Debate over crackdown on Miami hourly motels devolves into shouting at City Hall

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An effort to crack down on human trafficking by banning Miami’s rent-by-the-hour motels was drowned out Thursday by personal disputes, with city commissioners ultimately punting a vote on a proposed law to next month.

Tensions rose at City Hall when Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla brought up his proposed ban on hourly rentals at hotels and motels in the city, arguing those establishments enable prostitution and sex trafficking.

“I think this is a serious issue. Miami needs to get serious about serious issues and start prioritizing the right things. Stop arguing about silly things and start talking about the big issues,” Díaz de la Portilla told the Miami Herald in an interview.

He pointed to a strip of motels on Southwest Eighth Street in Flagami and mentioned other places in Little Havana and Allapattah, which is in his district, as problems areas. Politicians from other Miami-Dade cities spoke in support of the legislation, with new Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago referring to his efforts to combat “the devil” in the neighboring city.

But Commissioner Manolo Reyes, whose district includes Flagami, asked for a deferral after he said he spoke with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle about strengthening the ordinance.

“We talked about a lot of different things that could be added to this ordinance,” Reyes said. “She would like some time to look at this.”

Miami Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who represents District 4.
Miami Commissioner Manolo Reyes, who represents District 4.

Commissioner Joe Carollo agreed with Reyes, and questioned whether a trafficking issue was truly concentrated in and around these hotels.

“The last thing I want to do is give the impression that we have a problem where we don’t have a problem,” Carollo said. He said he wanted more time to closely study crime statistics and perhaps expand the ordinance to include a crackdown on massage parlors where he suspected trafficking is happening. The proposed changes might not go far enough, he said.

Díaz de la Portilla said the issue was urgent, and suggested that political influence was getting in the way of a policy that would benefit neighborhoods around these businesses.

“That’s what we’re seeing here today. Some special interests getting in the way. A very small special interest. A very big cash business. Prominent lawyers working on their behalf because they want to continue that business model,” he said. “And as a government, as public policymakers, that business model can no longer be part of anything that has to do with Miami.”

Commissioners fight

Thursday’s back-and-forth was the latest flare-up between Carollo and Díaz de la Portilla, former allies whose once-powerful political alliance has deteriorated amid scandal and accusations of impropriety.

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo

At one point, Carollo suggested Díaz de la Portilla got a “new hallelujah religion” after he was accused of poking a code inspector at an unlicensed party venue operating past curfew. Díaz de la Portilla has vehemently denied wrongdoing, and three videos from police body cameras do not show a physical altercation.

“You want to talk about your incidents?” Díaz de la Portilla said. “That wasn’t an incident. That was a made-up incident.”

“Don’t interrupt me,” Carollo snapped. “I have the floor. If you want to deal with that, let’s go to the radio station, and we can deal with that.”

Commission Chairman Ken Russell tried to de-escalate, to no avail.

Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, District 1, at the City of Miami commission meeting in Miami on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.
Commissioner Alex Díaz de la Portilla, District 1, at the City of Miami commission meeting in Miami on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

“If you want to make it personal, with a lie, which you know is a lie, I’ll make it more personal,” Díaz de la Portilla said, gesturing with his hand and talking over Carollo.

“You don’t intimidate me. You’re a little man,” Carollo bellowed.

“You can scream all you want,” Díaz de la Portilla said.

Carollo, angered that Díaz de la Portilla said four such hotels were in Little Havana, loudly demanded the names of the businesses. Díaz de la Portilla said he wasn’t a “snitch.”

After more arguing, Russell banged the gavel and called for a vote. Russell, Carollo, Reyes and Commissioner Jeffrey Watson voted to reconsider the ordinance on June 24. Díaz de la Portilla, who wanted a vote on Thursday, was the lone vote against.

Deeper debate to come

The spectacle drowned out a policy discussion that is happening in different Miami-Dade cities. Coral Gables passed a similar measure in 2016, and Hialeah’s council recently gave initial approval to its own ban. Lago spoke in favor of the ordinance after the deferral, pledging to return in June with survivors of sex trafficking.

“I have faced the devil, face-to-face. Not once, not twice, but 13 times I’ve done sting operations with the city of Miami police department, the city of Coral Gables, and Kathy Fernández Rundle’s human trafficking division,” Lago told commissioners. “I have gone at 2 or 3 in the morning to all of these hotels. I have seen unspeakable acts against the women of our community.”

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Oscar De la Rosa, vice president of the Hialeah City Council, and developer Avra Jain were also present to advocate for the ordinance. Jain told the Herald about the transformation she saw after she bought a string of motels on Biscayne Boulevard in the Upper East Side — once known as a haven for prostitution — and eliminated hourly rentals.

“Overnight, it was transformative,” she said. “You didn’t see prostitution anymore. You saw families walking down the sidewalk, people with their dogs, and new businesses opening.”

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