Mixed causes spurred Miami-Dade County manager no-confidence vote
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade voters killed the formal county manager slot. In a few years they'll cry to reinstate the role and weaken the mayor's.
And they'll be just as correct in that as in today's feelings that the manager has to go.
But it's not what happened that's compelling, it's why: why did they vote 58% to 42% last week to pull the manager's office from the charter?
If we could get inside voters' heads, we'd find varying reasons:
nA January 2007 restructuring created a strong mayor as the manager's boss but didn't strip the manager role from the charter. Since the mayor dictates the function of a manager, the charter requirement needed to go. The change was a technicality.
nVoters battered by the economy are angry with government in general. The manager represented government and became a target that had little to do with the job itself.
nMiami-Dade government has long been derided as corrupt, inefficient, spendthrift and poorly administered. As surrogate for the mayor, the manager is atop what voters saw as a mess that they could cleanse by throwing out the top rascal.
nWhile the manager is the mayor's surrogate — their communications aide swears they speak with one voice — each gets a salary, the manager $343,516 and the mayor $233,124. Both get benefits. The manager, formally an aide to the mayor, gets paid more. Voters could be forgiven for reducing county spending for a job that someone's boss is doing.
None of these reasons to abolish the office may be directly related to the performance of either Manager George Burgess or Mayor Carlos Alvarez. They're simply the guys now in the jobs.
Remember, the vote has no impact until Mayor Alvarez leaves in 2012. And, since he in 2007 gained the power to either name or remove a manager, the future of Mr. Burgess depends not on last week's vote but on Mr. Alvarez, who has yielded much of his mayoral power to him.
The vote doesn't change a key fact: the incoming mayor alone will decide who'll be manager, what the job will be called or even if there is a manager. Last week's vote abolished the formal basis, not the job itself.
Nonetheless, for many the vote was a referendum not on structure but on how Mr. Burgess has done. In that, he clearly lost:
nLopsided baseball stadium contracts he pushed relentlessly were off the radar until leaked financials echoed what suckers the Florida Marlins had played commissioners for, with Mr. Burgess as the owners' visible ally. The multi-billion-dollar giveaway was in election day headlines.
nMr. Burgess engineered a tax rate hike that markedly raises how much hundreds of thousands will pay and vastly increases rates every property owner must pay unless commissioners back off.
Yet Mr. Burgess and the mayor spoke with one voice about this being a no tax increase budget — until the mayor wobbled and left Mr. Burgess alone in saying a double-digit increase was no increase at all.
No voter had yet seen a Truth in Millage Rate notice showing how big the raise would be in his or her case — they were sent election day — but the massive rate raise Mr. Burgess orchestrated was already well known.
nIt's the economy, stupid. As county unemployment was falling deeper into double digits, foreclosures were hammering homeowners and small businesses were crunched on credit, Mr. Burgess was moaning about government's pain. As one taxpayer who voted to abolish the job said, Mr. Burgess has never met a tax increase he didn't like.
nSome noted manipulations and partial truths. Mr. Burgess kept arguing that rising tax rates didn't mean taxes were going up. When commissioners asked before a stadium vote about the bottom line, he first said he'd already told them and then said he'd tell them before the vote — but he didn't until the day after they'd OK'd more than $2.4 billion as part of stadium cost.
nWhile the mayor and manager are supposed to carry out policy, Mr. Burgess often decides it. When he asked the commission to pick three lobbyists in Washington and commissioners for whatever cockamamie reason settled on five, Mr. Burgess chose the four he wanted.
nMr. Burgess often is a roadblock. Commission-requested reports are late or incomplete. As Chair Dennis Moss sought studies on a mega-mall zone, Mr. Burgess said the county couldn't do them and couldn't afford to get them done for $70,000 — yet he found $3 billion for the Florida Marlins.
While he may have lost a no-confidence vote, Mr. Burgess's future is assured unless Mayor Alvarez decides to do more himself.
Mr. Burgess's full pension is also assured. His 30-year county anniversary is February 2013, but even if a new mayor were to replace him in 2012 he'd count a year spent at the school board as time served.
So why on earth will voters soon cry to bring back the manager's job?
Simply because the strong mayor-weak commission format has inherent pitfalls once a true strong mayor uses the administrative half politically.
Mayor Alvarez, whatever his merit, has not used many jobs to reward friends. But a true strong mayor overseeing the manager has the power to do such harm and far more.
A mayor should rally troops and public to accomplish key aims. A mayor should also be a good politician. Such a person is unlikely to be a skilled impartial administrator who carries out commission policies.
Yet the position is structured to require both.
Once a mayor ineptly uses administrative powers and takes political activity seriously as well, voters will be screaming — as they rightly should — to change the system and give us an impartial administrator as manager.