On a recent cloudy afternoon, Silvio Membreno traveled from one Hialeah street corner to the next with important news for roadside vendors.
The sellers paused a moment from hawking guava fruits and cold bottles of water as Membreno pleaded with them to join him Tuesday night at Hialeah City Hall, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on new rules regulating how and where the city’s ubiquitous street vendors can offer their wares.
“I want them to see that it’s not me alone, that we are many,” Membreno told them in Spanish.
“You can count on me for that,” responded Luis Mass Buchaca, 24, a newly arrived Cuban immigrant who hands out fliers to provide for his young wife and new baby. “If I left Cuba, it was to have the freedom to share my opinion.”
Buchaca asked for a ride to City Hall.
“You know that’s what I’m here for,” Membreno replied.
Thousands of dollars on the line for the vendors: The new rules would take affect just before flower vendors’ busiest times, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Membreno is a slight man whose bright blue eyes shine against his tan skin. He has the rough hands and dirty fingernails of a man who works outside, but he wears a pressed polo shirt tucked into dark jeans.
For 15 years, he has sold roses and sunflowers on Hialeah’s busy roadsides. For much of that time, Membreno has been an unofficial leader of the city’s peddlers in their fight for the right to sell in Hialeah.
On Tuesday, the City Council will consider changing the rules in response to a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm.
Current city rules prohibit roadside peddlers from selling within 300 feet of brick-and-mortar stores that sell the same goods — a restriction the institute calls unconstitutional — and require vendors to keep moving. Whether on private or public property, vendors aren’t allowed to stay in one spot for more than 10 minutes, nor are they allowed to place their goods on display or on the ground.
Under the Florida Constitution, vendors have the right to “earn an honest living free from unreasonable and anticompetitive government restrictions,” according to the lawsuit.
“The government can’t arbitrarily use its power to protect politically powerful private businesses — like in Hialeah, brick and mortar stores — from competition . . . but in so many ways, that’s what Hialeah is doing,” said Claudia S. Murray, an Institute for Justice attorney.
The new rules, if they pass Tuesday night, would do away with the 300-foot restriction, but would add prohibitions against selling near highway ramps and leave unchanged the requirement that vendors keep moving.
City Attorney William Grodnick says the changes are a result of talks between both sides, and that the new rules are “a good balance.”
“We’re trying to give more specific regulations and guidelines so there are no misunderstandings,” he said.
Many of the city’s 111 licensed vendors are new to the country, and for them roadside selling is a path to the American Dream.
It was for Membreno.
After his wife split 15 years ago, Membreno needed a way to make a living and take care of his three young children.