Time to turn our too-familiar issues into unfamiliar action
Written by Michael Lewis on January 3, 2017
If global and national concerns are uncharted waters as 2017 opens, Miami’s top issues are far too familiar.
Our local issues linger on. They fall not onto a list of strange new pitfalls but into the ledger of familiar unfinished business. We know the problems well but have yet to solve them.
Nationally, we worry about what new leaders in Washington will really do. In Miami we don’t have to worry about unknowns. We know what’s coming – we just need to upgrade the results.
As comic strip character Pogo of bygone years said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We know, for example, that local elected leaders continue to dither over how and where to add transit even while to a man and woman they agree that we need to act now.
The pleasant surprise of 2017 would be not that we get the same level of demand to act on transit now, but that someone actually picks a route, finds funding, gets approval and starts work. We’re always told that we have to wait for… well, wait for someone or something. The surprise will be if our authorities stop waiting and start acting. It can be done.
Then there’s the upgrading of county government not by tossing someone out of office but by changing the rules to help insure better results from our local government, not just once but repeatedly.
Those rules appear in a county charter that requires an opportunity every five years for voters to revise things. It’s been five years, but commissioners are trying to avoid change. They always do that, usually by skewing a charter review team, then by limiting its scope and finally by not letting voters act on all recommendations.
One of those key steps is to separating the jobs of mayor and manager, because the two roles require far different skills and sometimes conflict.
The mayor is our political leader. The manager is a trained professional who should report to both mayor and commissioners. The mayor should stand alone. The jobs were separate for decades and could be again, if commissioners allow a charter study.
Another important step would be to elect some or all commissioners countywide. Only the mayor now is chosen by everyone. Commissioners love their district status. But district election reinforces divisive parochialism.
Absolutely vital is to raise salaries of all 13 fulltime commissioners, whose pay has been $6,000 since 1957. Florida’s minimum fulltime wage is $16,848; our commissioners get barely a third of that to oversee billions of dollars.
Voters unimpressed with the county have repeatedly refused to pay fairly. But if we want exceptional candidates to run in 2020 when nearly the entire commission will be term-limited out of office we need to raise pay now, and commissioners who will be gone when a change would take effect must allow voters to decide.
Finally, in the realm of charter review, voters should decide whether to subdivide Miami-Dade into cities, towns and villages everywhere. Commissioners who play “mayor” of some districts are dead set against that. But until the county stops micro-managing and allows cities to do that job, commissioners will remain too consumed with neighborhood issues to focus on our biggest opportunities.
All of those issues dovetail into what should be the central concern of both our county and our nation as 2017 begins: leadership. Locally, we have inaction where we need action because nobody has led our county to grapple with its biggest issues.
That’s not a criticism of any individual. But it’s a fact.
Part of leadership is structure. If the charter requires our go-to official for big issues, the mayor, to report to a county commission and do its bidding as manager, powerful political leadership to win vast community gains is close to impossible.
For the next few years we will know the familiar faces in the mayor’s office and commission chambers. They must unite under a very imperfect charter structure to advance such key concerns as workforce housing, transportation, water and sewer upgrades, a sustainable environment, job growth and more. It can be done.
In four years term limits will force the mayor and all but a couple of present commissioners from office. At that point the comfortable familiarity of our major problems will all be new as a dozen newly elected officials try to cope.
To make that massive transition easier for the public and officials alike, it’s crucial that today’s comfortably familiar faces not just kick the can down the road on transportation or sea level rise or housing or the charter’s structure of government or other issues.
Today’s county concerns may be reassuring because they are repetitive, though they’re huge. But left unresolved, in a couple of years and in new hands those festering sores could become overwhelming maladies in Miami-Dade.
That’s why our most pressing issues, though comfortably familiar, need rapid and resolute attention in 2017. They require not the usual can-kicking but firm can-do action.