Transit debate draws the roadmap to improved county hall
By Michael Lewis
Debate last week over funding bus lines showed not just a transit rift but a deeper divide in Miami-Dade county hall.
The clash over whether to favor regional transit or share bus funds with unincorporated areas spotlighted the flaws of single-member districts and our bifurcation between self-ruling cities and county-run unincorporated areas.
In committee debate, two commissioners opposed spending regional funds to serve less-populous areas. Others stressed that their unincorporated areas were shorted and needed equal treatment — and equal cash.
Set aside the complexity of how best to serve sites far from transit routes to feed the larger system and make it viable. Commissioners made telling points about that.
But the division that overshadowed transit is fractured government: commissioners from unincorporated areas run fiefdoms, trying to reel in as much cash as they can, while others represent areas where city halls do the spending.
Moreover, all 13 commissioners are elected only within districts rather than countywide. Two decades ago, the commission was only nine members, also from designated districts, but every county voter helped elect all nine.
Javier Souto, who asked that transit spending in unincorporated areas equal what cities get, revealed the problem in debate:
"We are first and foremost elected by single-member districts.... This is not being parochial. It's being representative of our district. We have to take care of the districts we represent.... We are not getting our fair share of what we have to get.... My community is not being served well. My people vote.... We are second-class citizens."
And from the other side, listen to Dennis Moss:
"We have to look at this issue also from a regional perspective... is that the best use of those resources?" The county, he said, resists municipalities getting "money from the county's pot."
The problem was clear in debate:
Is commissioners' main duty to make all services as good as possible or to grab as much as they can for their home areas and not worry about what that means to the whole county?
The problem of unincorporated areas served by a government that also serves cities with their local amenities — in this instance, circulator buses — was also clear:
Mr. Souto is the only "mayor" in areas he says grace over — half of Kendall, all of Westchester, 75% of Fontainebleau, he told commissioners.
He demanded parity for those areas with the county's 34 municipalities: "If you don't do that," he warned, "we're going to create some hell around there."
That's the rhetoric of a chieftain, not a commissioner — but it's an argument and a style that the system encourages by its very faulty structure.
The structure fosters the parochialism of bringing home the bacon for the hometown voters.
District spending drives the regional pot, because if one district gets something, 12 others want it too. That's why when the county built world-class performance halls downtown it had to build two in South Dade and add amenities around the county. The impetus was commissioners asking "Where's mine?"
District spending drains the regional pot. But worse, district thinking drains regional energy, diverting focus from broad needs to local concerns.
This county has an economy bigger than more than two-thirds of all nations. Yet commissioners focus on local matters — surely real, but best left to a city mayor and commission to handle, not a bureaucracy serving 2.55 million people.
As Transit Director Ysela Llort told the committee, "Our main mission is to provide regional service.... Our functional standards are based on regional travel, not local travel."
She's right: a city government in Kendall or Westchester or Fontainebleau would far better plan circulator buses than the county can and would pay far more heed to residents.
Setting aside transit for a bigger picture, how can we solve the dilemma of local attention and service versus regional focus that improves the entire area?
First, the county should follow the roadmap that came with its 1957 charter: create cities throughout to administer local areas and let the county concentrate on how to fit everything together while maximizing resources — both economic and natural — and preparing Miami-Dade for the optimal future. To see how well a new city can work, read today's profile of Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert on page 4.
In November commissioners ordered a task force to solve this very issue in six months. The community should encourage officials to stay on the high road in this vital step.
Second, we should elect commissioners from a district but by countywide vote. That would minimize parochialism of both thought and action.
Past format was exactly that, but a court ordered us to restructure to be certain minorities could win office. We now have 11 of 13 minority commissioners and no doubt will keep electing minorities no matter what. The county has changed — and so should we.
Changing how we elect commissioners would require charter change originating outside the commission. Civic groups should unite to speed this upgrade from old-fashioned division of the spoils into the 21st century.
Our resources are too limited to sustain outmoded fiefdoms. No county statesmanship will ever surface so long as structure encourages commissioners to keep asking "Where's mine?"
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