Miami Beach's two major two companies — Beach Towing and Tremont Towing — sure have been busy this year. Last month, they deployed lobbyists to Tallahassee to encourage state lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it nearly impossible for drivers to sue operators that illegally tow cars. Now, Ralph Andrade, a registered lobbyist for Beach Towing who has also worked for Tremont, is fighting to stop a Miami Beach audit allegedly showing rampant violations by the two companies.
This past Wednesday, Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora sponsored a discussion about the city's audit at a meeting of the Neighborhood/Community Affairs Committee. Góngora said he was trying to "depoliticize" the situation by having an outside auditor do the investigation — which is exactly what the towing companies want.
Every few years, City of Miami Beach staffers audit the behaviors of local towing companies to ensure residents and visitors aren't being ripped off. The latest audit is expected to be released next week, and, apparently, the findings are not favorable to the towing industry. Though the draft report is not a public record, Andrade said he takes issue with the metrics used in an advanced copy he was provided by city staff. He offered to pay for an outside audit after claiming the city's report is "politically motivated."
"We feel this is a sham," Andrade told the committee. "They fabricate numbers, they manipulate the data, and it’s wholly inappropriate."
Those comments were only the beginning of a heated, hourlong discussion that included one resident yelling that the commission can be bribed and another likening the towing industry to the New York Mafia.
"[Andrade] stands here like he owns this, because you know what? He does," resident Rosa Gonzalez said.
John Deutzman, a former TV reporter who runs a local vigilante crime-fighting group, decried the towing companies' predatory methods of pouncing on cars minutes after they're parked and charging drivers hefty ATM fees. "Growing up in Long Island — I don't want to go any further — that’s a little bit sketchy."
Commissioners Góngora and John Alemán were both in favor of appeasing Andrade by allowing a third party to perform the audit. But others on the committee weren't so sure. Newly appointed Commissioner Joy Malakoff said there was no reason the committee should even be having the discussion and stated her support for letting the final report come out as intended.
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"It’s being politicized for no good reason except that Mr. Andrade has politicized it," she said.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian was also skeptical about the idea of punting the audit. "It's sort of like the game is in the third quarter, maybe, and now someone is saying, 'We’re not sure we like the results,' but we can't really see what the results are, so I don't know how to judge whether that’s a fair complaint or not, and now we're trying to make a policy decision.' That doesn't sound right to me," Samuelian said.
Moreover, City Attorney Raul Aguila said letting the towing industry pay for a third-party audit could set a precedent whereby any entity being audited by the city could make a similar request. "I'm concerned about that precedent," he said, adding these kind of audits happen every day. "Audits don't make findings as to whether towing is good or towing is bad. These are based on facts."
The committee decided without a formal vote to let the full city commission make the decision on whether an independent audit is necessary at a future meeting. As of now, the city's final audit is expected to be completed next week; the towing companies will then have 30 days to respond.