County administration will turn spotlight off backroom deals
By Michael Lewis
Occasionally an idea is so self-evident that you marvel that nobody did it long ago.
That's the case with Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto's legislation to outlaw backroom deals between the administration and commissioners to trade favors for votes.
It's obvious that, in a state that purports to require government in the sunshine, passage would be a no-brainer.
Why, then, is it likely that the administration and a commission majority will kill the effort or water it down to make it useless?
Mr. Souto's proposal of last week is likely to go nowhere precisely because it proposes to do the public's business in public. That's the last thing the county administration wants.
As we saw in votes for a baseball stadium and on the recent budget, the legislative process was short-circuited as commissioners met in private one by one with the county manager.
The administration will say these meetings were merely to answer each question in detail. But why can't answers come in front of the commission? What is secret in what each lawmaker needs to know about legislation?
And if briefing one by one is vital, what could be objectionable about Mr. Souto's proposal to give the public and other commissioners one day's notice of those meetings and get the chance to listen in?
The spokesperson for Mayor Carlos Alvarez and County Manager George Burgess and everyone else in the county, Vicki Mallette, asks rhetorically whether Mr. Souto's proposal would paralyze government. That surely will be the administration's excuse.
But since most briefings of commissioners are planned far more than one day ahead, would the paralysis be in the scheduling or in the public spotlight on the "wheeling and dealing" that Mr. Souto cites as standard in the county today?
Hand it to Mr. Souto: he comes right out and talks about what everyone denies but knows is fact: "the practice of vote trading between the Board of County Commissioners and the Administration."
"There's too much hanky-panky here lately and I think the manager has been wheeling and dealing and overstepping his bounds," Mr. Souto says, citing vote trading that "eliminates the voters and the general public from the legislative process entirely."
He's not mincing words. For whatever reasons, his legislation takes the high road in a county where the apparently legal but often quite low road has become better traveled.
He wants to make it illegal for the manager or his team to pick off one vote at a time in private talks that offer funding for a pet project in exchange for a needed yes — or deny funding if a commissioner won't take the bait.
You'd think such dealings would be outlawed already. After all, commissioners or their staffs can't legally discuss outside of a public session anything that might come to a vote.
But that doesn't hold for the administration. The manager and his aides can corner commissioners one by one and nobody outside the room ever knows what went on. Was it an explanation or a browbeating or a bit of horse-trading? You, John and Jane Citizen, will never know — but we all have our suspicions, and that destroys trust in government.
One thing we do know: when the manager and Florida Marlins officials met one on one with commissioners before a stadium vote, promises were made — but we know that only because a few commissioners leaked them during debate. Nobody knows what else was promised to whom in exchange for what.
What kind of open government is that?
So Mr. Souto proposes this solution:
—Communications not just between commissioners but between commissioners and county staff dealing with present or possible future legislation must be at a meeting open to the public.
—The public and other commissioners would know of the meetings at least 24 hours in advance.
—Minutes must be taken at those meetings — minutes that are public.
—Violations could bring up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500.
Note a key point: not only could the public be present, but one commissioner could learn what another is told, or promised. Suddenly, all commissioners would know as much as the administration was willing to unveil to any of them. That would remove a powerful administration weapon: selective access to information — vote my way or you're frozen out.
Of course, Mr. Souto's plan would diminish the manager's power to lead commissioners around by the nose. But that's proper, because we elect commissioners, not administrators, to make policy.
The manager and his staff might or might not be right, and commissioners might or might not be bright, but it's the commissioners that we elected. The fact that they could be better does not negate their duty to vote as they see fit or give administrators the right to push elected officials around.
Carlos Gimenez, who had asked the law department to draft similar legislation, says he's likely to ask Mr. Souto's OK at the Dec. 1 commission meeting to co-sponsor this wise measure.
But they might not have much company.
Commissioners for years have brought home pet projects via the horse-trading that this measure would make public. And, up to now, that's been legal — though it violates the spirit of Florida's Sunshine Law.
This legislation is, in fact, so obviously right that it's obvious opposition will build under a specious excuse like "government efficiency."
In fact, the administration is likely to resort to backroom horse-trading and hanky-panky and wheeling and dealing precisely to make certain that it can continue to govern via backroom horse-trading and hanky-panky and wheeling and dealing.
Still, the public should applaud Mr. Souto for having the courage to call it like it is. His proposal is so self-evident that administration wheeling and dealing will be hot and heavy to kill it.