On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners were set to vote on stripping lobbyist Ron Book from his county contract if he didn't agree to drop a puppy-store chain as a client over the industry's efforts to block local regulations of pet sales.
Book didn't attend the meeting, and that didn't matter. When Book's requested conflict-of-interest waiver came up on the agenda late in the afternoon, Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo requested a delay until the prominent lobbyist and two associates could be there in person to defend themselves.
"I'd like to be able to address this directly with them," Bovo said. He also noted that with the 2018 legislative session over, the issue of Florida banning local rules on pet sales couldn't come up again in Tallahassee until 2019 anyway. "There's nothing that happens right now folks," he said. "Session is over."
Save for some stern comments from Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, no other commissioner objected and the deferral passed unanimously.
The delay looked like the latest favorable commission vote for Book, one of the most influential lobbyists in Florida and a top campaign donor in Miami-Dade. His representation of a company tied to Petland, a chain that sells puppies and kittens, had gotten media attention over the weekend — coverage that Sosa cited in her critical comments.
Several speakers from the public urged the commission to deny the waiver in the same way it wouldn't let Ballard Partners keep its county contract while representing Uber in Tallahassee as the ride-share company fought local regulations.
"It appears Mr. Book has acted as some sort of double agent, getting money from both sides of an issue," said Michael Rosenberg, president of the Pets Trust advocacy group and a longtime critic of so-called puppy mills that are the target of some pet-sale bans. "He almost snuck through a bill to undermine county government."
In a text exchange, Book said representatives from his Aventura firm were at Tuesday's meeting in the commission chambers but that he "was tied up with clients elsewhere." He pointed to the lack of urgency in deciding the waiver before the 2019 session. "It's a moot issue," he said.
The waiver would grant Book, Nelson Diaz and Sean Pittman permission to continue representing Florida Pet Retailers while also collecting tax funds as members of Miami-Dade's official lobbying team in Tallahassee.
The county's Ethics Commission recommended against the waiver, saying Miami-Dade shouldn't be represented by a lobbyist who is also trying to persuade lawmakers to roll back the county's authority to regulate certain industries.
Florida Pet Retailers is a company run by the owner of Petland franchises in South Florida. Some local governments have already banned most sales of puppies and kittens after pressure from advocates who want more demand for adoptions from government-run pet shelters. Book argued banning the pet sales represents an unfair restriction on small businesses and would dictate choices about where to buy dogs and cats that consumers should be allowed to make.
"We don't live in Venezuela," he said last week. "We don't live in Cuba."
Book's presence isn't always vital to favorable votes before the commission. When he was under pressure to step down as longtime chairman of the county's homeless board in 2016, Book didn't attend the meeting where the commission had to waive term-limit and residency rules to let the Broward resident continue in his post. The vote passed, as Book had predicted.
His absence Tuesday did not go without mention. Sosa voted for the extension, but said the waiver request better come back to the commission "and it better be fast."
"When I read in the paper they were already working in Tallahassee this year without asking this commission for a waiver — I have a big problem with that," she said. "Either they work for the county, or they work for someone else."
"They are not here today?" she continued. "Why?"