Commissioners, take your chains off the democratic process
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade County's commissioners are expending substantial amounts of your money, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer, in an ill-advised fight they can't possibly win to keep you from deciding how your government should work.
They've hired a Tallahassee law firm to tell them that some loophole might let them do what staff attorneys have already said they can't do legally: deny your right to vote on whether to add to the mayor's powers, thereby diminishing the commission's role.
Commissioners will ultimately fail miserably in this less-than-Quixotic quest for two reasons.
First, the state's highest court has just made clear that you have a right to vote. Paying lawyers your tax money will not change that — though the attorneys are quite willing to take the $325 an hour.
Second, when you do go to the polls — as, believe me, you will — you'll be so fed up with waste of taxes merely to preserve commissioners' fiefdoms that you'll hand the mayor more power. The commissioners are bringing it on themselves.
No one is blameless in this mess.
It all started when Mayor Carlos Alvarez, fresh from election victory, revealed that the main plank in his campaign platform had always been to revamp government so that he and not commissioners would name the county manager. For good measure, he decided that he, not the manager, should name department heads. He'd also appoint all county representatives to boards, commissions, committees and governmental agencies.
Somehow, during the campaign, he'd forgotten to mention this principal aim, which would tear down whatever wall remains in our very political county between professional civil-service and self-serving appointments to jobs.
Also, immediately upon election, Mayor Alvarez let us know that he considered the county commission to be functioning at approximately the level of snakes in the grass — possibly an apt comparison but an impolitic way to begin a "partnership" with 13 commissioners, who subsequently opposed anything he proposed (which, other than cutting down their roles, was negligible).
Clearly unable to get commissioners to consider yielding their powers, the mayor and a team that to this day has not been unveiled began a petition drive to get the changes he wants onto the ballot.
Guess what? With more scandals surfacing seemingly daily, the mayor got 123,806 valid signatures, far more than needed. Still, it took multiple court actions to require commissioners to schedule a referendum by Jan. 25 — a move they have yet to make.
Having seemingly exhausted every legal means, commissioners last week voted unanimously to hire lawyers who'd tell them that they could finagle a way around doing the right thing. You'd expect nothing less of our commission.
These commissioners, with their administrators, have presided over bleeding airport spending, a fire-department overtime fiasco, lost millions for affordable housing that was never built, a Water and Sewer Department purchase and use of 10 times as many cell phones as there are authorized users, construction of a performing-arts center at more than double budget — and counting — more than seven years after formal groundbreaking and so forth. Obviously, these are the perfect folks to decide how much money to waste preserving their authority.
They're out to do just that.
It almost makes you wish Mayor Alvarez' plan were in effect today — one giant calling the shots instead of 13 midgets.
I said almost.
Because even assuming Mr. Alvarez could play the role of giant, his plan is the last thing we need.
Commissioners are right about that, but for the absolutely wrong reason. They're all about preserving their power. We should be all about true divisions between elected leaders and a professional staff that's not supposed to be political.
I said not supposed to.
The barriers between politics and civil service are shaky today. But why institutionalize that weakness?
Still, despite myriad flaws riddling the mayor's plan, which we'll eagerly enumerate once it's on the ballot, he and his team have every legal right to put it before voters now. That's how democracies function.
"The powers who oppose the proposed form of government do not want residents to vote on the merits of the strong-mayor issue. They do not want residents to have the chance to vote at all," Mr. Alvarez correctly stated in a letter published Sunday in the Miami Herald. "They use the legal system not to seek truth or justice but as a tool to stall, delay or circumvent the democratic principles that provide for free and timely elections."
Possibly the truest words the mayor ever wrote, or had written for him.
As commissioners seek to deny the public its right to vote, they build a case for the mayor's plan.
That's a shame, for three reasons.
First, they further weaken public trust in government.
Second, they spend our tax dollars foolishly.
Third, they surely build support for the mayor's misguided effort.
The smartest thing commissioners could do is get out of the way of democracy. Permit us to vote quickly and vow to immediately convene a charter commission to craft needed overhauls if only the public will trust them enough to turn down a badly flawed remedy for very real problems.
Otherwise, friend commissioners, kiss those powerful fiefdoms goodbye.