Them's the Rules

In October a Miami Beach code compliance officer cited the chamber of commerce for a problem with its buildings. "I went out and looked at what he was talking about," says chamber president Bruce Singer. "It had to do with peeling paint, a small spot that could be fixed with a spray can in about a minute. I don't know why anyone would write a ticket about something that small. Why not just walk in and tell us about it? But we've been cited four times in the past year. The code officers aren't acting like public servants, they are acting like soldiers."

If those city workers are soldiers, their general is code compliance director Al Childress. Some Beach merchants are asking for his head. Since taking over the job in 1996, Childress has drawn fire for enforcement actions, especially against nightclubs and restaurants. For example:

*On July 25, 1997, code compliance officers confiscated tables and chairs outside the Sango Sushi (now Sushi Siam) restaurant at 647 Lincoln Rd. They alleged the proprietor did not have the requisite insurance. The raid occurred at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday, prime time for South Beach eateries. The move distressed other Lincoln Road restaurant owners, who protested that the very public action was terrible for business. "Why didn't they do it on a Monday morning?" asks David Kelsey, who is president of the South Beach Restaurant and Hotel Association. "[Childress] should have lost his job right then." The restaurant eventually changed ownership and the insurance is now paid.

*First in 1997 and then more recently, officers cited the Living Room nightclub on Washington Avenue for placing balloons outside its entrance. "Balloons! How can they give you a ticket for balloons?" asks Didier Milon, part-owner of the club. "What harm are you doing to put balloons outside for a night? It is crazy." On both occasions the city gave Milon three days to remove the balloons and he complied. "But why write those violations in the first place?" he gripes. "It is a way to justify the salaries they are paid."

*Soon after midnight on April 11, 1998, officers descended on four extremely popular South Beach nightclubs: Groove Jet, Lua, Salvation, and Warsaw. They ticketed the clubs for not operating kitchens. Each was ordered to install food preparation equipment within 30 days or be shut down. Though all had operated for years without such facilities, the inspectors invoked a previously unenforced law. After an outcry from many club owners, enforcement was put on hold while authorities reviewed the situation.

*The latest conflict arose when the city enforced another heretofore ignored regulation. On October 5 officers cited many sidewalk cafes for leaving tables, chairs, and plants on the street at night. Some owners complained because the planters weigh hundreds of pounds. Others said they had nowhere to store the furniture. Given 24 hours to conform or be fined, the proprietors howled. Their cries reached Mayor Neisen Kasdin, whom the hotel and restaurant association supported in last November's election. (He is expected to run again next year.)

On October 12 Kasdin sent a memo to City Manager Sergio Rodriguez. He wrote: "Once again the wrong approach has been taken in dealing with an issue, the end result of which is making it more difficult and less friendly for businesses in this community.... This is another example of a complete lack of common sense, judgment, and appropriate discretion in enforcement of our city ordinances."

The mayor recommended alternatives, such as sending letters reminding sidewalk cafe owners of the requirements. He told Rodriguez that because so many cafes do not comply with the law, the city administration should "review the situation before issuing any notice of violation."

"To have blanket 'sweeps' resulting in citations being issued to legitimate, responsible business people is totally offensive," Kasdin continued. "Businesses trying to comply should be talked to ... before citations are issued." Then the mayor threatened to take the matter before the city commission. "I have reached the end of my rope on this issue."

Childress refused to comment on the memo but he gladly admits to being a civil servant who follows the letter of the law. "If the law is on the books, we enforce it and we enforce it for everybody," he insists. Moreover, a review of the past year's Miami Beach code enforcement cases reveals an interesting roster of violators: rapper Luther Campbell, former Miami Dolphin defensive back Louis Oliver, mayoral candidate David Pearlson, the Talmudic University of Florida, and more.

"The moment you start leaving it up to inspectors whether they should write violations or not, you are inviting corruption," warns Childress, "and we don't want the kind of situation they have in the City of Miami." He was referring to criminal charges filed this past week against three Miami zoning consultants (and a police investigation of the alleged involvement of two code enforcement board members) for shaking down a Little Havana businessman.

Childress defended himself and his officers in each case mentioned by his critics: The Sango Sushi owner had ignored warnings and fines. The sidewalk cafe operators had received adequate warning, starting in May, that they had to take their furniture in at night. He also insists that his department must cite all violators to avoid accusations of selective enforcement.

Childress shrugs when asked if he is worried about his job. Before working for the Beach, he enforced county building codes for fifteen years. "I was chief enforcement officer for the building and zoning department when Hurricane Andrew hit," he says. "I've walked into a room of 150 people who lost their homes to Andrew and then got ripped off by contractors. They wanted to take my head off." Compared to that the Beach job is peaceful, he says.

Childress has his defenders, including Stephanie Saulter, business manager for Island Outpost, a firm that owns six properties on the Beach including the Tides Hotel. "I agree that suddenly enforcing an ordinance is a bad way of opening a discussion," she says. "But I find once you begin to talk to Al Childress about interpreting the code, he is reasonable and helpful. I'm certainly not calling for his head."

Childress insists his critics can get relief through the city commission. "The chamber is an organization that can work to change certain ordinances if it feels that is necessary," he says. "That is what they should do."

Singer says the chamber is working to defend its members' interests. He got Childress to throw out the citation for peeling paint and has helped to quash others' tickets. But he thinks many citations should not have been written in the first place. Singer agrees with Childress that individual code compliance officers should not have discretion on enforcement. "But that discretion has to come from the department head [Childress] or the city manager [Rodriguez]" So far it hasn't, he says. "Right now the appearance is that the city is out to hurt business. What we need is common sense and we're not getting any."

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John Lantigua

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