Saturday, June 16, 2012

Updated from Poder Magazine, June/July 2012 
Bright Lights, Bad City
At Miami’s city hall, massive flashing billboards replace video slot machines as the boldest new idea for municipal finance.

By Kirk Nielsen

For a long time I wondered what the Miami Parking Authority could possibly have to do with video slot machines. I now know, after a chat with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado at a recent conceptual art show in the Design District. Part of our conversation went more or less like this:

Me: So, I’ve been wondering. What do video slot machines have to do with the Miami Parking Authority? (I was referring to a phone call the mayor made in October 2010 to then-city manager Carlos Migoya. Regalado wanted him to get police chief Miguel Exposito to delay raiding cafeterias, bars, and other places featuring video slot machines until after a vote on the future of the parking authority. Several days earlier, Regalado had won commission approval of an ordinance allowing city officials to license video slot machines and charge their owners operating fees, even though the devices were illegal under state law.)

Mayor Regalado: Well, we had a referendum coming up, and I knew that if there were raids people would start saying, “Oh, Miami is corrupt,” and then the referendum wouldn’t pass. (The referendum sought to turn the independent parking authority into a city department. A majority of voters rejected the item.)

In other words, afraid that police raids on video slot machines would sully his political image, the mayor sullied his image by meddling with police raids for political purposes. Extraordinary. And a still-defining moment of his mayorship.

Of course, all across America local elected officials have wracked their brains to find creative new revenue streams for nearly bankrupt municipal governments. Miami’s are just more insane, perhaps. Yet Mayor Regalado will forcefully tell you his motives for both legalizing video slots and usurping the parking authority were purely fiscal, not nuts or even nefarious. “I have not received one call from the FBI or the State Attorney’s Office,” he offered, apparently anticipating a question concerning news reports linking the local video slots industry to “organized crime.”

This year, staring at a deficit of at least $30 million, Regalado and commissioners want to legalize another kind of money machine that is outlawed but nonetheless flourishing in the Magic City: illuminated, flashing billboards known as LEDs. They’re illegal under a Miami-Dade county law that trumps more local sign ordinances, though several Clear Channel LEDs now illegally adorn expressways in Miami. 

In mid-April, commissioners gave preliminary approval for LED billboards on the Miami Children’s Museum, the James L. Knight Center, and the historic Olympia Theater building.

Although no civic action arose to thwart the video slots ordinance, some is mounting to prevent flashing billboard proliferation, especially in areas where the signs would shine all night into the bedroom windows of affluent condo dwellers and homeowners. A group named Scenic Miami is leading the anti-LED charge.

In late April I visited Miami City Hall down on Dinner Key one morning that the commissioners discussed yet another billboard legalization proposal. Art Noriega, the parking authority’s CEO, told me his agency had sought permission to place ads only on parking meters. But by the time city manager Johnny Martinez and city attorney Julie Bru delivered it, the initiative called for legalizing billboards on virtually any city-owned “fixture.” The commission decided to revisit a less sweeping version in the future, which did little to comfort LED-billboard opponents.

Seeking illumination of a different sort, that same day I attended the Downtown Bay Forum, where the topic was whether politics and ethics could coexist. Joe Centorino, executive director of the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, told about 30 lunchers, “We have an election system that ought to work.” Elected officials who commit crimes must be prosecuted and removed from office, he assured, but cautioned that it’s “a dangerous thing” for people to rely on law enforcement to control elected officials. “A healthy democracy needs to have a healthy electoral process, and that ultimately is really the only way to ensure you get ethics in government,” he said.

Former county commissioner Katy Sorenson, who runs a nonprofit named the Good Government Initiative, sighed loudly and added that “all over the planet” there are “some people who will get away with whatever they can get away with,” while others “want to have a government that has integrity.” I wondered to myself, in light of the apparent drift at Dinner Key, if this latter type are outnumbered when it comes to controlling officials at Miami City Hall.

On May 24 the commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give final approval for flashing commercial signage on the children’s museum, the Olympia Theater, and the James L. Knight Center.

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