In State of the County address, read between the lines
By Michael Lewis
Last week's State of the County address was memorable primarily for what Mayor Carlos Alvarez didn't say. Not a word about his showcase bid to personally control almost every smidgeon of county government.
Though he spent almost a year arguing that he must direct department heads, and though he made that the core of a referendum drive now mired in court, Mr. Alvarez didn't mention his misguided focus that became the county's biggest debate.
"I will be concentrating on the areas of procurement reform and specific authority for the office of the mayor," he said in his first address, on Feb. 18, 2005.
He did concentrate. But he has suddenly fallen silent on the struggle that left him alienated and with far less influence than ever. He has failed to find a single ally on the 13-member county commission.
Perhaps that's why last week's address was short on calls for action. The mayor asked commissioners for just two things: to fund a 12-month initiative to reduce crime and hold the line on development edging toward the Everglades.
Reducing crime won't find many opponents.
Holding the line, however, has few commission adherents. State admonitions against crossing the urban development boundary may sway the commission, but the isolated mayor won't.
Another matter on which he was unfortunately silent was commission salaries, which he targeted in his election campaign and in his first State of the County address.
"Our county commission is deserving of compensation comparable to the amount of work they do," he said last year, noting that higher pay "would allow them to function as a full-time body."
"We ask a lot of our commissioners while paying them only $6,000 a year," he added. "I will work with the county commission to ensure their compensation is consistent with their responsibilities."
Unfortunately, by that time, he had already spent 100 days in office alienating commissioners and had no bridge to them. So that pledge, too, fell by the wayside.
Too bad, because Mr. Alvarez was absolutely right. Though his bid to make himself de facto manager was off base, paying commissioners fairly was on the mark if only because it would expand the pool of qualified candidates.
We and others have chastised the mayor for a narrow focus. Perhaps not all of that was fair because his speech a year ago did go beyond his effort to amass power.
In 2005, he pledged to facilitate construction permitting, which remains a work in process; ensure accountability in spending General Obligation Bond funds under a strong citizens committee, strength that was largely eviscerated; and work "to ensure that the Florida Marlins remain in Miami-Dade County for many years to come" by completing a stadium deal that subsequently fell apart.
Mr. Alvarez in 2005 also recognized that Miami International Airport, which had just lost its director, is "our county's premier economic engine" and said, "We are currently conducting an international search to identify the most progressive and experienced airport professional. I want to assure you this will be an open process based on merit and fitness for the position."
The director chosen by international search was a local highway professional with no aviation experience whatsoever - a typical Miami-Dade open international search. The mayor last week listed that appointment under "progress."
In that speech, he also listed six "new priorities," none a surprise but some headed for controversy. Among them was to create a wireless county for all, which may generate static in his own administration.
Most important may be his bid for vital affordable housing. Last month, he told County Manager George Burgess to identify every spot 1 acre or larger that the county either owns or could buy on which developers could build affordable housing.
The idea is admirable, but implementation is fraught with pitfalls - see our report this week on Homestead's reaction. And this isolated mayor could be stymied on even the best crafted of plans.
Moreover, chosen developers are likely to be politically connected and deal with very large sums. In any community, danger would lurk there. And this isn't just any community.
If the highflying luxury-housing market explodes in midair, an affordable-housing deal on government-provided land would be a golden parachute for developers - and the economy.
This plan is far from reality. The mayor cannot act without commissioners' assent. But this may be one initiative they'd be very pleased to deal with - the operative word being "deal."
Applaud the mayor for confronting a true crisis. But navigating his course through the county's shark-infested waters without allowing political favoritism to take the helm could be his biggest challenge this year.
Let's hope this issue doesn't disappear from the agenda next year, as his much-touted equitable commission pay did this year.
As for his now-shrouded plan to amass more power over daily county functions, goodbye and good riddance.