A group of people standing in front of a sign - Car
Protesters with the Key West Rip-Off Rapid Response Team spent an hour on Sunday picketing the Oro Gold cosmetics shop on Duval Street. The shop was allowed to reopen at 2 p.m. Sunday after serving a 10-day suspension for repeatedly violating the city code. MANDY MILES / Keys Weekly

A dozen or so picketers wielded signs declaring “Rip-Off Shop,” while waving to passing pedestrians and motorists on Oct. 27 on Duval Street, where a controversial cosmetics shop had reopened after serving a 10-day suspension for repeated city code violations.

Oro Gold at 518 Duval St. spent the usually lucrative Fantasy Fest week with its doors locked after city officials suspended the business from operating for 10 days.

Protesters from the Key West Rip-Off Rapid Response Team have spent the past 18 or so months picketing Oro Gold and similar cosmetic shops for aggressive sales tactics and other questionable business practices. At least three of the shops have closed after being targeted by picketers.

The rip-off group’s founders, Bruce Mitchell and Tevis Wernicoff, also have criticized the City of Key West for what they call an onerous code complaint process that requires people who have been targeted by these shops’ aggressive sales practices to file a notarized complaint form in order for their issue to be counted among the official complaints against a business.

Wernicoff said earlier this year that his group had received more than 63 complaints against Oro Gold and similar downtown shops that advertise skin care products that contain anything from traces of gold to caviar.

“But the city won’t accept those complaints from us because they’re not formal, notarized affidavits,” Wernicoff has said. “The complaint process is onerous and off-putting, especially for visitors who have no idea what the process is or where City Hall is.”

Code Compliance Officer Sophie Doctoche said during an administrative hearing in February, “Anyone can file a complaint. They just have to get an affidavit form from us, fill it out, have it notarized and return it to the code compliance department.”

In answer to a question about whether that process seemed unnecessarily complicated, particularly for tourists unfamiliar with the area who may not speak English, Doctoche said she and other code officers can email the complaint affidavit to a visitor, or deliver a hard copy form to a hotel or other location.

“I’ll also go pick it up from their hotel rooms if necessary,” Doctoche said. “In order to file a complaint, it has to be a notarized affidavit, but we can notarize the document here at City Hall.”

She also said that when the Key West Chamber of Commerce, the Key West Business Guild or other tourism organizations receive complaints about a local business, those organizations can forward the complaints to the city, but they won’t be counted among official complaints against a cosmetic shop because they are not notarized affidavits.

Prior to his 10-day suspension this week, Oro Gold owner Nir Chen was cited in February and sentenced to a five-day day suspension as well as more than $2,750 in fines.

Chen has paid the fines and served the suspensions for violating the city’s rules that require cosmetic shops, among other things, to have a city permit to operate a cosmetic shop, display prices on every single item, provide a written cost estimate to customers before they are charged for the merchandise, and offer 30-day refunds.

Prior to the February suspension, Chen had told then-City Manager Jim Scholl that he intended and desired to comply with regulations, but perhaps his limited English proficiency had been an issue.

“Three or more violations can result in up to a year’s suspension of the regulatory cosmetic shop permit,” Scholl told Chen in February. “There’s also a provision for an arrest and up to 60 days in jail for continued violations once they reach the status of a criminal misdemeanor. So there are potentially significant penalties for continued non-compliance. … You need to train your managers and employees to follow (the city’s) rules every single day and not just when code officers are present.”

Bruce Mitchell of the Key West Rip Off Rapid Response Team said on Oct. 27 that employees of Oro Gold had reopened the shop shortly after 2 p.m. without acknowledging the picketers.

Doctoche has advised anyone wishing to file a complaint against any Key West business to begin with a call to the Code Compliance department at 305-809-3740. Officials there will help a caller begin the process.

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