By David Arthur Walters
The raucous Tuesday Breakfast Club on May 9, 2012, made it evident that the most vocal of Miami Beach residents are fed up with all aspects of the administration of “Boss” Jorge Gonzalez, which they feel has been an inequitable operation from top to bottom for a dozen years, particularly in the selection of favored developers and contractors for major projects, unfair permitting processes, selective enforcement of ordinances and codes, and retaliatory measures taken against anyone who complains.
Indeed, it seems the chief complaint was that no one with anything at stake would dare to complain. Fear and intimidation was the rule, at least until the FBI moved in with a few arrests. That and its continuing investigation have restored hope that justice would finally be done.
The members of the Tuesday Breakfast Club are anyone who wants to show up for meetings. They were patient to begin with, allowing the city manager to present his program for dealing with the corruption crisis: Create a partnership with the FBI; install an inspector general; get training from the Miami Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust; appoint an independent auditor; consult with a former U.S. attorney; appoint a cop who is a lawyer as director of Code Enforcement; oblige city employees to rat on each other and officials.
Almost everyone was all ready aware of the reforms he would propose. A flyer handed out in advance deemed them a joke at best.
Instead of asking questions about his proposal, people started complaining about their bad experiences with the administration. David Kelsey, the moderator of the meeting, grabbed the microphone and demanded voluntary good order in lieu of appointing a sergeant-of-arms. A mainstream media outlet would later report that police officers were rushed in at that point to protect Mayor Matti Herrera Bower from tumult, but that claim, prompted by an attendee’s remark about her police escort, was absurd inasmuch as the mayor was casually sitting in the crowd, cheerfully chatting with her constituents, who were not about to lynch her. After all, she is just the mayor of a weak mayor system; they wanted at the city manager, to rake him over the coals, to grill and devour him for breakfast.
Mr. Kelsey insisted that any complaints should be aired at the commission meeting on the morrow, to be held on the subject of dismissing the city manager, and that the breakfast proceeding would be limited to asking questions; therefore no statements were to be made. But then a gentleman recognized on the floor began to make a nice statement; to wit, that the manager’s proposal made good sense. That did not sit well at all with the audience.
“Ask a question!” someone angrily shouted.
He was not to be shouted down. He reiterated his unseemly compliment, and then started complaining about the Building Department. To wit, he had been trying to get a permit to do something with his building but he was impeded by the Building Department’s wretched rules and procedures.
“What is the question? That’s a statement!” someone else exclaimed.
But he continued talking about the complexities of the Building Department. I could see that he wanted to drive a stake into the very heart of the corruption but was prevented from doing so because he felt he should play nice because he still feared the retaliation he referenced in gentlemanly fashion. I shall not mention his name here lest I somehow contribute to his failure to get the permit he desires.
“Ask a question!”
It occurred to me that the illustrious members of the Tuesday Breakfast Club had forgotten Professor R.G. Collingwood’s lesson, that the flip side of a statement is a question, and vice versa. Instead of complaining about the dirty laundry at the Building Department, the gentleman might have asked if the manager intended to install a clothesline in that department; which is the same thing as saying there is some dirty laundry there that needs to be washed and hung out to dry. Or he might just ask how to get a permit given the confounded situation.
“I will answer his question,” I loudly declared, and determined to do so even though someone immediately tried to shout me down. I felt I had a perfect right to answer the gentleman’s question, put in the form of a statement about conditions, because I happen to be one of the city manager’s 90,000 assistant city managers.
“Sir, the answer to your question is that you have to pay an expeditor $25,000, and then you shall get your permit right away.”
The man turned to look me in the face, and I could see by his expression that he understood me perfectly well, as did everyone else in the room who had anything to do with getting permits from the Building Department.
Yes, it is true, an owner or developer or contractor could walk the documents he could not get the Building Department to approve over to a private expeditor, give him ample enough cash or a check for a substantial amount, and his permit would be approved with those same documents forthwith. Well, sometimes it might be necessary to substitute a single document with another one; for example, an expeditor substituted a plan for an already approved parking lot down the street for the owner’s plan, and collected $1,800 for this expeditious service; the parking lot permit application based on someone else’s parking lot plan was approved. Furthermore, do not worry about the inspectors: among other things, the private expeditor can take care of the inspection process too.
A private expeditor, who deals with a crucial aspect of contracting, and whose mistakes or misdeeds could definitely endanger the public, does not have to be licensed by any governmental agency. Tony Gonzalez, the new operations manager for the Building Department, agreed with me that expeditors should be tested and licensed. And I believe they should be bonded as well.
My concern with expeditors is the possibility of wholesale corruption and subversion of legislation intended to protect the public. Drug traffickers, for example, tell us that it is better to be a wholesaler than a retailer, because exposure to a greater number of people increases the risk of being apprehended. Similarly, two or three expeditors trusted by corrupt Building Department employees could pay out a percentage of the fees they collect from their customers to those employees with little risk of detection if the corrupt transactions were handled carefully. Their customers might even believe they were paying experts to deal with the notoriously complicated process, when in fact they were favored because officials were bribed.
In fact, that was the case in Mexico, where Wal-Mart paid millions to expeditors or “gestores,” payments disguised as legal fees, to quickly get permits to build out their stores, an acceleration or subversion of the process they were not entitled to. Wal-Mart officials in Mexico, who were eventually assigned to investigate themselves, knew the fees were in part used as bribes. One legal question raised, to determine if the payments were bribes, technically speaking, is whether or not the gestores were agents of the Mexican agents issuing the permits.
Are Miami Beach expeditors agents of the Building Department? One major expeditor, Damian J. Gallo Associates, Inc., dba Permit Doctors, who rents space from the city and advertises the convention center as its client, goes so far as to advertise itself as the permitting authority:
“Permit Doctor staff is ready to provide clear information about permitting regulations and the permitting process, inform homeowners about permit requirements for their specific projects, conduct plan reviews, and issue permits. All this is designed to make getting a permit as convenient as possible.” (Emphasis added)
We notice that other planning and permitting agencies throughout the country have their own expeditors to render the processes convenient. Tony Gonzalez and his director, Stephen Scott, did not respond to my recommendation that the City of Miami Beach hire its own expeditors to serve the public. Additionally, since complexity fosters corruption, revision of the codes may reduce the need for bribes to accelerate the processes.
Another serious issue with unlicensed expeditors is that they may engage themselves in or themselves be deceived by a conspiracy of owners, developers, unlicensed and licensed contractors, to defraud the city of fees and subvert legislation designed to protect the public. For example, an unlicensed general contractor may conspire to rent the license and insurance of a licensed contractor, rent an architect’s signature, submit false affidavits, grossly understate the scope and value of projects, and otherwise make a fool of the Building Department and its inspectors.
I handed my card to the gentleman who wanted a permit as he was leaving the meeting. We exchanged knowing looks. I mentioned that $25,000 in a brown paper bag might do the trick. That would be for the cut-rate expeditor. I do not expect to hear from him because he is a gentleman in need of expedition, and my name is Mud at the Building Department.