along the way he has gained a mean reputation with homeless advocates. Polisar is not the first to call him insensitive.

"Yes, we know of him," says Laurel Weir, policy director of the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness in Washington, D.C. "His attitude toward the homeless is punitive."

Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor and expert on issues of homelessness, says Teir takes a yuppie attitude. "His business is writing anti-homeless propaganda and dealing with communities that want to handle homelessness in its aesthetic dimension -- what the well-to-do see on the street -- rather than deal with its human dimension and possible solutions to it."

Robert Doggett, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern Texas in Dallas, has encountered Teir's work in the past. "In this guy's lexicon 'personal responsibility' means 'I don't give a shit about the other guy's problem,'" he says.

Homeless advocate Olga Golik, who attended Teir's presentation, was similarly unimpressed by the consultant. She contends Teir's recommendation to send the homeless from Miami Beach to the Homeless Assistance Center in Miami is impossible. "He had his facts wrong," says Golik, director of the Douglas Gardens Community Mental Health Center in Miami Beach. "And he didn't name the services we have here. His solutions seem boilerplate."

Teir counterattacks: "They may be well-intentioned, but the efforts of homeless activists over the years have failed. Lots of money has been spent and people are still on the streets. Those people should not be encouraged to remain on the street, feeding their addictions.... There should be standards of conduct on those streets, and not two different standards, either, one for the homeless and one for everyone else. I don't think it's harsh to ask that someone not lie on the sidewalk."

Beach leaders have endorsed not only Teir's suggested policy on the homeless, but also his advice about clubs that encourage disorder. "His message is that he is trying to give the streets in urban areas back to all the citizens, which will better help develop those areas," says Ronnie Singer, assistant to the city manager. It was Singer who first heard Teir speak last September in New York City at a meeting of the International Downtown Association, an organization of urban planners. She recommended the Beach hire him. "I consider myself a compassionate person, and Rob is also. All Rob is saying is that there are basic rules of public conduct and certain laws that should be followed by individuals, clubs, whoever. We're not trying to put anybody out of business."

Teir insists that club owners deserve to be called whiners. In March, when the city issued late-night orders to four clubs to begin serving food within 30 days or else close down, owners became irate. Before that directive, many clubs had operated for years without kitchen facilities. Teir has no sympathy. "They sought licenses to operate clubs and those licenses stipulate they have to serve food," says Teir. "If they have gotten away for six years or more without doing it, that's good for them. But it doesn't mean they are entitled to get away with it forever. Complaining about it is whining."

Jeff Bechdel, marketing director of the MBCDC, helped arrange financial support for the Teir report. "We felt he had a good urban perspective and a good understanding of our community," says Bechdel. "I agree he shouldn't have titled the whole section on club owners 'Whining.' When they don't want to follow the laws, that's one thing, but we recognize they have other complaints."

Bechdel also admitted that Teir made some mistakes, largely because he spent only four days on the Beach researching the report, two days in April and and two in May. But Bechdel backs its general conclusions.

Assistant Police Chief Scarberry says he doesn't believe the report was slanted in favor of the police department and the MBCDC solely because they paid for it. He and Bechdel point out that Teir took the city to task for not keeping Washington Avenue clean, fixing sidewalks, or carrying out other beautification projects that club owners have requested. Teir also criticized the city for granting too many club and bar licenses on Washington Avenue -- 36 in all -- without also providing the needed auxiliary services, such as extra police officers.

But Polisar says those criticisms are insufficient: "The city has gotten smug. They are forgetting who brought them to the dance, who invested the money that brought people back here in the first place. It wasn't anybody who came for a few days from Washington.

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John Lantigua

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