Miami Beach

Miami Beach bans specials boards from sidewalk cafes, introduces new code of conduct

The Miami Beach City Commission has given initial approval to new rules regulating sidewalk cafes.
The Miami Beach City Commission has given initial approval to new rules regulating sidewalk cafes. Miami Herald file 2017

Miami Beach officials flexed their legislative muscle on Wednesday, passing a new ordinance banning boards advertising specials at sidewalk cafes and giving initial approval to a new Sidewalk Cafe Code of Conduct.

The City Commission gave unanimous, final approval of the ordinance banning specials boards, with city officials citing the boards’ contribution to overcrowding and interference with pedestrian access. The ban affects all city sidewalk cafes, except those located north of 63rd Street; the law governing them will take effect in July 2020.

Specials boards, different from menu boards, advertise restaurant promotions and deals and have proliferated at Miami Beach sidewalk cafes. The ban does not extend to cafe menu boards, which establishments are still allowed to display.

“We’re trying to improve the experience for our customers [and] any issues of deceptive practices,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian.

Some residents and visitors have been victims of deceptive practices at sidewalk cafes, in some instances being charged over $50 for a drink and having to pay over $200 for meals advertised as specials, customers have told the Miami Herald. The misleading practices prompted the city to institute other ordinances over the years to crack down on inappropriate or misleading business behavior.

Last month, the commission’s finance committee approved $25,000 for a pilot secret shopper program. The program will consist of part-time city employees who will dine at sidewalk cafes and report deceitful business practices to code enforcement and police.

Wednesday’s meeting also introduced a new component to the sidewalk cafe permitting process: a new Sidewalk Cafe Code of Conduct, which got initial approval from the commission. Although the code of conduct primarily consists of provisions already contained in the city’s Sidewalk Cafe Ordinance, it also has three new rules specific to Ocean Drive between Fifth Street and 15th Street, which will help enforce cafe operator behavior, city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said in a statement.

The ordinance will still have to pass a second vote, but Wednesday’s approval showcased the city’s willingness to move forward with a formal set of rules for those establishments.

“In our historic and commercial districts, our sidewalk cafes define us as much as everything else,” city attorney Raul Aguila said. “Business is going to suffer and the city’s reputation is going to suffer if we do not continue to consistently monitor the performance of these cafes.”

Rules specific to Ocean Drive between Fifth Street and 15th Street prohibit operators from soliciting pedestrians unless those people make their interest known; from distributing printed advertisements unless one is specifically requested; and from holding or displaying printed advertisements in a way that impedes pedestrian access.

“We’ve had some difficulty in enforcing on Ocean Drive and other places,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, a sponsor of the code of conduct proposal. “It occurred to me at some point that maybe we ought to tether a code of conduct to the Sidewalk Cafe Ordinance, which might make it easier to enforce.”

Gelber said he wanted to add the code of conduct to the ordinance before the annual renewal of sidewalk cafe permits starts in the fall.

Permit applicants will be required to sign an affidavit, stating they have received the code of conduct and agreed to its rules. If permit holders violate the code of conduct, the city manager can order the establishment to cease operations for at least 24 hours or until the city manager has determined that all violations have been corrected.

The city manager also has the authority to suspend or revoke the operator’s business tax receipt, formally known as an occupational license.

David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive, said although he believes the code of conduct is necessary, he’s worried about the lack of discretion in terms of oversight.

“We’re very happy that you’re doing this, but the only thing that I would ask for is that the city manager has some discretionary power,” Wallack said.

Gelber assured Wallack proper discretion will be given to cafes in event of a violation.

“I can assure you that all of our regulations are vetted in some level of discretion,” Gelber said.