The topics that spark contentious commission meetings at Miami City Hall usually revolve around big-ticket items — David Beckham’s quest to build a soccer stadium, the future of Ultra Music Festival and zoning battles in Coconut Grove or Little Haiti.
On Thursday, before an audience of mostly government employees during an afternoon session that stretched into early evening, the topic du jour was code compliance — more specifically, Commissioner Joe Carollo’s efforts to go after Ball and Chain owner Bill Fuller over violations on the businessman’s properties in Little Havana. Carollo raised concerns almost exclusively about Fuller-owned properties Thursday.
It was a classic Carollo-style procedural — a mixed bag packed with substantiated concerns supported by documentation, wrapped in the specter of conspiracy and presented in a tense atmosphere where the former mayor fully embraced the meaning of “bully pulpit.”
Voices were raised with hurled insults. Hands were wrung over code violations. Carollo called on his colleagues to invite the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate any possible corruption in the city’s building, zoning and code compliance departments.
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In the end, the five commissioners unanimously decided to take a step toward creating a task force to review operations in the code department and make recommendations.
As attendees watched hopes of keeping Valentine’s Day dinner reservations slowly evaporate, Carollo spent hours insinuating that city inspectors are protecting Fuller and turning a blind eye to obvious problems with his businesses’ permits, or lack thereof. The commissioner told the city’s newly hired code director, an attorney who was eight days on the job, that she was unqualified for the position. He got into a shouting matched with Fuller, who unexpectedly stormed into the chamber to launch a tirade against the commissioner who was advocating to have one of his businesses shut down.
“You are the biggest fraud that’s hit Miami,” Carollo responded.
“Sir, you are a fraud that beats his wife,” Fuller shouted back, referencing Carollo’s 2001 arrest for hitting his ex-wife with a tea container. “That is you. A wife-beater.”
The hollering, and Carollo’s dissection of Fuller’s properties that preceded it, served as a sort of preview to a federal trial scheduled for October stemming from the code controversy. Carollo has focused on Fuller since taking office in 2017, attacking him on Spanish-language radio, accusing him of trying to “de-Latinize” the neighborhood and eying his establishments on Calle Ocho late at night, looking for violations.
Last year, Fuller sued Carollo alleging that the commissioner’s crusade against him is political retaliation for Fuller’s support for one of Carollo’s opponents in the 2017 municipal election. A former Carollo aide told county ethics investigators last year that Carollo violated the city charter by giving direct orders to code inspectors, which Carollo denies.
Carollo has acknowledged going on late-night stakeouts to find code violations and recalled a task force during his time as mayor that routinely shut down illegal cafeterias and bars across Miami. He maintains he’s a proactive commissioner looking out for the quality of life of residents in his district. He reiterated this in his presentation Thursday, which included photographs of cars parked illegally in vacant lots without permits and public records showing Fuller properties have been cited for not having permits. In one instance from November, new cocktail lounge Los Altos was cited for a host of permitting issues.
In multiple cases, the commissioner’s statements were backed by documents, photos and comments from city officials called on to speak during what at times seemed like a series of depositions. He lamented what he saw as a lack of follow-through from the city on punishing violators. Administrators said people who are cited are entitled to due process — a fact echoed loudly by Fuller — which in some cases means going before the code enforcement board to ask for leniency and being given time to fix violations.
Carollo said he didn’t believe Fuller deserved any leniency when compared to average homeowners with less means. The commissioner laced his findings with suggestions that Fuller was getting special treatment from unprofessional city employees, while also implying that Police Chief Jorge Colina and Mayor Francis Suarez were cozy with the businessman. The commissioner sourced some of his statements to “someone in the administration” without giving names.
“This smells of selective protection,” Carollo said.
Colina and Suarez pushed back more than once, defending themselves and the city’s employees.
“I’m not protecting anyone. This administration is not protecting anyone,” Suarez said.
Ken Russell, the commission chairman, struggled to keep the proceeding from dragging on or getting too raucous. He and the other three commissioners agreed that Carollo raised some legitimate concerns, though they did not support his call for an independent investigation. They compromised to ask the administration to bring back a resolution next month to create a task force with appointees from each commissioner.
Commissioner Keon Hardemon asked the city’s legal department to investigate whether Los Altos has any “life safety” issues that would require the city to shut down the lounge while owners sort out the permitting problems. Hardemon said he respected both sides of the argument, saying he’s sensitive to the balance of encouraging new businesses to open without fear of draconian enforcement of the city’s laws.
“I love that fact that there’s investment in [Little Havana], and I would love to see investment in my neighborhood,” said Hardemon, a Liberty City resident. “But I also want it to be according to the law.”