In Miami Beach, telling the City Commission what you think about a proposed law could set you back $850.
That's because businesses owners who want to speak to public officials are required to register as lobbyists under county law and Miami Beach charges lobbyists a $500 registration fee plus $350 for each issue on which they plan to lobby. Most cities waive lobbying fees for business owners speaking on their own behalf.
While the Miami Beach fees might not be a problem for big businesses and the lobbying firms hired to represent them, the fees recently deterred several mom-and-pop business owners from speaking at a commission meeting.
"I never knew it was $850 for me to speak my mind and represent the business," said David Buzaglo, the owner of several Miami Beach scooter rental businesses. He learned about the fees when he went to the May 16 City Commission meeting to argue against a proposed ban on scooter rentals over spring break and Memorial Day weekend. "I was there waiting to speak, but after I heard about it, I didn't want to deal with it."
Several other scooter shop owners who had planned to share their concerns also decided not to speak after they learned about the fees. The City Commission voted to ban scooter rentals during the month of March and one scooter shop owner, Ilan Atun, who spoke at the meeting as a Miami Beach resident, said he felt commissioners made the decision "without hearing our side."
Jerry Libbin, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, shares these concerns. He thinks business owners shouldn't be required to register as lobbyists and pay the fees if they're responding to proposed legislation, rather than advocating for their own initiatives.
"It can really be an onerous thing to say you have to pay a $500 fee just to come and speak your mind," he said. "To me the difference is who is driving the issue."
While county law sets the lobbying registration requirements and defines anyone — including the principal of a business — hoping to influence the actions or decisions of public officials as a lobbyist, it's up to municipalities to decide how much to charge. Miami-Dade County and the cities of Miami and Coral Gables don't charge business owners a fee to register if they're speaking on behalf of their own businesses. In Doral, business owners have to pay the $490 lobbying registration fee before meeting privately with city officials, but not to speak during the public comment period at a City Council meeting.
Now, Miami Beach is considering waiving the fees for business owners. Proposed legislation, which will likely be discussed at the June 6 commission meeting, would allow business owners and their employees to give testimony to the commission on their own behalf without having to pay.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who is sponsoring the legislation, said he sees the elimination of fees as both a free speech issue and a matter of the commission getting the necessary input to make good policy decisions.
"I think it's bad policy to have a situation where you introduce legislation that affects a business or an industry and then you charge them $500 to come in and speak to you," he said. "It seems ludicrous."
"Any business concerned about a particular piece of legislation that's going to affect them should be able to come in and speak about it," he added. "We want to hear from these businesses so we can pass good laws, and if we have a registration fee that has a chilling effect on the information we receive, that's going to lead to bad policy."
Arriola said he explored waiving the fee just for small businesses, but found it would be difficult for the city to apply the rules if they varied depending on the size of the business.
While business owners would no longer be required to pay the fees under the proposed changes, they would still be required to register as lobbyists to speak to public officials about an issue that affects their business. That means they would still have to abide by Miami Beach's strict campaign finance rules, which are designed to prevent business interests from improperly influencing public officials and to keep politicians from soliciting lobbyists, vendors and certain developers for contributions to political committees.
"I think it's a very business-friendly amendment and it doesn't dilute the fact that they're still considered lobbyists for all other purposes," said City Attorney Raul Aguila.
When the fees stirred controversy during last week's City Commission meeting, several commissioners said they felt the fees were unfair to small businesses and tried to find ways to waive them to allow the scooter rental shop owners to speak. The city attorney explained that they would have to amend the city's code in order to waive the fees.
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told the Miami Herald that he thinks the city needs to differentiate between traditional lobbyists and small business owners.
"A typical lobbyist should have to pay a fee, but somebody coming in and just trying to avail themselves of City Hall maybe ought to have a different approach," he said. "Drawing the line is not going to be easy but I think we need to try."