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Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo wants to force out the long-established cultural gathering on Calle Ocho known as Viernes Culturales so he can hold his own monthly event, pushing the bitter feud between the commissioner and a prominent local businessman into odd territory — who can throw a better party in Little Havana?
Viernes Culturales, run by a namesake nonprofit, is an 18-year institution on Calle Ocho that produces an arts, music and cultural gathering on the last Friday of every month. The event takes place in Domino Plaza, where music plays while merchants sell their wares and visitors are encouraged to dine at nearby restaurants and visit local art galleries.
The chairman of the nonprofit’s board is Bill Fuller, a co-owner of the Ball & Chain nightclub who recently sued Carollo over the commissioner’s persistent efforts to find code violations on Fuller-owned properties and affiliated businesses. Fuller and a business partner contend Carollo is violating their First Amendment rights by siccing code enforcement on their Calle Ocho businesses in retaliation for Fuller’s support for one of Carollo’s former political opponents in the 2017 city election.
Now Carollo might forcibly push out Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) by staging his own monthly festival with music, food and art. The commissioner has applied for an events permit to hold a festival on Nov. 30, and he has asked the city’s special events department to reserve every second and last Friday of every month from now through December 2019 for monthly events.
Carollo, who declined to reveal details about his upcoming event, told the Miami Herald he thinks Viernes Culturales has become a tired, lackluster event that is little more than a “flea market.”
He thinks he can do better with food, merchants and music. “We’re going to do that every month, to bring Little Havana back alive again,” he said.
The commissioner’s Nov. 30 event doesn’t conflict with any existing permits to use Domino Plaza because Viernes Culturales had not applied for any, so for this month at least, it will replace Viernes Culturales. It wasn’t clear how the conflict between the two rival events would be resolved beyond November.
Carollo said Viernes Culturales has been running for years without required events permits — a fact confirmed by the nonprofit’s board in a complaint where they pleaded with the city to work out a resolution so they could keep putting on their event every last Friday.
“At no time during the history of the festival has the organization been required to pull an events permit,” wrote Suzanne Batlle, owner of Azucar Ice Cream Company and vice chair of the Viernes Culturales, in a letter to the mayor and City Commission this week. “To the contrary, the city has always been exceptionally supportive of the event, never requiring a permit and in fact supporting the festival through the provision of stages and increased police oversight.”
Eugene Ramirez, city spokesman and director of the department that includes permitting for special events, said Viernes Culturales should produce any written proof that it was lawfully allowed to operate without permits.
“All special events are subject to the Code of Ordinances,” Ramirez said. “If Viernes Culturales has an official city document they believe exempts them, they should bring it forward.”
Ramirez also noted that Viernes Culturales pulled permits for its most recent event on Oct. 26.
The permitting issue also raises the question of who gets the right to use the space after Carollo’s Nov. 30 event. Permits are granted in Miami on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning even though Carollo has asked to reserve a year’s worth of dates, neither he nor Viernes Culturales can claim those dates without permits.
The battle for Domino Plaza is the latest skirmish in a clash between Carollo and Fuller that has played out in ethics complaints, Spanish-language radio and other media.
Carollo has for months taken aim at Fuller by persistently looking for code violations at the nightclub and other properties affiliated with Fuller and his business partners. In some cases, the commissioner has found legitimate issues — but it took bizarre late-night stakeouts that Fuller calls heavy-handed code enforcement to reveal the problems.
The constant attention led Fuller to file an ethics complaint to county officials, which he later withdrew before filing suit in federal court.
According to interviews done by ethics investigators, a former Carollo aide maintains that the commissioner asked him to lie under oath about code enforcement issues, a former Miami bureaucrat said the commissioner applied inappropriate pressure so code enforcement officers would target Ball & Chain and other Fuller properties, and one business owner said Carollo railed against her on Spanish-language radio with accusations that her uncle, a high-ranking Venezuelan official, was involved in a leftist conspiracy to buy up Little Havana real estate.
Carollo proudly admitted to going on late-night stakeouts and confirmed his suspicions of leftist ties, suspicions that are a staple of his long political career. He denied applying undue pressure or asking anyone to lie under oath. He has maintained he is simply a proactive elected official addressing a severe code enforcement problem in his district.
On Friday, the commissioner expressed little sympathy for any of the merchants who might be displaced from Viernes Culturales, suggesting they pull permits and set up outside Futurama, another Fuller property on Calle Ocho. He boasted that his festival will feature “top talent” and bring so many people out that it will benefit everyone on Calle Ocho — even Fuller and his properties.
“If I’m going to do as bad or worse, then people are right. I shouldn’t get involved in this,” Carollo said. “But if I can produce a better one, then my god, instead of complaining, be appreciative.”