“I’m not chasing them,” said Rick Roig, the building code support division director tasked with eliminating illegal signs. “They’re coming to me.”
When listeners make their way to the building department, they also get cited. The department cannot fine them before that because it cannot trace the phone numbers on the signs — which are typically pre-paid, throwaway lines — to anyone.
Before the robocalls, the process was more difficult and expensive, Roig said: He and his colleagues would have to work with the state attorney’s office to subpoena a telephone company to trace a phone number.
But even the robocalls have not been enough to catch the most egregious sign-ordinance violators. So the department turned to an old-school method: sting operations.
Working with Miami-Dade police, enforcement officers set up shop in May in an abandoned home with a couple of abandoned cars. They posed as car owners and called the phone numbers most frequently listed on “ Compro Carros” signs — “We Buy Junk Cars.”
Four potential buyers showed up. They had 208 signs in their possession among the four of them, the county says, and they were issued 154 citations. The county has taken the four to court, asking for an injunction to stop future sign placement and to recover the county’s costs since August 2011 to remove the illegal signs — about $60,000.
Only one of the four men, Jorge Rodriguez, is represented by a lawyer, who could not be reached for comment. In court records, Rodriguez has denied possession of the signs.
The other three men — Himer Gandia, Markiel Milan and Javier Porraspita — could not be reached. In a handwritten response to the county’s complaint, Milan said he picked up cars for a man named Luis Perez.
Perez told a Miami Herald reporter that he received the county’s robocalls but never responded — though he did quit the junk-car pick-up business, he said, after Milan was caught and Perez was issued a slew of citations.
“I was making money with that,” said Perez, adding that he paid operators like Milan $50 or $60 for posting signs. “I had to stop because of all of those fines they gave me. . . . I practically don’t have any work.”
He scoffed at the county’s suggestion that the four men caught in the sting pay Miami-Dade’s sign-removal costs.
“We don’t have money for that,” Perez said. He suggested that police and enforcement officers have long turned a blind eye to junk-car pick-up activities. “This is a very dirty business,” he said.
For the county, the bottom line is that the number of junk-car signs in unincorporated neighborhoods has dramatically decreased.
“It’s like night and day,” said Manny Zamorano, a 48-year-old Westwood Lakes resident who said he has taken it upon himself to pick up illegal signs in his neighborhood for about two years. Before throwing away the signs, Zamorano said, he would photograph the signs and email them to the building department — with a copy to his county commissioner, Javier Souto, and to a contact at a local police station.
“I would get home in my community and I would find 10, 15 of these things that were posted,” Zamorano said. “If you stood too long in a street corner, they might hang one around your neck.”