Four Miami residents are suing the city after commissioners chose not to hear their public comments on a recent change to the city’s noise ordinance, a measure that attracted more than eight hours of recorded comments that all went unheard Nov. 19.
The plaintiffs — Denise Galvez Turros, Juan Turros, Ariel Gonzalez and Magda Gonzalez — say the city violated their constitutional rights to free speech and equal legal protection, as well as their statutory right under Florida law to be heard by their local elected officials. During the Nov. 19 meeting, city attorney Victoria Méndez advised commissioners they did not need to hear eight hours and 52 minutes of public comments submitted before the meeting because they were pretty much all the same.
The commission chose not to listen to the hours of comments, and a deputy city attorney read the script that many of the callers followed instead. While many speakers read from a script, several did not and expressed their disapproval of the proposed ordinance in their own words.
The commission voted Thursday to restrict outdoor music between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. at restaurants bordering residential areas in some parts of the city, including along Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana. The revision to the noise ordinance does not affect restaurants in downtown, Wynwood, the area covered by the OMNI Community Redevelopment Agency and Coconut Grove.
Galvez Turros, a member of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board and the co-founder of the political group Latinas for Trump, said Thursday that the new noise restriction unfairly impacts restaurants in Little Havana already struggling to stay open during the pandemic.
She called for the law to be revoked and a new meeting scheduled to hear everyone’s comments. Galvez Turros, a former Miami commission candidate, is named in the lawsuit along with her husband Juan, a musician who is active in the Little Havana nightlife scene.
“They decided that it was OK to ignore all of the public comments,” she said at a press conference in front of the Miami-Dade Courthouse. “I don’t care if they were all in favor or against, those comments needed to be heard.”
The city attorney’s office said it received a “verbal opinion” from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office regarding the matter, but Moody’s office later confirmed that there is no such thing as a verbal opinion, and the city did not receive any form of opinion or legal advice from the attorney general. An attorney in Moody’s office described an informal conversation on how the city could reasonably accommodate such a large amount of recorded public comments in a meeting where other business was on the agenda.
The mass of speakers during the meeting spoke in support of Ball & Chain, the Little Havana bar and restaurant that was shut down in October when city officials audited documents submitted by a private inspector and found code violations that necessitated a closure. The city pointed to fire safety problems and noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ball and Chain’s owners rebutted the city’s findings, and they blamed the closure on the business’s longstanding feud with Commissioner Joe Carollo, who has pointed out numerous violations at Ball & Chain and properties associated with its owners. One of the co-owners, Bill Fuller, has sued Carollo alleging the increased code enforcement is political retaliation stemming from Fuller’s support for one of Carollo’s opponents in the 2017 city election. Carollo has denied any undue influence on administrators, and he has maintained he simply wants the code to be enforced across his district and the city.
Ball and Chain will be directly impacted by the new noise restriction. Carollo, who sponsored the law, proposed that it be effective citywide but other commissioners watered it down to only apply in some parts of the city.
The lawsuit, filed Nov. 25 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, also accuses the city of violating the Miami-Dade County Citizens’ Bill of Rights, which holds that “any interested person” may appear before a municipal commission to address any “issue, request or controversy” in that municipality.
The City of Miami Citizens’ Bill of Rights similarly states that members of the public are “entitled” to speak before the commission ahead of a vote. City law stipulates that any public official found by a court to have violated public-comment protections “shall forthwith forfeit his or her office or employment,” according to the lawsuit.
Ahead of the meeting, the city published a notice letting members of the public know they could leave a prerecorded public comment to be played at the meeting.
“The prerecorded public comment will be played during the meeting,” the notice states, according to the lawsuit.
Members of the public submitted 366 public comments, but the city attorney decided not to play them because they all followed “the same script.” The lawsuit characterizes the move as a “bait and switch.”
Attorney David Winker, an activist who has sued Miami’s city government and filed ethics complaints on numerous matters, is representing the residents. He said Méndez, the city attorney, lied to the commission when she said all 366 people who left voicemails and submitted videos arguing against the restriction read from a script.
“In this case, the city attorney at the meeting said, ‘We’re not going to play 366 public comments because they’re all the same,’” Winker said Thursday. “That is not true.”
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