False cure for county's ills could turn out to be a poison pill
By Michael Lewis
Anyone with even casual interest in county government's vast impact on the way we live, work and do business knows we need a shot in the arm. Miami-Dade County is diseased at the top.
Voters will decide Jan. 23 whether an unusual variant on the strong-mayor format is their remedy for our systemic illness.
But the revolution that would occur if that vote passes would over time increase our malady. The cure would be worse than the disease.
Sickened by county scandal after county scandal, it's natural to grasp for any old nostrum that might shore up leadership. We know that what we have isn't functioning, so why not try something else?
The answer is: Be very, very careful what you wish for.
Russians jumped from a czarist rule to a far worse communist dictatorship. Cubans ditched a Batista regime for vastly more destructive long-term oppression under Castro. Don't leap from the frying pan into the fire.
We've been handed a pill by an unknown chemist who in private crafted a dangerous change in government, yet many of us are ready to swallow it because the present system is dysfunctional.
But few know what's inside that secretly prepared remedy. We haven't read the label carefully.
Proponents say it would give us a strong mayor, which many big cities have. But examine the fine print because this scheme differs radically from what works in other cities. If voters approve Jan. 23:
The commission would be removed as the county's governing body. Contemplating such a major operation without public study or input is inconceivable.
The mayor would become official head of the county for all ceremonial purposes and for all civil-court processes, would sign all legal documents and would head emergency management. Powers would shift from a manager whose craft is administration to an elected mayor whose craft is politics.
The mayor would administer all departments and would execute all contracts. In a county where contracts long have been a contested source of campaign contributions and more, a single person could control whether every contract with the county is ever signed — a far-too-tempting opportunity.
The mayor would get the new power to recommend commission resolutions, ordinances and other actions. Coupled with other new powers and the subsequent new leverage over commissioners, this would hand the mayor not only administrative but legislative control. The mayor could make the rules, administer them and control the contracts they entail. Haven't we had enough scandal already?
The mayor could attend and speak at commission meetings, another step to total power.
The mayor alone would name the manager, an appointment the commission would need nine votes to override. With new leverage over contracts, legislation and county jobs, any mayor would have a lock on this.
The mayor alone could direct or dismiss the manager. The manager would need to pay no heed at all to anything the commission said.
The mayor would appoint all representatives to boards, commissions, committees and agencies. That would mean all links to the state would be under the mayor's control, as would all local groups that look at everything from arts to transportation. This provision would offer the mayor enormous new leverage — and again, more fundraising capability and opportunity to misuse position for personal gain.
The mayor would name all departmental directors unless nine commissioners immediately voted no. This would make the manager a figurehead and allow a mayor to politicize not only the top jobs in every department but all 30,000 county jobs down the line. Patronage that ruined big US cities a century ago by making every job a political plum instead of a professional position would rule in Miami-Dade.
Even more dangerous, the mayor alone could reprimand, remove or discharge department heads, who control all contract specifications and awards. Every job in every department would be under the mayor's thumb every minute — and every contract as well. What better way to build a political machine inside government, and what better format for every form of political mischief?
With all that upheaval looming, we deserve more public study and input than the diagnosis Mayor Carlos Alvarez pulled from his back pocket after he was elected and told us he had campaigned on — though he never disclosed his strong-mayor prescription until after he took office.
Mr. Alvarez still has not disclosed who was involved in writing the flawed document that would produce the most sweeping change in the county in 50 years and potentially the most devastating ever, depending solely on who holds the mayor's office.
If those aren't compelling-enough reasons to reject the changes Jan. 23, we'll detail more in weeks ahead and suggest a true, realistic cure for our county's ills that could leave us stronger than ever.
If you don't look at the details, it's appealing to leap from the frying pan we're in today. But first, look at the fire down below in the mayor's fatal cure-all and vote no.