Miami-Dade Commissioner Souto pushes to end backroom deals between county officials and commissioners
By Risa Polansky
To stamp out what he calls county "vote trading," "hanky panky" and "wheeling and dealing," Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto is pushing to make public legislative meetings between lawmakers and administrators.
His proposed law, revealed late Monday, would require at least 24-hour public notice before a meeting between a commissioner or commission staffer and the mayor, county manager or administrative staff regarding "any matter which could foreseeably come before the county commission…"
The meetings would be open to the public, as would the minutes also required in Mr. Souto's proposed law.
Or, written communication, which wouldn't require a meeting, would be made available to the public.
Violations would mean an up-to $500 fine and/or up to 60 days in jail.
"There's too much hanky-panky here lately, and I think the manager has been wheeling and dealing and overstepping his bounds, really," Mr. Souto said in an interview Tuesday, the first time in memory a commissioner has publicly alleged behind-the-scenes deal-making.
What he says he's been hearing from the administration: "You don't vote for this, you don't get that."
The proposed law could stop the practice, Mr. Souto said.
"At least, he's [the manager] not going to push me… He has done so on several matters."
He cited as an example the recent budget process, comprised of several public meetings where commissioners took informal polls, and a final vote before which commissioners left the dais for private talks with administrators.
But from now on, what he called vote trading "won't fly with me," Mr. Souto said.
He learned during his time as a state senator, he said, that "you don't fool around with things like that."
Manager Mr. Burgess did not return calls for comment.
Spokesman Vicki Mallette said administrators never received a memo from Mr. Souto on the issue. Mr. Souto's legislation was sent to media Monday from the commission chairman's office.
"We would hope Senator Souto would communicate with the administration if he had concerns," she said. "I think his legislation is probably well-intentioned," but the "practical applications" raise concerns.
"Are we going to paralyze government?" Ms. Mallette asked, referencing the hundreds of items that come before commissioners at meetings.
But, she said, "being in the sunshine is a good thing. We like that… That's something we seek."
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said he's on the "same wavelength" as Mr. Souto and has been working on similar legislation.
"The administration is able to, in my words, pick commissioners off one at a time. They're able to horse-trade a vote for this, and I'll give you that," he said. "I don't think that's right. That should be subject to the sunshine."
Florida's "sunshine" law makes the state one of the most open when it comes to governmental dealings.
The law "establishes a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities," the state attorney general's Web site says.
Under the law, commissioners can't communicate privately.
If they want to discuss an issue, they must call what's known as a "sunshine meeting" that's advertised and open to the public.
The rules don't apply to talks between administrators and commissioners.
But they should, Mr. Gimenez said.
Behind closed doors, "they're [administrators] able to basically divide and conquer when it comes to something they want to do."
He said, though, that he's never truly seen the practice in action.
"You certainly look at things that happen and say, "I wonder why that happened,' and later on an individual gets something in the budget or something they were very interested in."
He pointed out, though, that "there's nothing illegal about what's going on in the administration — there's no law that says they can't do what they're doing… It's just that it happens. And is it right? Probably not."
Mr. Souto's legislation would make such practice illegal.
Not everyone perceives "vote trading" going on behind the scenes.
"If it is, I'm not getting the benefit of it, but somebody else might be," Commissioner Joe Martinez said. "I really don't know — it hasn't occurred with me."
He's not a fan of Mr. Souto's newly unveiled proposal from what he knows, he said, but "assuming that he is going to strengthen it, I definitely want to hear where vote trading has occurred, and depending on what he brings out, I may very well support it."
But Mr. Martinez predicts the same pitfall as the administration's Ms. Mallette.
"You won't be able to do anything in this county at all.… I sincerely believe that the bureaucracy would impede the progress — in this case, completely stop the process," Mr. Martinez said. "I'm really very interested in hearing about it. It may have validity. However, if this goes in, you can forget about government moving forward whatsoever."
Mr. Gimenez also mentioned a possible "chilling effect."
"Could it have a chilling effect? Could it slow down government? Yeah, it can," he said. "But I don't know of any other way to stop this backroom dealing."
Some commissioners did not return requests for comment.
Chair Dennis Moss said through a spokesman he's reserving comment until Mr. Souto brings the issue to the commission.
The proposed legislation is to come up Dec. 1.