Strong-mayor Rx a simplistic remedy with fatal side effects
By Michael Lewis
Voters soon will determine with a simple yes or no whether to remake Miami-Dade County's government.
The sparse ballot question on a strong mayor is the worst way to restructure a county larger in size, budget and impact than many nations. But that's the way Mayor Carlos Alvarez wants it - simplistic and unstudied.
If he has his way, he would be handed a new far-ranging job, assuming the manager's role and much of the county commission's power in a new operating dynamic.
Incredibly, voters who only know that they're fed up with county government may be suckered into approving a charter change to remake the mayor's job with intensified power. The 170,000 signatures his troops turned in Saturday will force this vote. They prove that at least 170,000 people back a massive change, whether or not they understand it.
Mayor Alvarez, a former police chief, was elected as an outsider who was perceived as honest. His political skills in county hall were unknown, but voters hungered for change.
The mayor's political skills in county hall are now better known. He has single-handedly unified the 13-member commission for the first time to work for a single cause.
That cause is to thwart the mayor.
It's the only time in memory that on a major policy issue, the entire commission has been correct.
As for the mayor's honesty, corruption is not an issue. But in his campaign last fall, he never hinted that his aim was to remake government. It was only after he was elected that he let that polecat out of the bag.
The county now runs under a mayor and a commission. The mayor names a manager to head the staff and enact policies of elected officials. The manager, a professional, also insulates staff from retribution or the dictates of elected officials. Employees are supposed to function without political pressures.
This may work imperfectly today, but that's what the system was created to do.
The most egregious plank in the mayor's plan is to remove the manager as buffer, subjecting rank-and-file employees to potential pressures from a single person, the mayor. The mayor would replace the manager in function. Every department head would report to the mayor, so every job would rest on the mayor's favor.
A mayor could be tempted to make employees do whatever campaign contributors want. Every job would be on the line every day - not to serve the public but to meet political needs.
Today, potential pressure is spread among 13 commissioners and the mayor, not handed to one person who could discharge anyone who doesn't play ball. That system is better suited to dictatorships.
Major US cities functioned as Mr. Alvarez proposes until the early 1900s, when reformers created manager posts to combat graft and thwart the patronage system, under which jobs were controlled totally by politics.
Now, government has become more complex, technology has changed the world, demands have grown and relationships among municipal, county, state and federal governments have become intricate. Miami-Dade in particular links to other nations in ways most cities could not even dream of.
Professional administration rather than one-man power is essential. It sounds good, but having John Wayne walking down Main Street with six guns blazing is not the way to clean up Miami-Dade's problems.
A mayor should offer vision and political skill. A manager must be a professional who understands the intricacies of the county. Rarely does one person combine those attributes. Yet the referendum would require the mayor to be both.
Mr. Alvarez has yet to exhibit either skill set. As a politician, he has alienated the commission from day one, so he couldn't get legislation passed if he had ever suggested any. He was elected, in fact, simply because voters didn't perceive him as political. His only effort at leading has been to add to his own power.
But even if Mr. Alvarez had both leadership and administrative expertise, his successor probably would not.
Ask yourself this: Would ex-mayors Steve Clark or Alex Penelas have been good at the job that the referendum would create?
Or: Who else in this entire county would run for this job and handle both facets well, offering a vision from the pulpit of mayor and at the same time running the administrative staff to meet all of our needs?
Thought of anyone yet?
Now ask yourself another question: Since this job would be new, shouldn't Mr. Alvarez face another election if it passes? He was elected to an office with defined duties. This job would be vastly different. It would make an interesting legal case.
Mr. Alvarez argues that many big cities have strong mayors. But what does a mayor do in each? The structure we're handed without debate is not identical to any other city's. No formal study was done. Backroom decisions are the worst way to revamp government.
Why does the mayor want change? So that he can accomplish things.
And what has he tried to accomplish? Nothing.
He didn't propose new powers because the commission thwarted him - he has yet to unveil any program.
The mayor, to his credit, vetoed bad transit spending. But he has never offered any program, any vision for the county, anything that couldn't be accomplished without added power.
City of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz has less formal power than Mayor Alvarez, but he became a very strong mayor by energetically and thoughtfully laying out a program and working with others to make it happen.
What is Mayor Alvarez's program other than accumulating formal power? When will he unveil it?
We asked to meet about that, but he won't because he doesn't like what we write about him.
No matter how bad his proposal is, however, it could well pass, catapulting a thin-skinned former policeman with no apparent vision into a stronger role than this county has ever seen. Voters will only know that they are voting against the past, not what they will be buying in the future.
The best hope is that the newly united commission will muster a campaign against a misguided revolution whose potential for abuse in the wrong hands is far greater than the ills of government true reform would target.
The strong-mayor cure would be far worse than the disease. It's bad medicine we shouldn't take.