Charter review recommendations could weaken mayor's powers
By Victor Cruz
Evaluating the balance of power between executive and legislative branches of Miami-Dade County government was the most critical issue facing a charter review task force as it drafted current recommendations for change, according to the group's chairman.
The group made 21 pending recommendations for revisions in the charter after meeting 25 times over two years, according to Sid Levin, task force leader and vice president of corporate and external affairs for FPL.
The county commission has accepted the final report. Now, task force recommendations must make their way through two committees and the commission, which will decide what recommendations, if any, are to be placed on a ballot for county voters.
Under the current charter, the mayor has the right to veto any recommendations that would be placed on the countywide ballot, most likely in November 2002.
The last time the Miami-Dade charter was amended was 1996.
The task force's recommendations target seven broad categories: the commission, the mayor's office, the county manager, incorporation, elections, administrative, and technical changes.
An array of suggestions dealing with the balance of power between the executive and legislative bodies, committee members said, caused the most wrangling.
The task force did not, as some expected, recommend eliminating the manager's post, transferring that power to the mayor and to a lesser degree the county commission.
In fact, the sum of the team's recommendations adds up to a loss of power for a mayor.
The task force recommended that the county commission choose its own chairman as well as create its own committees and choose committee chairs, powers Mayor Alex Penelas now holds. Plus, since the task force finished its recommendations, Commissioner Dennis Moss has asked the county attorney's office to study whether the mayor's practice of establishing committee rules of procedure violates the charter.
The charter review team also recommended killing the mayor's veto power on such committee appointments.
A further stripping of mayoral power included limiting the mayor's veto power over general legislative matters, appropriations and line items on budget ordinances. That veto power now extends to resolutions that deal with the commission rules and procedures, quasi-judicial and zoning matters.
The task force also recommended adding the mayor to a list of officials eligible for a recall vote.
Any plans by Mayor Penelas to challenge the recommendations to change his authority is unknown. He did not return three phone calls or respond to a request for comment at his office.
The task force also strove to curb what it considered abuses of power at the commission level.
It proposed, largely as a means of getting the commission out of the procurement process, expanding the cone of silence on procurement matters so that the mayor, commissioners and their staff are forbidden from communicating with the manager's staff, the county's administrative staff, the selection committee or prospective bidders other than at a public commission meeting or in writing.
And to keep commissioners out of administrative matters, for example, the task force recommended adding the threat of firing the county manager and administrative staffers who abet commissioners in gaining undue influence.
Mr. Levin said that to his surprise there was some common ground between task force recommendations and the mayor, who came to two of its meetings. Each of the 13 task force members was appointed to represent a county commissioner.
Two voices on charter review, attorney Eugene Stearns and state Rep. Carlos Lacasa, argued that the changes were not nearly enough to leave an important and productive legacy for the county.
Mr. Stearns, appointed to the committee by Commissioner Jimmy Morales, for whom incorporation was a key focus during the meetings, wrote a dissenting minority opinion that called for a strong mayor.
Rep. Lacasa, not on the committee but invited to speak at one of its meetings, also prefers eliminating the county manager's office and splitting its powers between the commission and mayor. He also said the charter review recommendations were not far-reaching enough.
Instead, Mr. Lacasa said he is launching a legislative effort to give the state authority to propose amendments to the charter on which county residents would vote.
In summarizing the work of the task force, Mr. Levin said he thinks the value of the effort lies in raising the level of debate about the balance of power between the two branches of county government.