Would muzzling media and mayor fix county contract mess?
By Michael Lewis
County Commissioner Natacha Seijas is coalescing support for an admirable effort by Mayor Carlos Alvarez to get the commission out of the contract business.
He's right. The commission should make policy and professionals working under the manager should carry out that policy, awarding needed contracts. That buffers favoritism, politics and graft.
Unfortunately, Commissioner Seijas wasn't trying to help. She was trying to deter reform by saying that the only problem is talk in the media about contract scandals and the mayor's pointing to the commission's role in the messes.
Her error was committing herself to paper, producing last week what she called a white paper. In trying to hide the problem, she leaves a trail of evidence supporting reform.
First, she cites a study to dispute the mayor's contention that the commission, a legislative body, spends too much time on procurement, an executive function.
His point: Contracts aren't the commission's job.
Her point: The commission spends just 10% of its time on contracts.
Our point: Any time spent is too much time second-guessing professionals in a game that features flocks of lobbyists whose services inflate the ultimate cost of contracts to taxpayers.
Ms. Seijas' skimpy study covered just three election-season months.
Suppose she'd picked other dates. Take the protracted debates over airport baggage-wrapping involving, incredibly, 36 lobbyists. In the end, the commission accepted the county manager's recommended contract - a painfully convoluted trip to wind up just where the process began.
Look at the contract to sell phone cards at the airport that three politically connected firms got without competitive bids. That issue dragged on for more than half a decade.
How about a contract the commission debated for more than a year before an 8-2 vote to give it to AT&T, the company the manager had recommended? The county lost more than $14,000 revenue every day while the commission listened to lobbyists in that year-plus. The battle, incredibly, hinged on the fact that AT&T long-distance service reaches Cuba.
No staffer would have rejected a deal that paid the county $14,000 extra each day. Only the commission could mess up that deal - and it did, for more than a year, for a reason that had nothing to do with the services in question.
Ms. Seijas says the commission has improved markedly in the past decade in contract awards. Yet all these fumbles came in that decade - and she sat on the commission during that time.
Ms. Seijas notes in her white paper that the public distrusts the commission's handling of contracts.
"Why do so many people see the commission this way?" she asks. And she answers. "This perception is based on the load of news stories published in the early 1990s."
Yep, it's the media's fault. The commission is blameless.
Dare we note that the above examples of shameless commission meddling came at the behest of lobbyists who provide political campaign funding, and perhaps more, occurred after the early 1990s? If we do, it's again the media's fault.
But another villain lurks: the mayor, who seeks needed reform.
"Granted," Ms. Seijas or someone on her staff writes, "it does not help when elected officials make unfounded statements that bolster the public's lingering negative perception."
It doesn't take statements by the elected mayor for the business community to know that to get a significant county contract, you may need 13 lobbyists - one close to each commissioner.
A former aviation director - can you guess which? - once noted that she had never before seen a process where lobbyists controlled what the commission did. That hardly squares with Ms. Seijas' contention that "the procurement-reform story in Miami-Dade is progressive by any standard."
And why is commission meddling in contracts needed, Commissioner Seijas?
"Scrutiny by so many elected officials ensures accountability," she writes.
Actually, it ensures that many responsive bids by reputable firms at reasonable prices will never be made, commissioner, because they don't want to go through the process of hiring the flocks of lobbyists who could give them an unfair edge in a loaded procurement process driven by commissioners.
What will happen, commissioner, if the board doesn't meddle in contracts?
"If you do it, the entire system crumbles," she writes. "All of the trust and confidence that has been built up over the last 10 years will disappear."
That's like saying that all of the snow piled up on Miami Beach will melt. There's no more public trust in the commission than there is snow covering the shoreline.
She sees an even more perilous consequence of reform. "Most importantly, the right to challenge the staff decisions in a televised commission meeting will be lost."
As, presumably, will be lost millions in lobbyists' fees as they challenge staff decisions through the on-camera commissioners of their choice.
Mayor Alvarez says he will try to work with the commission to reform a sick process.
Commissioner Seijas says the only thing wrong is the mayor and the media looking into the problem.
The mayor says if the commission won't fix the obviously serious problem, he'll take it to voters by referendum.
Based on Commissioner Seijas' unwillingness to admit that the problem lies with the commission itself, he'd better get those referendum plans drawn. A commission that will not see the problem will never willingly fix it. The voters can - and they should.