Illegal campaign signs flourish in Miami despite clear code violations

07/05/2013 11:21 AM

07/06/2013 10:52 AM

The enormous campaign signs with smiling portraits of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Commissioner Francis Suarez that dot the city’s streets are much too big for code.

But so far, the city’s code compliance inspectors haven’t lifted a finger to take them down — or fine the elected officials who break the rules.

“Neither of those two is above the law,” said Grace Solares, a community activist who opposes so-called visual pollution. “Why doesn’t the city send its code inspectors to remove the signs or fine the candidates?”

Orlando Diez, director of the Code Compliance Office, did not respond to several messages left on his cell phone, email and with the city spokesman this week. Sources at City Hall say that Diez’s office has received several complaints in recent weeks about the illegal signs, but has avoided the issue to avoid getting drawn into politics.

The city’s zoning ordinances, established by Miami 21, clearly state that political signs in residential zones can’t exceed four square feet in surface area. In non-commercial areas, signs can measure as much as 15 square feet.

All candidates receive copies of these ordinances when they file to run, according to the Clerk’s Office.

But both Regalado and Suarez, who is hoping to unseat the mayor in the November election, have ignored the rules for weeks.

For example, in an empty residential lot at 1871 SW Seventh Street, Suarez’s campaign has installed a sign with a surface area of more than 55 square feet.

In the empty lot next door, at 1853 SW Seventh Street, Regalado’s campaign has put up its own sign. This one measures more than 30 square feet.

Regalado, who was in Buenos Aires this week to promote commerce in Miami, said the Miami 21 codes are challenging to understand. However, he recognized that some of his campaign signs are out of compliance and promised to take them down within the next three weeks.

He said that window of time would be enough to review the code, identify all the illegal signs and send out volunteers to take them down.

“I’ve already told the folks at the printing company who make the signs to not make any more of this size,” Regalado said. “Francis’ signs are bigger than mine, but they’re all illegal.”

Suarez did not respond to several phone messages this week. His cousin, Steve Suarez, who is assisting with the campaign, also did not return calls.

Suarez, who so far has a bigger campaign finance war chest than Regalado, also appears to have more of this enormous signage than his opponent, especially outside corner businesses. For example, earlier this week an El Nuevo Herald reporter measured one 55-square-feet sign outside a Liberty gas station at SW 27th Avenue and 16th Street.

Later in the week, campaign workers replaced that sign with an even larger one.

Other cities in Miami-Dade County have created stricter limits on campaign advertising. In Miami Beach, Hialeah and Homestead, for example, candidates must deposit a bond before putting up campaign signs. If the candidate commits any code violations related to the signs, the city can then use bond money to cover its expenses for removing the signs or it can fine the candidate.

Some cities only permit campaign signs within a defined time period before an election and require candidates to remove the signs soon after Election Day.

Miami’s ordinance requires candidates to remove their signs 30 days after the race, but doesn’t set a limit on how early candidates can post campaign signs. Miami’s election is nearly four months away.

Although city code inspectors don’t appear to have fined either of the candidates so far for their illegal signs, Miami police have opened at least one related criminal investigation. In mid-June, authorities announced they were looking for two men who destroyed some of Regalado’s enormous signs.

Police even released a video that showed the destruction of one such sign in the residential Coral Gate area. At the time, Regalado said he thought that perhaps Suarez’s followers were behind the act; Suarez assured that his campaign had nothing to do with the incident.

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