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Miami Beach Voters Will Decide on 2 a.m. Last Call After Judge Tosses Bars' Lawsuit

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Miami Beach is two very different towns for two very different groups of people. The large class of wealthy residents lives in glitzy towers along the beach and casually drinks chablis at five-star restaurants the rest of us can't afford. Many Miami Beach tourists, however, are poor or middle-class, and many of them visit the barrier island to wear flip-flops and drink until they black out. The two groups, its fair to say, don't always get along in South Beach.

On November 7, residents will choose which class their town is geared toward. City officials claim a crime wave has beset Ocean Drive (though crime data doesn't back up this point), so they want the city to vote on whether to roll back last call from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. Naturally, bar owners hate this plan and sued the city at the end of July to try to stop the vote.

This week, that bid failed. Monday, a county judge threw out the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of Mango's Tropical Cafe, Pelican, the Carlyle, and some of the iconic street's other large restaurants and bars. Now the fate of Ocean Drive rests in the hands of city voters.

The bar owners claimed the city referendum violates Miami Beach's charter, because alcohol sales are typically governed by city land-use boards. County Circuit Judge Dennis J. Murphy didn't buy that argument and instead insinuated the bar owners were interfering with fair elections by filing the suit.

"The remedy Plaintiffs seek is an extraordinary one that runs counter to 'a strong public policy against courts interfering in the democratic process of elections,'" Murphy wrote, quoting a legal case from 1992.

According to Murphy's order, the bar owners' complaints were bunk. He said the city charter gives commissioners the right to put "any measure" up for a public vote. Because the city commission has the power to restrict alcohol sales, Murphy says the law clearly lets the public vote on the measure next month. He threw out the lawsuit and closed the case. The bar owners now have 30 days to appeal.

Before the suit, a public referendum was seen as a compromise. Beach residents, business owners, and city officials all have wildly different ideas about how Ocean Drive ought to look, sound, smell, and be regulated. The referendum was pitched as the best way to bring those disparate interests together, especially because the city commission is often accused of being too friendly to wealthy residents and developers and generally hating the fun and debauchery that make SoBe a party destination. A referendum was seen as the most democratic way to handle the dispute.

But questions remain about whether rolling back liquor sales will be either effective or necessary. There's no disputing that Ocean Drive has morphed into a loud, raucous tourist trap full of awful restaurants and people slinging cocaine from backpacks. But whether things really ought to change is another discussion entirely. ("Keep Ocean Drive Tacky," former New Times writer Kyle Munzenrieder implored in 2015.)

Most important, city officials don't even agree whether a crime problem even exists in town generally or on Ocean Drive specifically. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data, Miami Beach's crime rate was 1.5 times higher in the cocaine-fueled '80s than it is today. Rates of "major crime" (murder, rape, burglary, larceny, assault, robbery, etc.) continue to drop and fell more than 3 percent from 2015 to 2016.

In June, Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates pushed back against accusations that Ocean Drive is an out-of-control wasteland: His department released stats that show crime has dropped steadily in the Ocean Drive patrol area every year since 2013 and took a steep nosedive in 2016 and the first half of 2017.

(That being said, the city indeed has a comparatively high property-crime rate because thieves and drug dealers tend to target tourists.)

Moreover, a study the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) released in September claims the ban will be nothing short of catastrophic for the city. (The FRLA represents bars such as Mango's, so take the claims with a grain of salt.) The study says the rollback could cost $340 million in sales, cause a $1.7 billion drop in property values, kill 5,500 jobs, and suck $20 million per year from state tax revenues. The study also claims the three-hour rollback isn't targeting the heart of the alleged Beach crime wave — most police calls on the street occur from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

But no matter the negatives, Beach officials have marched forward with their proposals, sometimes blatantly throwing facts and basic human decency to the wind. Commissioner Kristin Rosen Gonzalez, who is running for Congress, was forced to apologize after she was outed saying that, in order to fix the alleged crime problem, cops should be "given back their bullets" and ostensibly be allowed to kill more criminals.

There are also signs that city officials don't plan to stop with Ocean Drive. After a shooting outside Purdy Lounge in nearby Sunset Harbour, Miami Beach threatened to roll back the bar's closing time by three hours too.

Now the only people standing between Miami Beach and major cultural change are voters — who, come November, could usher in a very different era in the city's nightlife scene.

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