Miami-Dade County gives us chance to put strong mayor out to pasture
By Michael Lewis
When commissioners last week offered voters multiple changes to Miami-Dade's charter, pivotal was one that reformers had ignored: rebalancing powers between the mayor and commission.
A 2007 vote merged the mayor and manager jobs into a super-mayor while reducing the commission to a second-tier power. Carlos Alvarez won the vast powers after lamenting he couldn't achieve anything without them.
With them, he proceeded to achieve almost nothing. But that wasn't because he lacked the powers. It was because he didn't try.
We might not be that fortunate with our next mayor.
Let me explain.
Mayor Alvarez acted as administrator. He wanted a clean, functional county. He wanted the buses to run on time.
But he left almost everything to just-resigned County Manager George Burgess. In fact, the mayor spent more time out of county hall than in it.
He didn't spend that time, however, in the spotlight campaigning for improvements or leading opinion on major issues — except for a misguided $3 billion waste on a baseball stadium.
Beyond that, his leadership was anchored in what he'd done as head of county police: safety, law and order. He filled that small slice of the mayor's role adequately.
The job, however, is built for a leader, not an administrator. Exercising all its powers, the mayor becomes a one-person juggernaut who can steamroll all manner of actions — good or bad — virtually unchecked.
Be happy Mr. Alvarez never tried. Who knows what might have resulted.
Now commissioners — self-serving, for sure — are giving us the chance to rectify our mistake in creating this super-mayor power that Mr. Alvarez left for the most part on the shelf rather than on the political battlefield.
Had he used the added powers, he could have replaced every department head, good or bad, with cronies. And his hires could then have monkeyed with jobs down the line.
The county already hires too many friends and relatives. The mayor has the power to go further. Be glad Mr. Alvarez didn't.
The super-mayor also executes every contract. It's bad enough commissioners get their fingers into them, which charter review should outlaw. The wrong mayor could capitalize on contract powers to enrich friends, punish enemies. Again, thank goodness, Mr. Alvarez wasn't engaged.
Combining the mayor's total control of the manager with the power to hire and fire and execute contracts, the wrong mayor could have a field day.
What did happen is that the manager, freed from their control, froze commissioners out of information vital to decisions. A vote on funding the baseball stadium on which Mr. Burgess stonewalled costs for six hours was a classic example.
Meeting after meeting, commissioners sought reports and facts. But they got only those the manager wanted to unveil. Under the current structure, commissioners can't get cooperation without mayor/manager OK.
And, unless voters reverse the strong mayor travesty in May, come fall 2012 even the manager's number-two job disappears. Whoever is mayor is manager too.
That might work. But not often.
Most candidates, unlike Mr. Alvarez, are politicians with aims for the county's future. Great. We'd welcome such a mayor.
But, also unlike Mr. Alvarez, most haven't run a county department. They lack a service mentality. They're political. The vast majority won't be able to administer a county larger than many nations. Think of former Homestead Mayor Steve Shiver, a good politician who was made county manager with poor results.
A mayor, using a bully pulpit, should choose a path and charge us up to follow. Managers then make government stick to the roadmap.
It's too much to expect any mayor to be both hard-charging political leader and impartial administrator. The roles conflict: one firmly espouses issues, the other keeps the system running.
The strong mayor structure removes most legislative checks. And while few think well of the commission, 88% of voters just said the same about a mayor. Should a mayor alone keep control?
Further, why jettison a manager who answers to both mayor and commission and makes things run? The worst aspects of Mr. Burgess as manager surfaced after the 2007 vote removed all commission control.
An impartial administrator can save millions and keep the county on the straight and narrow. That's not what politicians are known for.
Of course, a structure should assume good people are in every job, elected or appointed. In fact, if people were perfect any structure would work.
Given Miami-Dade's track record, however, it's smart to hope for quality but build in checks and balances, just in case.
The strong mayor system destroyed a balance between mayor and commission. Voters just rejected the result resoundingly. A true super-mayor with human flaws but firm goals could be even worse than Mr. Alvarez.
The strong mayor system needs to go. Thanks to the commission for giving us that ballot option.