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Hialeah street vendor advocates upset about proposed rules

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.

Newly arrived from Nicaragua, he quit his construction job, bought a van and set off with his kids to sell flowers on the streets of Hialeah. His oldest was just 5 at the time.

As his kids grew, so did his business.

Membreno has built up his own importing business, cutting out middlemen and bringing in flowers from Ecuador to keep prices down. He starts his day at 6 a.m., picking up the bunches of roses and sunflowers and wrapping them in bouquets. He distributes them to sellers by 8 a.m., when most of the vendors — including Membreno, who still sells — hit the streets.

To eke out a living, sometimes only $30 a day, they fight the heat, the rain — and the city.

Membreno knows the names of each vendor and at which corners they sell. His phone rings about every five minutes. On the other line are vendors looking for a ride, more flowers or help dealing with the city.

Vendors say they are at the whim of police officers and their interpretation of the rules. Enforcement around holidays, the vendors’ most profitable times, is especially harsh, Membreno said.

“We’re fighting to survive,” said Gilberto Echevarria, who was selling guavas on West 49th Street near the Westland mall. “That’s what we’re doing — surviving. We don’t make enough to take a vacation. Just enough to pay the rent.”

When former Mayor Raul Martinez wanted to ban the peddlers in the 1990s, Membreno persuaded the administration to instead create a licensing system. Today, vendors pay $150 a year to register with the city and Miami-Dade County. Their IDs hang around their necks as they push their wares.

In 2001, Martinez’s administration passed rules that prohibit the roadside vendors from selling their goods within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar store that sells similar products.

After that, Membreno became more than just vendors’ unofficial leader: He became the face of a lawsuit filed in 2011 in Miami-Dade County Court by the Institute for Justice.

The institute, which bills itself as a libertarian public interest law firm, organized the vendors into a local association and took their case to court, arguing that the 300-foot ban is unconstitutional.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Hialeah has elected a new mayor: Carlos Hernandez. And, as Membreno has come to expect from each new administration, the city is once again tinkering with its rules for street peddlers.

On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to give final approval to the changes.

“We’re a working city, and I need to tip my hat to the peddlers,” Hernandez said at a recent council meeting. “But we have to find a balance between the peddlers, their safety and the businesses, and we want to make sure that the officers have more direction.”

But the changes are not likely to be enough for the institute to drop its suit, because they still would require vendors to keep moving, and still would ban them from placing their goods on the ground.

“The way you build up business is by building up a customer base and being reliable for your customers. But if you have to walk around all the time and can’t be in one place, that’s not a good way to run business,” Murray said.

Membreno, a deeply religious man, thinks his arrival in the United States, though it cost him his marriage, was arranged by God. He’s here to help vendors, he said, and he has no plan to retire until he sees the lawsuit through.

“I just ask them to value us and respect us,” he said.

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