County hall can’t rely on luck: shift to professional manager
Written by Michael Lewis on November 22, 2016
Although a county committee just left a review of Miami-Dade’s charter at the starting gate, neither the aim nor the need for review has vanished.
That’s good, because our charter – a county’s constitution – shapes how local government can meet community needs, and it needs repairs.
Some changes would be quick fixes. Others would prevent catastrophes where the county now works well. They’re like changing your oil before a car engine suddenly conks out.
As Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava tries to reignite her charter change drive that died when nobody in a committee would call for a vote, look ahead at just one of many reasons for a review beyond the fact that the county must study the charter every five years and time is almost up.
The key change is to restore a pivotal job that voters dumped in 2012, the impartial professional manager who works for mayor and commissioners alike to carry out policies and orders to make machinery smooth and efficient.
That job disappeared when Carlos Alvarez insisted that he be manager in addition to mayor. He persuaded voters, became what was called a strong mayor and soon furious voters recalled him from office.
That left successor Carlos Gimenez to balance two conflicting roles.
In one role, he’s elected county leader, seeking to persuade all to pull in a common direction. If there is a broad vision for a county’s future, it’s the mayor who enunciates it.
In the other role, manager, he takes regular orders from the commission to provide reports, carry out policies and have about 25,000 employees do commission bidding in day-to-day activities.
One job is very political, forcing the mayor to win election from among 2.6 million residents and then lead them.
The other job is as a trained technocrat who balances competing interests and serves the wishes of 13 elected leaders, each of whom has a distinct constituency with widely varied interests and needs.
If those sound like the same job, stop reading here.
On the other hand, if you can see built-in conflicts you’ll understand why the county should at least consider separating the visionary political leader from the person who hires, fires and oversees 25,000 county workers for the benefit of all, no matter whom they voted for or gave campaign money to.
Imagine as a parallel the president of the United States providing broad leadership as Commander in Chief but at the same time being forced to carry out orders from 535 members of Congress, making sure to meet their wishes. It can’t work.
That said, let it be noted that in Miami-Dade the awkward structure that should never be is functioning well. It’s a fluke that is never likely to be repeated, so enjoy success while you may.
The unusual combination is that Mayor Carlos Gimenez is also a former Miami city manager and before that a career city employee, and that most commissioners face term limits that will move them out of office after many years, mostly in 2020.
That means that neither the mayor nor most commissioners will be there after 2020. This is their last hurrah. That the political leader happens to have his greatest skills as manager, not politician, has made relations between a political mayor-manager and commissioners as smooth as you’ll ever see.
Don’t expect it to work nearly as well in 2021 or thereafter, when the mayor we elect is highly unlikely to also have been a manager reporting to commissioners or know all about how government agencies work in detail.
As the guard changes from the current mayor and commission, timing is perfect to revert to a tried-and-true trained professional manager working under both mayor and commission, as this county successfully did for decades.
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa recognized this need last spring and tried to pass legislation to make it happen.
At that time, then-commissioner Juan Zapata noted that “in six years there will be an entirely new commission with a new mayor.” Now, we’re getting by on pure luck that they won’t have. What better legacy to leave them than for the current commission to give successors a structure that won’t depend on luck.
Let’s be clear: unusual circumstances today minimize the problem of a political mayor-manager. The 14 elected officials today balance frictions well. We are far better served than we have any right to expect.
But it will all be different next time. No big-city manager who worked up through the ranks and then has also done service as an elected county commissioner is going to win the mayor’s job.
Dollars to doughnuts the winner will be a politician. With luck the winner will have vision, goodwill and brains and be a strong leader. That will give us a good political mayor.
But a good manager too? Highly unlikely.
Now is the time to separate those jobs, mayor from manager, to the benefit of all.
After all, how lucky can we get?