Alvarez, commissioners smiling — but battle lines are forming
By Dan Dolan
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez' ascension to executive authority was marked by public displays of congenitality and cooperation with the county commission last week.
But behind the public ritual, private battle lines are being drawn by both sides in a struggle for power that is shaking the core of county government, civic leaders say.
For the moment, at least, civic leaders say the mayor holds the upper hand, fresh from his victory in last week's special election that gave him all the executive powers once held by the appointed county manager.
However, before the election results were officially certified, county commissioners led by Carlos Gimenez mounted a serious bid to regain a measure of their lost control by giving initial approval to laws that would strip some of the mayor's police powers and tie him in a financial noose.
Mr. Alvarez fired right back, promising to veto legislation that would put the Miami-Dade Police Department's Official Corruption Unit under the control of a law-enforcement agency with no ties to the county government.
Though he stopped short of a veto threat, the mayor also vowed to fight passage of a law that requires line-item budgeting, strict fiscal-reporting requirements, new controls over money transfers and benchmarks for financial reserves.
"I oppose both these things on principle," Mr. Alvarez said. "It's outrageous to assume that the mayor could use his authority to influence a police investigation. And the financial legislation proposed by Mr. Gimenez could have a negative impact on government efficiency."
Last year, Mr. Gimenez tried to pass the same fiscal-control proposal. But faced with strong opposition from County Manager George Burgess, the ordinance never made it out of committee. But in the new political landscape, the fiscal controls sailed through the commission unchallenged. It is scheduled for a final vote later this month.
"Frankly, this is more important than the police-powers ordinance," Mr. Gimenez said. "Now more than ever, we need more oversight over the way the county's budget is developed and how money is spent. This isn't personal. It's about the process of government and restoring checks and balances. We have to make sure there can't be an abuse of power by the executive branch."
Mr. Gimenez said his proposal to attach the police department's Official Corruption Unit to a state law-enforcement agency is designed to prevent a mayor from using it as a political tool. He said a crooked mayor could order police to investigate political rivals — or commissioners who were causing too much trouble. He said a mayor might be able to quash an investigation into his own crimes.
Mr. Alvarez and top police brass say that's nonsense — and an insult to the department's professionalism. But commissioners passed the proposal 10-2 margin, which indicates there are enough votes to override any mayoral veto. A showdown on that legislation is scheduled for later this month, too.
However, the commission was careful to extend a visible olive branch to the mayor. A day after the election, Chairman Bruno A. Barreiro rearranged the dais in the commission's chamber to give the mayor his own seat next to the county manager.
Mr. Alvarez did not attend last week's commission session. But he said he will sit at the dais "on a case- by-case basis." Otherwise, he said, the county manager will represent the executive branch at commission meetings.
The mayor promised county staff will still respond directly to commissioners' request for information and action on problems in their individual districts.
"There's an existing procedure for reports and information," Mr. Alvarez said. "As the legislative body, the commission is entitled to that. But the commission should not be involved in operational issues, particularly personnel matters. I've told my directors that."
Mr. Alvarez held several closed-door meetings last week to explain his management philosophy to county executives. He has formed a transition team headed by Mr. Burgess, who controlled all day-to-day government operations until voters gave that power to the mayor.
"I told the managers I will not micro-manage, but I expect accountability and a hands-on attitude," he said. "I've also asked for departmental reports. I will meet with department heads to review projects and plans."
Meanwhile, the county commission is planning a review of its own. The county attorney's staff has been directed to study every piece of local legislation adopted since the Miami-Dade charter, the local equivalent of the US Constitution, went into effect about 50 years ago.
Commissioners want to find out what powers were delegated to the county manager and have now been assumed by the mayor. In part, commissioners said, the study will help them decide if they want to take some of that authority back. The review will take at least three months.
Some commissioners don't want to wait that long to sort things out. Commissioners Dennis Moss, Audrey Edmonson, Rebeca Sosa, Joe Martinez and Gimenez have called for a special commission task force — or public workshop — to discuss the relative powers of the legislative and executive branches.
Mr. Barreiro hasn't taken action on the request. However, he said, "we'll be reviewing the process of transition to the strong-mayor form of government. We will remain vigilant that the powers of the county commission are not encroached upon."