To go after those pesky signs illegally placed along Miami-Dade County’s main thoroughfares — think “We Buy Junk Cars” and “We Fix Computers” — the county’s building department took a page from the political playbook:
Flood the repeat sign offenders with robocalls. Annoy them enough that they will comply with the law.
To an extent, the unusual tactic has worked. The building department has issued more than 1,100 illegal-sign citations since the robocalls began a year ago.
A recorded message tells listeners that the only way to stop receiving the automated calls is to contact the building department, where the caller is matched with the phone number and promptly issued citations for however many of his or her signs the county has removed.
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The department has more than 200 telephone numbers on its current list. Each is called every day during business hours, about once every 45 minutes.
“Some of them answered and said, ‘You’re driving us bananas,’ ” said Charlie Danger, the county’s building chief.
In Broward, Hollywood initiated a similar program this year. One target of the robocalls, who posted “We Buy Houses” signs, was so miffed that he filed an ethics complaint against the city’s mayor. (The complaint was thrown out.)
In Miami-Dade, some of the fines, for hundreds of illegal signs, run into the thousands of dollars. But only about 230 of the citations have been paid. The county has filed personal liens against 10 or 15 people with outstanding bills.
And some of the sign posters have wised up to the system — they’re now changing their phone numbers about once a month to avoid the robocalls. Building enforcement officers have yet to come up with a plan to deal with those shrewd operators.
Tracking violators of Miami-Dade’s sign ordinance, which prohibits them on public rights-of-way, is notoriously difficult, Danger said. They often pop up overnight on medians, fences, stop signs, light poles and traffic poles, particularly along main streets such as Kendall Drive, Bird Road, Coral Way and the Gratigny Parkway.
And it’s not just drivers who notice them.
“We had almost every commissioner calling, ‘When are you going to get rid of the signs?’ ” Danger said.
Angry business owners complained, too. Among them was Ricardo Lopez, who runs a computer-repair shop in Miami and said he had to shutter his second location in West Kendall.
“This guy got me out of business,” he said of whoever posted “We Fix Computers” signs around the Miller Square shopping center at Miller Drive and Southwest 137th Avenue, near Lopez’s now-closed shop. “I spent too much money ... trying to do it legally.”
As the building department brainstormed the best way to attack the problem, one of its employees brought up the subject at her house over dinner. Her son, a lawyer, suggested a novel idea: What about robocalls?
The department already had an automated phone system to communicate with people with pending permits. So the calls began.
“This message is from Miami-Dade County,” the recording begins. “Remove all signs immediately, or you will be subject to a citation of up to $500 per sign.”
The call includes a phone number for listeners to set up an appointment and come in to the building department to sign an affidavit promising not to post more signs.
“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.”
Now, he says, there may be only one or two “renegade” posters left.
“Finally, after pestering the county for about a year and a half, they got really aggressive,” he said. “It was just an eyesore.”
The building department also has conducted sting operations to catch computer and washing machine repairmen, though they have been less successful. Operators caught in those cases are appealing their citations.
Political campaign signs, which must be removed 30 days after an election, do not typically become the department’s problem, Danger said. The county, which initially kept its robocall effort under wraps so as not to tip off the people behind the signs, has now gotten calls from cities, including Miami and Miami Lakes, eager to learn about the robocalls and stings to tackle illegal signs along their streets. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez outlined the program and its costs to commissioners in a memo last month, a move prompted in part by a new rash of complaints about illegal signs.
“[T]ickets issued are, in most cases, uncollectable,” Gimenez warned.
The money the department does have is limited, Roig said, which means that if administrators or commissioners want to address graffiti, for example, funds may have to be diverted from the signs operation. “The [political] winds don’t always flow in the same direction,” he said.
In the end, the point is not to make money, said Danger, the building chief.
“We pardon a lot of tickets, because we want compliance more than anything,” he said. “We’re trying to send a message: ‘Guys, come on. Don’t do this. We are fed up. Please cooperate with us. We can spend money on better things.’ ”