Give communities a chance to determine their own futures
Written by Michael Lewis on December 27, 2016
Of all of Miami-Dade’s fragmentation, one inequity flies under the radar yet affects everyone’s wellbeing.
That division allows just over half of our county’s residents to elect city, town or village leaders while the other 1-million-plus have no such local team attuned to meet their needs.
Miami Lakes is unique, with a local government geared to augment that character. So are Homestead and Hialeah, Key Biscayne and Aventura, South Miami and North Miami and West Miami and…
Well, the fact is that 34 city and village halls do their best to each serve a unique community with unique flavors. In most municipalities that strong flavor comes through. It would be hard to confuse Coral Gables with Miami or either one with Miami Springs or Miami Shores.
That’s a great attribute of Miami-Dade: so many local flavors and atmospheres. We gravitate to the one that fits us best.
At least, that’s how one half lives: in a locally chosen way.
The other half of us, however, live in the massive divided region of Umsa – that’s what the county calls its Unincorporated Municipal Services Area, more than 1 million people in leftover patches that aren’t in any city or town and get a slimmed-down diet of services not from a city hall but from the county.
Umsa is one size fits all. The flavor of life is far less local, far more generic.
That’s no knock on Miami-Dade County. The county does far better than we’d expect with the patches that for years were not allowed to form cities or towns. Commissioners barred them from taking the steps that the county charter requires of an area that wants to govern itself and provide municipal services like police and fire, even libraries.
Some county commissioners were perfectly happy as de facto mayor of residents in their districts who had no city hall to turn to.
Those commissioners tried balancing that very local attention with the job for which they were really elected, which is to handle big issues of a county of 2.7 million people, more than in 105 nations. This county’s economy is bigger than that of two-thirds of all nations and its area is larger than 65 countries.
It’s more than a fulltime job to ride herd over issues that affect us all, including transportation, sustainability, air and sea ports, housing, economic development, land use and water and sewer services, plus keep an eye on what’s heading our way in public health and other areas.
Yet some commissioners spend far more time looking at very local issues in their districts where there’s no local mayor. They get reelected if they get the potholes and sidewalk cracks taken care of.
Meanwhile, however, we ran up about $16 billion in unmet water and sewer needs that no elected officials monitored. A transportation crisis caught us unawares. We’re years behind gearing for sea level rise. We’ve done too little to push housing development for our workers. Who knows what else?
But 2013 brought a sea change.
To the credit of both, commissioners Dennis Moss and Barbara Jordan, opponents of creating more cities, reversed course and sought logical ways to do it right. Mr. Moss triggered committees in his South Dade district to study their own communities’ futures as potential cities.
Juan Zapata, meanwhile, also pushed hard to divide his West Dade district into cities where local mayors and councils could handle neighborhood interests while Mr. Zapata and the county commission could look out for crumbling infrastructure and other broader concerns.
In West Dade, more than 750,000 people live without a single city or town. That’s far more than the combined populations of Miami-Dade’s two largest cities, Miami and Hialeah.
Mr. Zapata started a process to create two cities for his area – if area residents want distinctively local flavors rather than the county’s plain vanilla local service. And residents formed committees to look into what those cities might be like.
Those steps by commissioners Moss, Zapata and others not only were logical in terms of providing local services while having the county look at the big picture but also followed the 1957 plan that those who framed the county charter envisioned. The idea was to have cities and towns everywhere while the county concentrated on the big, tough and vital issues for all of us. The moratorium on new cities had stalled a process that in 2013 got a new lease on life.
That’s why a commission vote last week was so off target. At the request of Joe Martinez, who replaced Mr. Zapata in November and doesn’t want cities in his district, commissioners voted preliminarily to scrap the West Dade studies of cities. The other commissioners unanimously agreed to kill West Dade’s chances to have cities. They deferred to the local commissioner, the area’s de facto mayor.
But county government shouldn’t be 13 fiefdoms, with commissioners governing their own patches of Miami-Dade. The commissioners should be big picture folks looking at the future, not filling potholes and patching sidewalks.
No commissioner should sit in total charge of an area. But that’s what happened. Mr. Zapata got commission approval to have West Dade look at cities. Mr. Martinez, his replacement, got virtually the same commissioners to vote to reverse a very logical course and shut down the study. What changed other than the commissioner for the area? Nothing.
West Dade comprises more than a quarter of this county’s people. No matter how well liked Mr. Martinez is, whether that area is allowed to have cities and towns should not be his call alone.
The captivity of West Dade under the county’s thumb is just another reason to hasten a review of the county charter, which Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava has been pushing and which is required in 2017 in any case. The charter should make it simple to study cities and towns with as few barriers as possible.
It’s one thing if residents who review cityhood decide against it. But the county shouldn’t block the study, particularly one as far along as the West Dade effort is.
Commissioners get a final vote on Mr. Martinez’s plan to halt the process. We trust that they will see the wisdom in allowing the current incorporation study to go on and let West Dade residents decide their own future.