Little Havana - Flagami

Joe Carollo’s party will replace Viernes Culturales, but fight will continue in court

A scene from Viernes Culturales, held the last Friday of every month in Domino Plaza on Calle Ocho.
A scene from Viernes Culturales, held the last Friday of every month in Domino Plaza on Calle Ocho.

Friday night’s party in Domino Plaza is still on as scheduled, but the fight over who gets to play host could be fought in federal court after the New Year.

On Tuesday, a federal judge declined to issue a restraining order stopping Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo’s “Little Havana Fridays” event, an order requested by a prominent Little Havana businessman suing the commissioner over alleged political payback in the form of targeted code enforcement. Bill Fuller, co-owner of Ball & Chain, is also president of Viernes Culturales, an 18-year mainstay held on the last Friday of every month in the heart of Calle Ocho that features merchants, music and food in the plaza next to Domino Park.

Carollo moved to oust Viernes Culturales when his office applied for permits to hold its own event on the same day and time as the longstanding event, Nov. 30. The commissioner’s move came after he was sued in federal court by Fuller and business partner Martin Pinilla, who allege Carollo has targeted code enforcement on their businesses as retaliation for their support of one of Carollo’s political opponents in the 2017 city election.

Amid the messy dispute, Carollo’s event will be allowed to go on as planned.

For 18 years, Viernes Culturales was allowed to run without permits. Organizers pulled permits for their most recent event in October, but Carollo’s office pulled permits for the last Friday in November first, elbowing Viernes Culturales out. An attorney representing Fuller and Pinilla said they had an “implied contract” with the city for years, and Carollo’s actions are more about revenge than putting on a better party.

“This is collateral damage,” said attorney Jeff Gutchess in court Tuesday.

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Bill Fuller, center, owner of the club Ball & Chain on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, is suing Commissioner Joe Carollo, claiming his business has been subject to targeted code enforcement. C.M. GUERRERO

But U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno said he needed to hear evidence and witness testimony to make any determination.

“I’m putting this on an expedited schedule ... but I can’t do it before Friday,” he said.

Instead, attorneys for both sides will submit witness lists and prepare for a trial in January.

Carollo has boasted he will put on a better, more popular event than Viernes Culturales. His attorney, Benedict Kuehne, started to state this in court Tuesday before the judge interrupted him with a rhetorical question meant to keep the proceeding on track.

“Am I going to decide if this is a good event or not?” Moreno said.

Although the city of Miami is not a party in the case, the judge suggested the city will likely have to get involved because the issue involves special events permits issued by the city. City Attorney Victoria Mendez, who was in court to observe, suggested there might be a way for both parties to work together when she was called on by the judge.

“I believe both events can coexist,” she said.

The animosity between Fuller and Carollo, which has played out over the code enforcement dispute, an ethics complaint, accusations of abuse of power and leftist ties, would suggest that’s a longshot. Throughout, Carollo has proudly admitted he’s gone on late-night stakeouts to seek code violations himself, but he’s denied using his position to violate the city’s laws that prevent him from issuing orders to municipal employees. Under oath, some former city employees told ethics investigators the political pressure from Carollo was real.

Outside the federal courthouse, Carollo told reporters the last Friday of each month is the best day for merchants, and it has been since the Viernes Culturales was founded nearly two decades ago — when Carollo was Miami’s mayor. Carollo maintained he was putting on a higher quality event for all of Little Havana, one that includes more local business owners, and will include a roster of entertainment including an appearance by Pitbull and performances by Latin Grammy award-winner Amaury Gutierrez, Carlo Manuel and Mari Trini.

The commissioner described the current Viernes Culturales as poorly attended and tired.

“This is an inclusive event for everybody. I don’t see why they can’t be a part of it,” he said. “They’ve been offered that opportunity.”

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Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. C.M. GUERRERO.

Fuller said there had been no attempt to play nice as he bristled after the hearing, saying Carollo was hijacking a brand that took years and money to build, comparing the commissioner and the city to Cuba’s communist takeover of private industry in the 1950s.

“It’s easier to steal a bakery than to build a bakery from the ground up,” he told the Miami Herald.

Fuller added that if Carollo cared about Little Havana’s culture, he would be adding a new event on different days instead of pushing out Viernes Culturales. Ball & Chain co-owner Zack Bush echoed his business partner, recalling Carollo’s description of Viernes Culturales as a “flea market” while questioning why the commissioner would want to replace Viernes Culturales’ timeslot.

“If it’s such a flea market, then why does he need that Friday?” Bush said.

Viernes Culturales might still try to stop Little Havana Fridays another way. Gutchess said that in anticipation of the result from Tuesday’s hearing, his clients were prepared to file a new lawsuit in state court to seek a temporary restraining order.