Are City Commissioners Desperate Insensitive Or Greedy
By Michael Lewis
Miami has a new strategy to rescue cash-strapped amenities: destroy what gives them stature and commercialize what’s left.
As long as the city can pocket something to fill budget gaps that elected officials created, it’s proving quite willing to ruin its assets.
That is the most flattering interpretation of the city commission’s vote last week to allow firms to plaster blinking illuminated billboards all over city parks and municipally owned venues.
If we don’t agree that commissioners will do anything to fill budget holes, we’re left with the common theory that they’ll do anything to fill holes in their campaign accounts or their own pockets.
Surely, they can’t possibly think massive billboards everywhere enhance Miami, a city whose beauty is one of its key economic resources, luring residents, tourists and investors by the hundreds of thousands.
Our commissioners just can’t be that insensitive to the place they live — can they?
So when Marc Sarnoff is quoted as saying property values in Times Square in New York have skyrocketed with billboards so why not in Miami, we just know he was either misquoted like David Samson of the Marlins always is or didn’t mean it any more than Ozzie Guillen did when he loved Fidel Castro, supported Hugo Chavez and defamed gays.
And when county Commissioner Bruno Barreiro calls the massive eye-pollution of billboards aesthetic "enhancement," we know he probably just meant aesthetic embarrassment.
And when Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones just before last week’s vote threw the city’s parks into the pocket of the billboard lobby by opening them all up for commercialization via electronic signs, we know she was just trying to aid her district.
None of these folks could have been swayed by lobbyists with big bucks — especially not Ms. Spence-Jones, who recently returned to office after twice overcoming charges of public corruption. She certainly knows better.
No, these folks are undoubtedly just thinking of how much the city needs the licensing fees it would get by plopping electronic advertising annoyances into its parks and wrapping its Miami Children’s Museum, Knight Center and Gusman Center in visual trash.
Every city in the nation needs more money. We have no quarrel with that assertion.
We hear city officials everywhere telling little fibs about why they’re selling out assets or finding new fees and fines.
Chicago is telling residents it needs 500 new speed cameras near schools for child safety — never an issue Windy City officials fretted about until they saw they’re already getting $68 million fines from red-light cameras. More cameras mean more cash.
Much like Chicago, Miami really needs to negotiate employee contracts more like the private sector pays than the present open-handed public largesse. Also much like Chicago, the Miami commission has no appetite for annoying the public employee voter bloc.
Hence, the trend to sell off anything for however little. That’s the same reason government initially got into bed with mega-casino interests who claimed to offer a cash cow for a cash-strapped city.
The worse the economic situation, the more willing the city becomes to prostitute itself.
It’s all very well for Mayor Tomás Regalado and Co. to blame former Mayor Manny Diaz and Co. for the budget hole. There’s ample truth that a city awash in cash in boom days did nothing to rein in ballooning personnel costs. Just kick that can down the road.
Now that we’re down the road, the can is bigger and the city’s options fewer.
But that’s no excuse to sell off a city’s birthright for a mess of pottage, as Esau sold his for a lentil stew. After we digest the bilious billboard bonanza, we’ll discover Miami as a place to live, work, vacation and invest has lost much of its flavor.
Crass commercialism in public places is a losing strategy.
Fortunately, last week’s vote was just the first of two required. The second is later this month.
Since entreaties from billboard lobbyists swayed commissioners, they should also respond to pleas from sensible people who recognize that each added billboard further defaces and devalues the community.
That could prove effective — if commissioners actually are doing what they think is best for the city and are simply trying to fill budget holes, or even if they’re merely intensely insensitive to their environment.