How independent an appraiser? Probably less than he wants
Written by Michael Lewis on August 28, 2013
Energetic Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera has done a lot since he started in January. He rebuilt offices to be friendlier, issued assessed values three months earlier, created an informal assessment review form for taxpayers, and sued the mayor and county commissioners.
Which of these should not be viewed as an achievement?
In Miami-Dade government, disputes are frequent. Usually officials figure out how to work more or less together, without name-calling. To get things done, they might even do a little horse trading.
But court? So soon?
Mr. Lopez-Cantera was vowing to sue after six months in office to establish total independence from the rest of county hall. He called it a conflict of interest to have to follow rules and ordinances set by those who spend the tax dollars coming from assessments.
If other media reports are accurate, he also implied that outside influence was affecting his appraisals. His lawsuit last week talked about being “free of political influence” and “interference and pressure.”
He also said it was the will of the voters in 2008 when they created the elected job that his office be totally independent.
Lawsuits among elected officials aren’t unheard of. They do exist in places like the City of Miami, where a commissioner is suing the mayor and the state attorney after she successfully fought two corruption charges.
But that’s Miami, a special case. That’s not successful government in action.
Mr. Lopez-Cantera is a former legislator who should know how to get things done in an elected political environment far short of the courtroom. From here on, every interaction he has in county hall is likely to be sticky. It’s hard to see why it came to court.
Unless, of course, his implications of political tinkering in appraised values are true. If they are, we expect Mr. Lopez-Cantera to spell out all interference in property evaluations, with names, dates and places attached.
If by political interference, however, he’s really saying that he doesn’t get to do just what he wants to, that’s hardly reason to go to court or to cry “interference and pressure.”
For example, Mr. Lopez-Cantera might not want to follow all county rules and ordinance on hiring, preferences, salary levels, contractor regulations, procurement and the myriad other rules that must drive conscientious officials batty. We agree some aren’t sensible from a taxpayer’s perspective and that many were driven by political considerations.
Then again, lots of rules and laws in our daily lives don’t make sense. But we have to follow them and seldom sue on grounds that voters wanted us to be free from rules that everyone else must follow. Until we can get rules and laws changed, we live with them.
As for his claim that it was the will of the voters that his office be totally independent, it’s doubtful that 2% of voters gave it a thought. The issue was whether to elect or appoint someone, not how the office would interface with the rest of county hall.
It’s common, of course, to impute intent to voters after the fact.
County commissioners argue that when they were elected, voters intended them to control the Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust rather than have the trust be independent, or that voters elected them to rule on spending $3 billion for a baseball stadium rather than hold a referendum.
The voters did what?
That claim is politics in action, but dollars to doughnuts voters had no intent on any specific issue when they chose good old Guillermo instead of Alfonso for the commission. They just chose and prayed.
It’s easy to appreciate all the advances Mr. Lopez-Cantera has made. But how could he do it if there was all that political interference?
And why didn’t Pedro Garcia, our first elected appraiser, find political interference? It was Mr. Garcia’s first political post, yet he navigated county hall’s shark-infested waters.
Mr. Lopez-Cantera surely has more experience. What horrible causes sent him to court? We firmly expect him to spell them out in detail.
Horrible causes or not, the courts will soon decide under what rules Mr. Lopez-Cantera must operate.
Can he set his spending total? Must his people do the same paperwork as every other county employee doing the same task? Can he pay his team far more – or far less – than rules require elsewhere in the county? Must his team follow county rules on take-home automobiles? Are these rules the interference he’s talking about?
Again, if there is true political interference – the kind an ethics commission or prosecutor should be acting on – lay it all out in court.
If not, let’s get back outside the courtroom and make government work without a lot of hand-wringing.
Who, our president included, is truly independent of the rest of government? How in this world could an appraiser be?