This year, a corporation tied to a chain of puppy stores paid lobbyist Ron Book to try to block local governments from enacting "puppy mill" laws severely limiting retail sales of dogs and cats.
The targets of that proposed state law: the more than two dozen local governments Book also represents in Tallahassee as one of the leading paid lobbyists in the state.
The legislative effort to block local restrictions on pet stores failed before the 2018 Legislature ended its session on March 11, but 2019 offers another chance for one Book client to triumph over the others. Now Book may be forced to choose sides, at least in Miami-Dade. Book is asking county commissioners to approve a waiver allowing his firm to represent the pet-store industry while collecting more than $100,000 a year as one of Miami-Dade's official lobbyists.
"I have worked hard, at the local levels to oppose the banning of the sale of puppies and kittens," Book wrote in a March 2 letter to Jess McCarty, the Miami-Dade lawyer who oversees the county's private lobbyists and their roughly $350,000 retainer. Book cited the since-failed state legislation that would ban city and county rules on pet sales, saying it would "reverse the trend of abolishing the sale of puppies and kittens locally."
Miami-Dade has some minor pet-store restrictions on the books, but hasn't enacted the kind of sweeping ban adopted by other Book clients, including Aventura, Miami Beach and North Miami. But at least one commissioner, Daniella Levine Cava, has said publicly she wants to propose one. And the county's Ethics Commission, which regulates parts of the lobbying industry, is urging the county to reject Book's waiver, citing Miami-Dade's long-running efforts to protect local law-making against limits from Tallahassee.
"You're going to have a well-known lobbyist taking a position different from the position the county is taking," said Joe Centorino, the outgoing director of the ethics commission. "It really undermines the county's position, and raises the question of the seriousness of the county's position."
The Book waiver meshes one of the most volatile issues in county politics — protecting shelter animals — with one of the most influential figures in county politics. Along with being a top source of campaign donations, Book essentially runs the county's homeless agency as the demanding volunteer chairman of an oversight board. The commission has granted him multiple waivers to defy term-limit rules and be exempt from a residency requirement to keep his volunteer post as chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust while living in Broward.
The lobbying waiver could be more complicated. Advocates for shelter animals, including the Pets Trust group, are some of the most vocal in county government. They're branding Book an opponent to the county's long-standing efforts to boost adoptions at the county's animal shelter — where the motto is "Adopt, Don't Shop" — and reduce the number of euthanized animals to nearly zero.
"Ron Book is trying to open the floodgates," said Michele Lazarow, the vice mayor of Hallandale Beach and president of the Animal Defense Coalition, which lobbied against the state bill and helped pass local puppy-sale bans across Florida. "Sixty cities and counties do not want that commerce. Ron Book is fighting to allow that commerce to flourish."
Book said the effort to block local pet-store rules was an unexpected turn in his client's legislative strategy this year. He also positioned his defense of pet-store sales as protecting consumer choice. Citing the larger number of pit bulls and similar breeds at Miami-Dade's animal shelter, Book said sales of puppies from breeders give more options in a free market. "I don't choose that experience for my children and my grandchildren," Book said of having a pit bull as a pet.
"Don't dictate what kind of pet someone buys for themselves or their children," he said. "We don't live in Venezuela. We don't live in Cuba."
Miami-Dade commissioners have rejected waivers in the past. In 2015, Ballard Partners wanted permission to represent Uber in Tallahassee as the ride-hailing company pushed for the state to block the kind of local Uber rules that Miami-Dade was trying to pass. Commissioners said no, and Ballard dropped the county as a client.
Book's Aventura lobbying firm earned about $120,000 from its county lobbying contract last year, and is asking for $175,000 in 2018. The proposed waiver covers him and two lobbyists Book hired for the pet-store work: Nelson Diaz and Sean Pittman.
In his letter to Miami-Dade, Book minimized his role in the Tallahassee puppy-sales wars. "There is a lobbying team that is assembled that I am overseeing," he said. "I am working to avoid actual lobbying, but I am supervising the lobbying team."