County can score vital gain as commissioners reverse field
Written by Michael Lewis on September 11, 2013
In tackling a single unremarkable item, Miami-Dade commissioners last week faced up to lingering challenges that could reinvent county government.
Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa promised them broad scope soon at a workshop outside of chambers where they can turn their creativity loose.
Under discussion was whether to allow parts of Dennis Moss’s South Dade district to study cityhood.
In the process, commissioners unveiled a seismic shift from opposition to new cities to active support of more cities.
For a commission that for years stood at the courthouse door to keep out new cities and thus retain control of unincorporated areas, the change is a welcome revolution.
In the discussion, commissioners dug into other underpinnings of county hall, asking:
νHow can government prevent conflicts of interest in placing appointees in positions to influence change?
νIs the commissioner’s role to represent district voters or to weigh the interests of the entire county?
In the process, they pointed up a fourth issue:
νSince a county overlaid with cities would free commissioners of burdens of micro-government, should we still elect them from districts but let all county voters choose each one, since their new roles would be totally – and properly – countywide?
All those rays of light from a single 11-0 vote.
While incorporation of more cities seems probable, it’s not simple.
Mr. Moss pointed out that he converted from opponent to proponent after he realized that if his district doesn’t incorporate, other cities will pick off the biggest parts of the tax base, leaving areas that can’t support themselves to county hall, which would sweat to fund local services.
Both he and Barbara Jordan, another convert, as well as Jean Monestime properly warned against such cherry-picking of the best parts of the unincorporated areas by other cities.
Commissioners have been opening the closed door to new cities for 18 months, but last week’s candor was the clearest sign that the county after more than 50 years will finally follow the path laid by those who created a charter that gives Miami-Dade wide latitude to chart its own destiny.
Charter writers in the mid-1950s assumed that every speck of land would soon be part of a city or village, leaving county hall to focus on major regional issues.
But that never happened. As a result, some commissioners are so burdened by district matters that focus on the big picture has been rare.
The results show when we suddenly learn that bridges and water and sewerage systems are crumbling and need tens of billions of work soon – spending the commission never planned as it looked elsewhere.
We can blame commissioners for myopia, but the system is against them. Strip away parochial roles and they at least would get a fighting chance to plan broadly.
Commissioners barred the door to new cities in 2006, a moratorium they finally lifted last year when they also appointed a 13-member team to study alternatives.
At the time, a task force seemed logical even though Javier Souto warned that the commission itself was “going to decide every single issue.”
That task force was due for its final meeting this week to approve its report to commissioners on how to handle incorporation and annexation.
But commissioners didn’t wait for that to shoot down whatever the task force has decided. Ms. Jordan referred to the group as “infamous” and Ms. Sosa said she’d lost faith because some study members were working for personal aims rather than the residents’.
That led to talk of conflict of interest. “We should learn from that that in the future no elected officials should be seated in those task forces and no one who has a personal interest and professional that can have any conflict” should be named, Ms. Sosa said. The commission, she said, should “learn from mistakes.”
Ms. Jordan unveiled a remedy for partiality of those who have studied incorporation: go to impartial university experts.
She says she’s been talking with Mayor Carlos Gimenez about that and promises legislation soon to create just such a university study.
While it’s a shame her study comes a year and a half after the county ordered the first one, it’s likely to be impartial – though scholarship doesn’t play well in commission chambers, where 13 people are graded by voters, not professors.
Among the plans of Ms. Sosa and Ms Jordan, plus a study still not issued but already discounted, commissioners have within reach tools to finally exit roles of local pothole mayor and take on their proper regional roles.
The fact that Mr. Moss and Ms. Jordan reversed fields shows broader thought than the commission has in the past and willingness to reexamine game plans that might be faulty.
As Ms. Sosa told fellow commissioners, “We don’t want to have 150 cities, because it’s going to be terrible if that happens.”
Whatever the number, keeping city government home and freeing county hall to do far better regionally is a long overdue win-win.
It’s encouraging that commissioners not only recognize that but are taking concrete steps to make it happen – soon.