Raises, term limits for commissioners packaged on Tuesday ballot
By Tom Harlan
Pay raises for Miami-Dade County commissioners have been rejected by voters at least five times since 1957, but the issue will be combined on Tuesday's ballot with a proposal to limit commissioners to four consecutive four-year terms.
The county combined the issues for Tuesday's Primary Election ballot, according to three board members who were reached for this report, because they think voters are more likely to support a salary increase if they can limit the number of years commissioners serve.
Miami-Dade commissioners receive about $8,000 a year and benefits and haven't received a salary increase in 47 years. Miami-Dade is one of the few counties in Florida that does not follow a state compensation formula. Instead, it uses a salary based on the county's population and pay scale in 1957.
An $8,000 salary was fair based on 1957 dollars, but it's artificially low by today's standards, said Robert Meyers, executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
If the ballot question is approved, commissioners will receive compensation based on a state formula that considers size of the county's population and how many hours a week a commissioner is expected to work among other factors. Under the formula, commissioners would receive about $84,200 a year, the salary of Broward County commissioners, and be able to work at the commission full-time, county officials said.
Higher salaries may not guarantee more ethical behavior, but they are likely to change public perception, Mr. Meyers said.
"The perception is what rational person would accept a professional job for $8,000 a year," he said. "If you pay a reasonable salary, you rid yourself of a certain level of discussion."
Citizens don't question the ethics of commissioners in Broward or Palm Beach counties, paid according to the state formula, he said.
"Compensation doesn't legitimize a position," said Commissioner Sally Heyman. She said the work of a commissioner is about helping members of the county not receiving a paycheck.
"But we're asking voters to legitimize the position with a legitimate wage."
A lower salary encourages conflicts of interest because it requires commissioners to have other types of employment that might conflict with their public duties, Mr. Meyers said.
But Richard Scher, University of Florida political science professor and public administration expert, said there is no evidence that higher salaries enhance ethical behavior by politicians.
Based on some legislature studies, higher salaries are effective in recruiting better candidates, but ethical behavior depends on the individuals and other social factors, he said.
County Commissioner Jimmy Morales said if the pay-raise question passes, the board will improve because it will be built from a broader pool of talented people who otherwise could not afford to serve.
Commissioner Rebecca Sosa said she supports the ballot question because a low salary shouldn't prevent talented individuals from running for a commission seat.
When faced with a low salary and long hours, future generations of leaders will turn down the chance to be commissioners because they will have trouble finding the time to work to support their families, she said.
"We need to motivate young people to get into politics," Ms. Sosa said. "Competition is healthy for democracy."
Commissioners who can work full-time have more time to penetrate county departments and resolve issues that affect the community, Ms. Sosa said.
"It breaks my heart when constituents call my office in the morning and say they want to talk to me and I can't call them until the afternoon," she said.
Higher salaries would encourage people who may have a calling for public service but haven't tried running for a commission seat because the salary is too low, said Mario Artecona, executive director of the Miami Business Forum.
Susan MacManus, political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said there's not much evidence that a higher salary makes more people run for office.
Local, state and national governments typically have representatives who have a higher income and more education than the people they represent. In addition, politicians usually must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign for office.
But money is just one factor that stops citizens who are motivated and committed to helping the community from running for office, Ms. Heyman said.
"When people decide to make the commitment to run and serve in public office, finances are a legitimate concern for most people along with other elements such as time demands and privacy issues," Ms. Heyman said.
"But if we pass this through commission and go on state formula like the rest of state, the voters will open up county commission seats to more people who want to get into public office who were otherwise restricted by economics."
Local observers and political analysts are in disagreement over whether the pay-raise issue should be attached to the term-limit proposal.
The issues were combined because voters are more likely to support the increase in salaries if they can limit the amount of time commissioners serve, Mr. Morales said. But he said the proposed limit is too broad.
"Voters may have a hard time thinking 16 years is a limit," he said. "That's why I prefer two or three terms instead of four."
An attempt to have two issues passed in one ballot question is idealistic, said Mr. Scher, and questions on a ballot are usually separated to keep from confusing voters.
Ms. Sosa said voters shouldn't worry about the term-limit question because it doesn't shorten terms and would give them a chance every four years to retain good commissioners and remove those not doing their jobs.
Commissioners should not face shorter limits on terms because the commission needs a balance of rookies and experienced leaders to be successful, she said.
Mr. Morales said he is not optimistic that the ballot question will pass because it has failed before voters every time.
Still, he said he supports the policy change even though he will leave the commission after this term and will not benefit from it. Mr. Morales is running for Miami-Dade County mayor.
"Maybe the people will vote for it this time," he said, "and open the door for everyone to help."