Miami-Dade committee kills Souto's transparency proposals on general obligation bond program
By Risa Polansky
It seems Miami-Dade commissioners are content with the general obligation bond program as is.
Commissioner Javier Souto in his so-far unsuccessful push for new transparency laws proposed two that would have revealed more information on the major capital program and prioritized projects, but commissioners shot the measures down in committee last week.
"This will turn our whole system upside down," said Natacha Seijas of the first Souto proposal.
It called for updating the county's original 15-year bond program to show plans vs. current funding status; asked for an updated and more detailed project list for the 2008 bond issuance including all additions and deletions; demanded more details be included in future project lists; and would have required the administration to come to the commission for a vote before making cash-flow revisions like accelerating or decelerating project funding.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson saw the measure as added bureaucracy, pointing out that commissioners vote on a project list along with every general obligation bond issuance.
"I don't know what problem the senator is trying to solve here, but I think probably it would create more delays and create more trouble in getting these things done, and we really need to get them done," she said.
Mr. Souto, a former state senator who doesn't serve on the committee that killed his legislation, said by telephone that his aim goes back to his months-long drive for transparency.
He said he feels the administration has been tinkering with bond project funding.
"These people are very good at playing with the money," he said. "…So we want to bring more transparency to the deal."
Many changes to the bond program do come before the commission, "but the commission sometimes doesn't know what they're voting on," Mr. Souto said.
The administration is examining the bond program now and anticipates revisions.
Dealing with a shrunken tax roll and lower-than-expected debt service millage, an expected $400 million bond sale this year looks like it will be only $280 million.
Officials are working to figure out which projects can be done with that money and when.
All will get built, but "many of the timelines are going to be affected," Capital Improvements Director Johnny Martinez said in an earlier interview.
Voters OK'd the nearly $2.3 billion bond program in 2004, approving eight questions concerning everything from basic infrastructure to major initiatives like new art and science museums in Bicentennial Park.
Mr. Souto's second failed bond-program measure would have put community infrastructure projects at the head of the spending list.
"I believe that we need to continue with these things of fixing up sidewalks and doing this and doing that and not taking money for other things," he said in the interview. "I believe the neighborhoods have to be very, very well taken care of…. I need to respond to my voters and constituents and the neighbors in those neighborhoods."
Officials saw it differently at the committee meeting.
There were eight questions "of equal importance" on the 2004 ballot, Mr. Martinez told commissioners. The Souto proposal would give "priority" to the $352 million in projects that fell under question 3 on neighborhood infrastructure, he said.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez asked whether the proposal would end up de-funding other projects.
Answered Mr. Martinez, "I don't know about de-funding other projects, but I think all questions have projects and they need to be evaluated on being ready to go and those types of things. Limiting yourself to just prioritizing question 3 I don't think is the right thing."
Again, Commissioner Seijas moved to kill a Souto measure, her second time that day and third that week.
"This is one of the eight questions. The voters approved all the eight bond questions.… They did not make one question superior to the other," she said. "For us not to respect the voters… I don't think it's appropriate."
Mr. Souto in recent months has proposed a string of what he calls open-government legislation and has had little luck.
His most sweeping proposal — one that would have required legislative meetings between administrators and commissioners be made public — died a swift death without discussion at a December commission meeting.
Just last week, commissioners followed Ms. Seijas' lead in killing a Souto measure that would have mandated all employee names and salaries be kept on file at regional libraries.
He's seen success with only one proposal, which requires elected officials to swear in writing that they've read and will comply with local ethics laws.
Mr. Souto has said all along he plans to keep on trucking and reaffirmed his commitment to his quest after his most recent proposals failed last week.
"Transparency and accountability — that's what we have to be looking at," he said. "We'll [his office] continue doing the same thing. We'll continue looking for ways of bringing more transparency to the commission. It seems some commissioners aren't interested in that…. They have their own agenda, they have their own special interests."