Stearns revamping suit in bid to cut county into small city
By Victor Cruz
A lawsuit being fine-tuned by attorney Eugene Stearns challenges the structure of Miami-Dade County government and its taxation of residents in unincorporated areas.
Mr. Stearns said he speaks for 1.2 million residents who, he claims, are charged for county services but have their votes diluted by residents of incorporated municipalities who also vote for county commissioners.
His dream is for Miami-Dade County to consist of myriad cities of 25,000 people or fewer with small local governments providing such basic services as police, parks, recreation and drainage. County government then would focus on running airports, seaports, public health operations and countywide police investigations.
"Miami-Dade County would be out of the business of municipal government," said Mr. Stearns, of Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson.
He also sees the suit as a way to pressure the county to adopt revenue-sharing wherein Miami-Dade's 31 municipalities would chip in proportionately to support poorer neighborhoods.
"The county has the power but not the will to compel revenue-sharing," he said. "Right now, Miami Lakes pays a large share and Coral Gables doesn't. That's not fair."
Mr. Stearns, a pro-incorporation activist with deep family and professional roots in Miami, filed the suit Jan. 9. On May 17, US District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages threw out two elements: an historical narrative of Miami-Dade County and a set of prescribed remedies for the perceived injustice - essentially, a plan for incorporating what remains of Miami-Dade.
Mr. Stearns said this week he will strike the two parts of his case, inserting instead a call for the county to be given time to adopt a form of government that gives self-determination to unincorporated areas upon a finding of illegality.
He said he expects to file a refined argument by the June 1 deadline.
Since the mid-1980s, Mr. Stearns has been the de facto pro bono lawyer and agitator for the Miami-Dade incorporation movement.
It was on an athletic field in Miami Shores, then a Key Biscayne soccer coach in his spare time, that he caught incorporation fervor. At the request of then-Key Biscayne Athletic Club president Ray Sullivan, Mr. Stearns - who had legislative experience as an aide to the Florida House that worked in 1967 to revise the state constitution, and later as Gov. Reubin Askew's campaign manager - took up the cause.
The City of Key Biscayne was incorporated in 1991 after resistance from the county.
Nearly five years ago, Mr. Stearns filed a similar lawsuit to the present one. That suit was on behalf of Aventura, which was seeking incorporation and gained it in 1995.
But it was really the price tag attached to the incorporation of Miami Lakes that fueled Mr. Stearns's ire and led to the present suit. Miami Lakes, incorporated in September 2000, pays the county $1.45 million a year for the privilege.
"I think the county stepped up the warfare with the Miami Lakes deal, the proposal to blackmail the people of that city to pay a ransom to get out," Mr. Stearns said.
Assistant County Attorney Lee Kraftchick said he doesn't think Mr. Stearns's case has a prayer and saw the call to whittle down the case as the beginning of its end.
"Several legal obstacles remain," Mr. Kraftchick said. "There is no legal claim to equal representation on the commission to the extent that every member of unincorporated and incorporated areas must have equal interest; it is enough that they have significant interest."
But Mr. Stearns, who won a $500 million class action suit against Exxon Mobil in February that alleged the company overcharged 10,000 station owners from 1982-1994, is confident a refined argument will result in depositions of county officials and senior level staff.
Mr. Stearns says those depositions will prove that in the past 10 years the county has used $100 million in municipal taxes from residents in unincorporated Miami-Dade to build a government center that those taxpayers did not want and for other projects that did not benefit those residents.
"Broward is two years from eliminating unincorporated areas," said Mr. Stearns, who called that an improvement but stressed that the size of municipalities is the key to successful incorporation. The smaller the cities, he said, the better they serve residents.
But Mr. Kraftchick said the Broward example proves nothing.
Broward has a similar form of government in which a commission oversees a wide array of services for both incorporated and unincorporated areas, he said.
"If he were correct, then county commissions anywhere in the country that service both unincorporated and incorporated areas would be fundamentally unconstitutional," Mr. Kraftchick said. "Why hasn't anyone heard about this in the 250 years of this nation?"