Miami's city hall turmoil a prelude to financial upheavals
By Michael Lewis
Love or hate the new team at Miami City Hall, you've got to pray for them.
Plus, you need to cut them extensive slack as they fight through testing issues, of which largest by far is the city's financial instability.
Normally, a new mayor and commission majority arrive with grand expectations. Given Miami's perils, prayers are more appropriate.
That's not to denigrate the recently or soon-to-be elected or appointed. The United Nations would more than have hands full in Miami.
And lest you think that because you don't live in the city the peccadillos and scandals for which it has been known over past decades don't hurt you, remember this: Miami is the global nametag for this region — all the luster and all the grime.
How do you sell tourism or investment or real estate globally under the shame of the city? The stigma extends beyond municipal or county limits — if you're in South Florida, the reputation rubs off, good or bad.
In case you've been on a desert island, review just November's events.
First, a mayor far better regarded outside his city than in is replaced by a mere mortal, Tomás Regalado. In the same election, the commission gets two newcomers with family ties to past mayors who were tarred, fairly or not, with japes about mental stability.
Ah, but those sea changes barely scratch the surface. Post-election, two of the remaining three commissioners were hit with unrelated criminal charges. One resigned, one was removed.
Then the city couldn't figure out how to fill the vacancies. The commission couldn't even meet — it didn't have a three-member quorum, because one new commissioner was still being elected via runoff.
At last count — and like everything in Miami, this is a moving target — the resigned commissioner's seat will be filled by commission appointment and the removed commissioner's seat by election. (Are you following all of this?)
But wait: the removed commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, vows to run again now. Moreover, she's likely to win.
What then? Would the governor let her sit while awaiting trial? And, if he removed her, would a replacement be appointed, or would she run and win yet again? Stay tuned.
But that's not all the turmoil.
Mayor Regalado, who had strong union election support in a city where slimming bloated union contracts is key to financial survival, forced out Police Chief John Timoney, who also has national repute but the union's ire, and replaced him with a department lifer who wasn't even among top underlings. So Mr. Timoney's top aide then resigned.
Still more turmoil is coming.
Finance chief Larry Spring is a candidate for North Miami city manager (he already had lost the race for Coral Gables manager). If he loses, Mayor Regalado may not keep him anyhow.
Whether or not Mr. Spring is good at his job, his role is pivotal in a city whose main problem is money. As in, how will Miami pay its bills as pension liabilities soar out of sight? And, how will the city make up for a roughly 15% further decline in countywide property tax receipts next year, far more than double this year's massive tumble?
Don't forget, new condo towers aplenty on the tax roll mitigated this year's assessment cuts as property values fell. Next year will bring no new towers to offset continued assessment declines based on property prices that fell in 2009.
And prices of recently built units have fallen nowhere more than in Miami, epicenter of both the condo craze and now the condo meltdown.
Don't forget, also, that federal stimulus aid that arrived this year isn't likely to be repeated though national economic decline has swelled unemployment in Miami.
Is all that scary enough?
Ok, then, factor in potential frictions among a new flock of elected officials, compounded by family ties of two to mayors linked to the 1990s disaster that led Florida to place an oversight board over a city on the brink of bankruptcy.
Another wild card: City Manager Pete Hernandez's future is murky. Mayor Regalado clearly believes he hasn't had past cooperation from either Mr. Hernandez or Mr. Spring. And he controls their future.
All of that puts stability in the hands of Marc Sarnoff, sole commission holdover and new chairman. Like Mr. Regalado as a commissioner, Mr. Sarnoff often voted in the minority. A role as anchor of stability would be new indeed.
Amusing as all these changes are to watch — and difficult as they are to track — Miami needs no added turmoil. We got enough for a decade this month.
Given the perils of finance and the pitfalls to thoughtful governance in a city where scandal trumps sanity, don't expect overnight miracles from the new city leaders. They're under more than enough pressure already.
The entire region's business environment, in fact, may hinge on whether the new team can function calmly under the economic firestorm that's yet to come.