With apologies to Jim Croce, it is well known among local government officials that you don't tug on Superman's cape and you most certainly do not mess with Helen Ferris.
The senior spitfire, who entered Broward's Women's Hall of Fame in 1995 for helping destroy the ethically challenged Port Everglades Commission, now has in her sights the City of Fort Lauderdale.
"I'm almost 80 years old. I've never in my life been accused of breaking the law," she exploded last week in squeaky -- but not creaky -- indignation. "I'm going to sue the city for harassment and intimidation."
The legendary government watchdog/gadfly, who a judge once likened to Paul Revere, is returning fire after withstanding a sneak attack by certified letter.
Without prior warning the city's Community Inspections Bureau sent her a violation notice declaring illegal a cherished part of Fort Lauderdale folklore: the world-famous Ferris Crime Signs.
"It was like getting hit over the head with a hammer," she said of the notice. "I've been sick from this. They were accusing me of being in violation of the law when I'm not."
One of the signs is attached to the front of her brick-fortress home, on South Miami Road near the Port, and says: "NOTICE TO THIEVES 10 BURGLARIES NOTHING LEFT." The other, bright red and white and hanging from a pole in her driveway, announces "SIGN STOLEN." It commemorates the original "Nothing Left" sign, which she erected in 1989 and, thanks to a CNN story, became an international tourist attraction. That sign was stolen two years later.
As befits a researcher whose Port Everglades documents are now housed with the Broward County Historical Commission (and nicknamed "The Watchdog Files") Ferris has located official city inspection reports stating that her signs were declared legal in 1991 and 1996.
Why then did the awesome power of the City of Fort Lauderdale suddenly descend this year? According to building inspector Frank Stockinger, the owners of nearby apartment complexes "just got fed up, and they wanted it to be looked at closely." Asked whether the signs were declared legal in 1996, the inspector replied, "I can't recall."
Although asserting her innocence, Ferris says she rode the bus downtown to the buildings department, stood in various lines for four hours, and finally forked over $53 for a sign permit because, she explained, "I wanted to get this monkey off my back."
Now she's building a case for alleged violations of due process, looking for others with similar stories, and researching lawyers good at suing cities.
"A lot of people just overlook something like this, but it's not right," Ferris said in her declaration of war. "After I got through with the Port, I said, 'Good, I'm going to have a peaceful old age.' Ha! What a joke! Nobody's going to have any peaceful old age in the city of Fort Lauderdale."
At least not in the buildings department.
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