Democracy, Miami-Dade style: Don't let the people vote Miami-Dade
By Michael Lewis
commissioners are cavalierly tossing out a 21-member team's legally required proposals to upgrade county government.
Paradoxically, commissioners themselves chose most of the toothless team that by law must recommend every five years updates to the county charter — equivalent to a constitution.
Only voters can make the changes, but commissioners have inserted themselves as censors to prevent us from ever getting a chance to do anything not in commissioners' own interests.
Of course, commissioners couch their interests in terms of the public good. In Miami-Dade, it's not in the public interest unless it augments commissioners' power and keeps them in office.
In aborting the review team's call to change the charter so overwhelming recommendations could go directly to voters, Commissioner Natacha Seijas said putting issues to the public without commission approval "becomes a power-base creating menu" for the charter review group.
"We really don't know what the thought process is on the person we might appoint," she said. "The consequences will come back to us to be able to deliver. That person just goes back to their environment and doesn't have to risk anything, certainly doesn't have to risk a recall," as Commissioner Seijas recently did.
Thursday was commissioners' first formal look at the charter report, six months in the making. They held it more than two months without discussion, then proposed for the ballot 23 items — almost half of which run counter to the review team's 18 major recommendations.
Furthermore, commissioners aren't going to let us vote on most of the team's recommendations. The commission will kill those carefully weighed proposals, the public be damned.
"We should empower them to freely discuss any item that should be brought in front of the commission," said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, but not allow a public vote unless the commission concurs. "I don't think it's healthy for this community to allow a group to place items directly for the electors."
Reminded that the state does exactly that in revising its tax structure, she said, "We are not the state."
Sending review recommendations directly to the ballot, said Commissioner Sally Heyman, could affect the commission, causing "some unintended consequences that may be adverse to how we operate or what our future objectives are."
Heaven forbid that the public be allowed to tamper with the commission's future objectives — if they have any that stretch past the next election. Or that charter review team members stray from the commission's objectives in recommending the best way to structure government.
Commissioner Dennis Moss said he gave free rein to his taskforce appointee, former County Attorney Murray A. Greenberg, only because he knew the commission could quash anything the review team proposed.
If measures were to go directly to voters, Mr. Moss said, his appointee "is going to mirror my views as opposed to someone who approaches it from a purely objective perspective."
Maybe that's why Mr. Greenberg said in January it might be hard to appoint worthwhile members to a future charter review if they knew their ideas would go nowhere after extended study and discussion.
Last in October, Mr. Greenberg put the issue of commission censorship of charter proposals more bluntly: "I just feel like I'm wasting my time. I think we all are."
But Mr. Moss is concerned with letting a deliberative body that the commission controls give voters unfettered say. "We know that if you put certain issues before the voters they are going to support it.... Sometimes we have to make decisions that may not be popular, but we make those decisions because we feel those decisions are in the best interest of the community, and if we put some of this stuff out to the voters, yes, they'll support it, but is that the best thing for Miami-Dade County?"
Or for Commissioner Moss?
Those voters, after all, can be dangerous unless we limit what they vote on. We call that democracy — or do I mean demagoguery?
So Mr. Moss let Mr. Greenberg do and say what he wanted so long as it didn't count. If it had counted because it would go to voters directly, he said, he'd have to appoint "someone who understands the marching orders."
Commissioner Barbara Jordan said even after telling taskforce members how to vote, she'd worry about sending their recommendations directly to voters uncensored.
"The only concern I would have," she said, "is I pick someone and give them their marching orders and then they recognize the power that they have and switch out on me."
Don't worry about getting the chance to vote directly: it isn't going to happen. While commissioners last week decided nothing, they made clear what they'll do about the plea to put future taskforce suggestions directly on the ballot.
"You can see where this one goes," Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro said to chuckles all around as he concluded the discussion.
It goes precisely where commissioners want it to go — nowhere — as is likely to happen to other thoughtful charter review recommendations. Not that we support them all: we reject a few, and we'd hope voters would too — if the commission ever gave them a chance.
Nevertheless, these proposals should go on the ballot, simply because it's hundreds of thousands of voters, not just this newspaper or 13 commissioners, who should get to decide of how they want their local constitution to read.
Instead, commissioners want us to vote on their own pet changes, ideas the review team explicitly rejected. And, they're throwing their blatantly self-serving ballot questions at us at the same time. What a slap in the face to the charter review team — and to all of us!
One commission-generated proposal would amend the charter so that the mayor and manager would no longer oversee the police department. Another commission-generated proposal would do the same with the elections department.
A conflicting commission-generated proposal would have voters elect the sheriff. Others would do the same with the supervisor of elections and the tax collector.
Commissioner Jordan even pulled from her pocket a 24th charter proposal — unwind the strong mayor government that voters just created, a change that vastly reduced the commission's powers.
Most of these are bad ideas. But even valid ideas that the taskforce rejected and the commission now proposes, such as raising commission pay while proposing term limits or barring outside jobs, belong nowhere near ballot questions on the review taskforce's work.
The commission is able to put its own issues, good or bad, to the public anytime, but it's unconscionable to muddy the waters by linking them to charter taskforce proposals. This would create massive voter confusion — or maybe that's the idea.
Further, the taskforce debated six months after expert testimony, but the commission is pulling these proposed ballot questions out of the air. Commissioners set the charter review rules, picked the players, set the time limit — and now ignore everything as they prevent a public vote to protect their own interests.
The question is: do commissioners really believe the voters are incapable of choosing the community's best interests, as Commissioner Moss said, or do commissioners fear that citizens are very capable of finding their best interests and therefore must be roadblocked to keep them from doing so?