Small Business Owners Told to Register as Lobbyists, Pay Fee to Speak Before Commission

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Small Business Owners Told to Register as Lobbyists, Pay Fee to Speak Before Commission:

Proposal to change the policy is coming

Miami Beach Commissioners and small business owners were caught off guard during discussion of a scooter rental ban this week when City Clerk Rafael Granado said business owners wishing to speak about the legislation would have to register as lobbyists and pay the required $500 fee. Commissioner Ricky Arriola objected saying any policy that prevented small business owners from speaking up about an issue that impacts them was not only bad policy but a “chilling effect on free speech.” He intends to introduce legislation to change it.
The issue arose after Jester Nino, co-owner of Hot Wheels Rentals on 14thStreet, told Commissioners that many tourists use the scooters as a means of transportation. “Banning these scooter rentals is going to downsize the economy of Miami Beach as well as prohibit us to make a living, especially if you’re going to ban them for a certain amount of timeframes.” 
When Nino finished, Granado told him to check with J.C. Planas, the attorney for several scooter rental businesses, “because you may have to register as a lobbyist.”
“Business owners?” Planas asked. “It’s his own company.”
“Yes. He’s lobbying,” Granado replied.
City Attorney Raul Aguila stepped in to clarify the policy. “J.C., every principal or business owner that speak before the Commission are required to register as a lobbyist. They can speak but they have to go downstairs and register afterwards.”
Planas asked if Miami Beach residents could speak. 
Aguila replied, “If a resident is speaking only on behalf of themselves. But if a resident is speaking on behalf of a business they have to register.” Aguila was interrupted by angry businesses owners in the audience.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola objected. “I was just informed that these business owners that were coming up to speak on their own behalf, to protect their own business, just to speak their own mind, to inform us about their proposals and ideas and what they can do, they’re being charged $500 to register as a lobbyist.”
“I think that’s an abuse,” he continued. “I think that is bad public policy to require someone who’s not really a lobbyist but just a small business owner – we’ve invited them to come and speak. That is really bad policy.”
Aguila replied, “They are considered lobbyists under County law. What you have the ability to do, Commissioner, is to lower the fee.”
“I find that really bad policy that a small business owner can’t come and speak their mind,” Arriola repeated. “I find that a chilling effect on free speech.”
Ordinance sponsor John Alemán agreed and asked what Commissioners could do to allow the business owners to speak. “This is my ordinance [to restrict rentals] but I welcome their testimony. I think it is really important,” she said.
“As I say we can lower the fee, but they are considered lobbyists,” Aguila repeated.
Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “When I think of a lobbyist I think of someone who’s paid to represent somebody. If you’re here to stand up for your own interest and your own business, I don’t think you should have to pay a fee.”
“If they’re deemed an expert in a subject and the Commission invites them, they’re not considered lobbyists,” Granado interjected.
“Okay, so you’re speaking as experts,” Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez told the business owners.
“No, they’re lobbyists,” Aguila said.
Arriola said, “It’s fine we call them a lobbyist. I don’t think we should charge them a fee.”
Rosen Gonzalez asked if Commissioners could lower or waive the fees for the scooter hearing.
Aguila said, "No." Commissioners would have to amend the code.
Mayor Dan Gelber said, “There’s no way to waive the fee sitting here?”
“No,” Aguila said.
Gelber, Góngora, and Alemán tried again with ideas for allowing the business owners to testify without paying a fee.
Each time Aguila said, "No." Exasperated he said, “It’s County law. It’s City law. This is nothing new folks.”
Gelber responded, “I know. “I just think that it is the context that it’s come out. It seems unfair to everybody.”
Aguila replied, “It’s not unfair. They’re here to lobby for the passage or defeat of a measure.”
“Whenever we’re considering an ordinance change that directly affects businesses, I personally would like for those affected businesses to be able to testify on their own regard without paying a lobbying fee. It’s really only fair,” Alemán said.
“If you feel that the fee is onerous it is within your discretion to lower the fee,” Aguila said.
“For these folks to get two minutes and then charging them $500 to protect their business is unconscionable,” Arriola said. “They’re small business owners here. They pay taxes. They employ people. Many of them live here. So we’re somehow treating them different than a homeowner that comes and lobbies us but doesn’t have to pay a fee. I understand some of the logic but in its application there is some injustice and I just want it fixed.”
Gelber then said, “To the members of the community who are speaking on this, you have our apologies on it. We are bound by the law right now. We’ll try to change that rule as soon as possible but that’s the rules our lawyer says we’re under.”
Throughout the hearing, small scooter operators frequently yelled out from the audience since they couldn’t speak from the podium without the lobbyist registration and fee. One told Commissioners they were being silenced.
The City’s lobbyist registration form defines lobbyists:
“Lobbyist means all persons employed or retained, whether paid or not, by a principal who seeks to encourage the passage, defeat or modification of any ordinance, resolution, action or decision of any commissioner; any action, decision, recommendation of the City Manager or any City board or committee; any action, decision or recommendation of any City personnel during the time period of the entire decision-making process on such action, decision or recommendation that foreseeably will be heard or reviewed by the City commission, or a City board or committee. The term specifically includes the principal as well as any employee engaged in lobbying activities.”
After the meeting, Arriola said he is drafting legislation to allow small businesses to speak.
“First of all, it’s a free speech problem for sure,” he told RE:MiamiBeach. “We propose legislation that affects businesses, particularly small businesses, and they’re basically boxed into a corner. To state their position or even educate us, they have to register as lobbyists and pay $500. One would argue its unconstitutional on its face where we force people to pay the City to exercise their free speech rights.”
In addition, he said, it’s not business friendly. He said he understands the case of business owners that are often before the Commission on various issues that impact their businesses as well as to advocate on behalf of others. He used Mango’s and the Clevelander as examples. Both actively lobby on behalf of Ocean Drive businesses on a number of issues. But it’s the “mom and pops that are forced to come and speak to us and have to register as lobbyists” that he has a hard time with.
“There is a distinction between businesses coming in to educate us on how legislation might affect them or even come to support legislation. They should be able to do that without having to register as a lobbyist and pay a fee,” Arriola said.
Jerry Libbin, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce agrees. “If there is an issue where businesses are notified that there will be a Commission discussion or a proposal, they should not be required to register as a lobbyist and should be entitled to give their input. If you’re looking to do something to my business I should be able to speak without having to pay.”
Arriola said he expects to have legislation ready for the June Commission meeting.

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