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CRESPOGRAM REPORT

APRIL 7, 2014

ILLEGAL PROGRAMMABLE  BUS BENCH SIGNS
ARE ONLY IN COMMISSIONER MARC SAROFF’S DISTRICT

When it comes to a candidate breaking his campaign promises, Marc Sarnoff should be right at the top of everyone’s list.


IN 2007, Sarnoff positioned himself as the candidate who would protect the city against the unchecked visual pollution of billboards and murals.


Here is the infamous campaign flyer he sent to all the voters of District II.

It wasn’t long after he got reelected that Sarnoff started changing his position on billboards and murals.


The most compelling evidence of this change was his manipulation and stage management of the Resolution supporting the 240 foot Media Towers in July of 2010 that developer Mark Siffin wanted to put on top of the 11 story parking garage that he intended to build on the Miami Herald property, that at the time he had an option to buy.


The only thing that stopped that effort was Siffin defaulting on the option to buy.


By then though, Sarnoff had become the City Commission’s principal proponent of allowing electronic billboards along I-95, and  slapping murals on the side of as many buildings in the downtown area that would allow them to to hung, including the City of Miami’s River Center.

Preceding Sarnoff’s efforts, the City in 2002, under the Manny Diaz administration, had done a deal with the Sarmiento Advertising Group allowing them to install 1500 bus benches throughout the City, of which 900 would be designated as “Advertising Bus Benches.”


Now, in many ways this wasn’t necessarily a bad deal.  Saving the money required to install and maintain 1500 bus benches in return for the right to place ads on benches and bus stops would probably sound like a good tradeoff, and it would be, if the benches and bus shelters were properly maintained, and if the advertising on these shelters and benches didn’t start to become visual pollution by their size.


In 2006, Sarmiento sold out to Fuel Advertising, and in order for the deal to go through, the Miami City Commission had to pass a Resolution approving the terms and conditions of the transfer assignment previously agreed to between Sarmiento and the City.

Sometime in the last 2 years, Fuel Advertising sold their Miami franchise to Van Wagner advertising.  A search of the City’s Legistar records system reveals that no Resolution similar to the one required when Sarmiento sold out to Fuel was ever introduced and/or passed.


Here is how Van Wagner today describes it’s position in the Miami market.

To appreciate just how far Sarnoff has veered from his 2007 campaign proposals, his 3rd proposal in the flyer above was to “Ensure that these outdoor advertisements are not on vacant or neglected buildings.”


In the top ad above, the one with the Absolut billboard, that billboard is affixed atop an abandoned apartment building on NW 14th Street and NW 1st Court, which happens to be inside the boundaries of the OMNI CRA, where the Commissioner is the Chairman of the Board.


As to the claim in the Bus Shelter ad, that Van Wagner now only has the right to advertise on 600 bus shelters and bus benches raises the question of what happened to the other 300 Bus Bench ad locations?


THESE TWO PROGRAMMABLE BUS SHELTER SIGNS ARE ILLEGAL


Originally the bus advertisements were placed on the sidewalls of the bus shelters and were proportional to the overall size of the shelters.

What made these signs illegal in Ehrlich’s eyes was that it wasn’t one advertisement, but 2 programmable ads that conflicted with the provisions of the original Sarmiento contract.

Be that as it may, the decision to go from allowing programmable signs on the side of buildings to programmable signs at Bus Shelters and next to Bus Benches on the side of busy streets is not only a violation of the law, but more importantly represents a potential traffic hazard as they change from one advertisement to the other creating a distraction to drivers who might turn their head to see what the signs say, and momentarily lose their ability to refocus especially in the night light to see a change in car or pedestrian traffic.


Here are two short video clips of the two programmable signs that I was able to find on a scout of the city. In advertising speak, Van Wagner describes them, “Street Furniture.”

There is no small irony that the largest, and most extreme example of an illegal programmable sign in the county is the one attached to the front of the AAA Arena, that advertises all kinds of products and services not available inside the arena.


In spite of this legal opinion, neither Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, nor a single County Commissioner has the courage to order the County’s Code Enforcement Department to cite for violating the Code.

In addition to traffic hazards, there’s also the problem with the electrical setup for the operation of these signs.  Here is the setup for the sign in Coconut Grove.

Since Tomas Regalado became Mayor, his administration, led by Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo, and Billboard Supervisor Vanessa Acosta, who after wearing out her welcome in the Building Department was assigned to the City Manager’s Office and given a back room on the 3rd Floor to keep her out of the way, have become, under the guidance and tutelage of Commissioner Sarnoff, the billboard industry’s best pals. Thanks to their liberal “interpretation” of the Ordinances and contracts there are now a new generation of SUPERSIZED advertising boards attached to Bus Shelters and next to Bus Benches.


I first became aware of the degree of collusion and underhandedness that these folks were capable of when Commissioner Frank Carollo challenged the one-sided deal that Acosta, along with Johnny Martinez had negotiated in 2011 with Harkley Thornton and his partner Santiago Echemendia, after they had sued the City  - and lost - in an effort to allow them to become a billboard contractor.  It was all a nasty piece of business that included Thornton getting his friend Dean Cannon, then Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives to introduce a “poison pill” amendment into an FDOT bill in an effort to try and blackmail the City to reverse their position.


My coverage of that incident can be found HERE, HERE and HERE, which includes a strongly worded letter from Grace Solares dressing down Sarnoff for his efforts to screw over the citizens on behalf of Thornton and Echemendia .


In addition to that incident, and the effort by Sarnoff to stage manage the efforts of Mark Siffin to build 240 450 foot Media Towers on top of an 11 story parking garage, I have written numerous stories about Sarnoff’s involvement with the billboard industry and his willingness to lie when confronted with unpleasant truths about the way in which the City of Miami has violated just about every provision of the Highway Beautification Act, the FDOT Code, the County Code, and what’s left of the City Code.  Here are some of those stories. HERE, HERE, HERE and especially THIS ONE, where I detailed some of the same issues I’ve raised above.


NOTE: The information above is not a digression because nothing that happens today happens in a vacuum. Contrary to the claims of Sarnoff’s supporters that he has not played a part in this deal and others, there is a documented history of his behavior in supporting and promoting the billboard industry and receiving sizable and numerous contributions to his campaigns and the Sarnoff Foundation from the billboard companies and executives including Richard Schnaps, the CEO of Van Wagner, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and employees who all donated to Sarnoff’s reelection campaign.


Now back to our story.


On April 4th, Peter Ehrlich, of Scenic Miami, sent an email to Sarnoff, his staff, and fellow Scenic Board Members about a new electronic programmable Bus Bench sign that was operating on Biscayne Boulevard and 34th Street.

Care to speculate on the number of ways that this exposed electrical hookup could turn into a lawsuit?


Now I can understand why Van Wagner might choose to put one of these programmable signs on Biscayne Boulevard and 34th Street, given that every day tens of thousands of cars will pass it, but there is no similar kind of traffic flow in Coconut Grove on Grand Avenue in front of the Mayfair Shops where the second sign was just installed, so why was it installed, and why does this electrical hookup look so out-of-place on the sidewalk?


Could it be just a way for Sarnoff to nettle his Grove detractors, who wasted little time in complaining about the sign?


TURNING “STREET FURNITURE” INTO ADVERTISING BUILDINGS


If programmable signs weren’t problem enough, consider how Van Wagner has now started using entire Bus Shelter ‘s as advertising platforms.

To many folks, the mention of a Bus Shelter in Miami would probably invoke this image:

Most folks if asked, would assume as I did until I read the Sarmiento Advertising Group contract, that because these Shelters have the Seal of the City of Miami on the glass wall that the Bus Shelters were installed by the City, and are City property.


Only insiders would know that all the Shelters and Benches were part of the deal between the City and the Sarmiento Advertising Group in 2002, and that starting with Sarmiento, then Fuel, and now Van Wagner, they can put whatever kinds of ads they want on these shelter, including beer ads.


To further appreciate the aggressiveness of Van Wagner in taking advantage of the lack of adult supervision by the City, here is the ultimate in double-dipping.  A Bus Shelter AND a Bus Bench, both with advertising attached.

The one place where you won’t find any of these intrusive advertising panels attached to Bus Shelters or Benches is on Brickell Avenue south of 15th Road to 25 Road.

This is the heart of Sarnoff country, where the rich folks who he considers his only real constituency would have a fit if their sensibilities were assaulted with any of these crass advertisements.


SO WHAT’S IS GONNA BE ALFIE?


The ability to reconfigure all, or most of the current SUPERSIZED static signs attached to Bus Shelters and benches to these illegal programmable signs is not that complicate a process.


There is a belief, which I tend to share,  that these two illegal signs were put up as a way to test the waters, so to speak.  If no one objected - and in fact, there really are only a handful of folks associated with Scenic Miami who actually pay attention to these issues - then the odds are that more of these signs would start popping up around the City.


Now, thanks to Peter Ehrlich’s email, the issue has been kicked up to the City Attorney for review. 


Unfortunately, given her behavior and willingness to continue the practice of her predecessor Julie Bru to kiss ass and ignore the law whenever it conflicts with the wishes of the Mayor or the Commissioners, I do not have much faith in Victoria Mendez.


Only last week my new lawyers  - yes Bitches, I’ve now got lawyers  - sued the City of Miami over Ms. Mendez’s lying to me in writing no less, over the existence of electronic records that she claimed did not exist, so I am not going to hold my breath that she will conclude after reading the County Attorney’s opinion that these programmable signs are illegal,  and inform the City to notify Van Wagner to dismantle and remove them.


So, if anything is going to be done about these illegal signs, it’s going to take more than expecting the Miami City Attorney to tell the regalado administration to obey the law.


It’s Miami, Bitches!

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NOTE: After posting this story on Sunday afternoon, I received from Peter Ehrlich a copy of an amended Fuel Advertising Contract that he received from Commissioner Sarnoff’s office on Sunday afternoon that superseded the original Sarmiento Contract and included a rewriting of the Illuminated Panel provision. 

While on first reading this amended contract might seem to provide cover for the “programmable” signs that are the basis for this story, in point of fact they do not.  Over the years the City of Miami has written, amended, or revised numerous contracts with outdoor advertising companies that have been wrong, illegal and in at least one instance resulted in a costly settlement.


The controlling Ordinance for ALL Class B signs - and these 2 illegal programmable signs are Class B signs - is the Miami-Dade County’s Sign Code. That code requires a programmable sign to be part of a building, and that only goods and services available for sale within that building can be advertised. In addition, programmable signs can only be part of buildings on pieces of property at least 10 acres in size.


Here is a portion of a legal opinion that details the position of Miami-Dade County on programmable signs issued by R.A. Cuevas, Jr. the County Attorney in response to a series of questions poised by County Commissioner Barbara Jordan.