Proper charter study could benefit all, commission included
By Michael Lewis
Congratulations to Miami-Dade commissioners. They're headed toward what residents agree is vital: Today (11/9), they may trigger an election that could vitally upgrade county structure.
No, this isn't the strong-mayor vote. This is far better for our future.
A formal review of the county operating charter, which the commission is to consider, is the proper forum to decide how to structure government — not a single-issue plan drafted by an unnamed team, as is the drive for a strong mayor.
Commissioners, it's true, are using charter review to fend off recall elections such as Natacha Seijas faces Dec. 19 and to defeat a strong-mayor vote that by law must be held by Jan. 24. They want to sway voters to await broad reform and to reject a narrow plan for a strong mayor alone.
That deadly double-barreled shotgun at their backs — recall and a strong mayor — is forcing commissioners to meet a legal requirement that we review the charter every five years. It's been more than five since the last review.
But set aside the impetus. The output could vastly improve the way this county operates — if done properly.
The county attorney's office is to give commissioners a framework for a review. That office undoubtedly will suggest rules that make commissioners happy. But while that may meet the law, that's not the purpose of a charter review.
As they select a process, commissioners should remember that this is the people's charter. It is aimed to benefit the whole county. Therefore, ground rules should not tilt toward retaining and enhancing commission power and status but toward making Miami-Dade a better place to live, to work and to do business.
The commission must not hamstring a review team by limiting what it may dig into — or how. And the commission should guarantee up front that all output will wind up on the ballot — even recommendations that may not thrill commissioners.
Without such guarantees, the public will believe the game is rigged and strong-mayor advocates will gain ammunition. In a review not rigged to protect turf, there's no guarantee of the outcome — if there were, the process would be phony.
A strong mayor might be debated. So could term limits as well as substantial pay raises to bring commissioners up to the level of every other urban county in Florida. If we're very fortunate, a review would sift alternatives to the single-member districts that have parochialized county government.
For the last charter review, 13 commissioners picked a panel member each. Four selected themselves, and three selected lobbyists. Any wonder the outcome was wishy-washy?
This time, rules must exclude commissioners or those who lobby them and thus can be controlled. Last time, four plus three placed a majority directly in commission hands. The process should be truly independent.
First, make the review committee fewer than 13 and use majority commission vote so none would be beholden to any single commissioner.
Then, set parameters for nominees. Get candidate pools and let the commission debate in public which to choose.
A professor of government organization. Ask each college and university president to name the faculty's best. Commissioners would pick one, and charter deliberations will start with an expert on board.
A former commissioner, to assess the commission's turf without directly benefiting. Commissioners could sift all former colleagues who don't now hold county office and aren't registered lobbyists.
A former county manager or assistant, to assess county staff, organization and integrity. They can use valuable insight without feeling the commission's sway.
A business leader who knows what government does to the business climate and what it can do to enhance the economy. Let chambers of commerce and economic development organizations nominate one each — the commission would pick from this broad pool.
Two unaffiliated residents, who could nominate themselves after county notice that seats are available. Commissioners would pick two.
A wildcard, whom commissioners would name from among all nominees they didn't choose in the first round.
These seven would then nominate others countywide and elect four more. That would add four panelists at arm's length from the commission, adding impartiality.
We'd wind up with no lobbyists, no commissioners, no representatives of special groups grandfathered in — just interested and, one prays, thoughtful citizens beholden to nobody and seeking the best for their county.
That's a great start. But more is needed: financial and staffing independence.
Before committee selections begin, commissioners must amply fund the effort so the review team doesn't have to come hat-in-hand begging once it's enmeshed in touchy topics.
Enough money is needed for the team to hire staff from the outside. If it uses county employees others choose, it's caught as badly as the county's hogtied Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, which was supposed to oversee transit tax spending. Whoever controls the wallet, and the staffing controls the process.
Finally, funding must include out-of-town experts. If the team chooses, it should be able to tap the nation's best minds on urban government.
The aim is to make government the best possible. For a charter review deals not with individuals, with personalities, with politics or with corruption. It deals with system. That won't rule out rotten apples, but it can minimize their impact.
A full review takes time. Drafting a single-issue patch like a strong-mayor plan is fast. It's much more laborious to envision government as a whole and suggest integrated improvements.
Since a strong-mayor vote is near, commissioners should specify a ballot date for an integrated and presumably better upgrade. Set the charter vote a year or more in the future, but set it now even though its topics may be narrow or broad and pleasing or displeasing to commissioners.
If commissioners set the date now, they might persuade voters to leave their powers intact today in hopes of truly effective repairs tomorrow rather than a quick but leaky strong-mayor patch.
If commissioners take the high road now rather than reacting after a strong-mayor vote passes, they stand a better chance of attaining their aims. Paradoxically, so do critics.
A truly independent charter review by a team adequately funded and impartially selected could be Miami-Dade County's greatest win-win in decades.