10 questions for the team that will review county’s charter
Written by Michael Lewis on June 6, 2017
A 15-member team is nearing the starting line to propose changes to the rulebook under which Miami-Dade County’s government operates. It’s a vital job.
Though the task sounds soporific, changes to the county’s charter – its version of a constitution – could affect every voter and every taxpayer, because the rules determine how government serves the governed.
That means we all need to heed what the charter task force recommends be put on the ballot for voters to act on – and then which of those proposals the county commission ultimately allows voters to act on, because commissioners routinely roadblock most charter recommendations.
Nonetheless, as one task force member said, “hope springs eternal” that voters will be allowed to act on task force ideas and then that voters will choose wisely.
If it were up to commissioners we’d have no charter review at all. Some vocally opposed the study. But the charter itself requires a review every five years, though it leaves to commissioners all the details.
In the last review, in 2012, commissioners individually named 13 of the study’s 20 members, keeping their thumbs on the scale of what a charter team might propose. This year they named 13 of 15. While that will limit how far a charter review can deviate from the interests of commissioners as distinct from the interests of voters or taxpayers, the fact that commissioners themselves named virtually the whole team should make it harder for the commission to then disavow most of the output, as it has in the past.
Because the review team can look at anything and everything in the 60-year-old charter, it’s hard to anticipate the output.
On the other hand, close observers of the county might agree with some of Miami Today’s recommendations for study focus. We mentioned most at the time of the last review. We’d suggest that the task force probe these questions:
■Why don’t we pay our county commissioners fairly for what has become fulltime work? They’re still paid the same $6,000 a year that they got 60 years ago when the charter was written and commissioners were part time. Every other Florida county pays commissioners on a state scale based on population – and in even the smallest, county commissioners get more than four times what our charter specifies. Those in big counties get more than 16 times as much as ours do.
■Why don’t we continue to nominate commissioners from districts but then elect them by countywide ballot, to limit parochialism? A commissioner who needs every voter equally considers them all.
■We used to have nine commissioners. Is the present 13 too unwieldy?
■Should we look again at commission term limits that are about to kick in with an eye to unplugging them? The entire commission membership is about to change, almost all at once. Why not let the voters decided candidate by candidate, district by district, whether keeping institutional memory trumps a desire for change?
■Why is the county still handling intensely local issues that in a metropolis should be the purview of cities and towns? If the entire county were divided into towns and cities with local governments very close to the voters, that would free county hall to focus solely on big-picture needs.
■Knowing that many elected leaders don’t happen to be top-level administrators, should we split our present set-up with a single person handling both the political function of mayor and running the staff and restore the former administrative job of manager too? As it is, the mayor is our top elected official but as an administrator reports to commissioners. And few top-level political leaders with vision and charisma are also trained managers with the ability to lead a paid staff of 25,000.
■Why are commissioners influencing contracts that should be awarded by professional administrators who do not seek campaign contributions? That doesn’t happen on the state or federal levels, where elected officials have not a word to say about who gets contracts.
■Should we end individual commissioner control of hundreds of thousands of dollars of at-will spending of office funds that have become political slush funds?
■Should we limit the right to recall officials to specified reasons, preventing blackmail threats over voting decisions?
■Should the charter specify a format for naming those who review it and the conditions under which they operate to prevent commissioners from stacking the deck to exclude issues they don’t want touched?
These 10 questions need to be on the charter review team’s agenda for serious discussion and voting.
We know that getting most changes past commissioners would be difficult – and that might extend even to giving commissioners a raise, since fair pay would allow many more good candidates to run and thus would increase competition for the incumbents.
But a charter review team shouldn’t be counting commission votes on its recommendations for the ballot. Charter team members need to call for changes that would benefit voters and taxpayers by improving county government, thus giving commissioners a better chance to do the right thing. No charter team will long be revered for its timidity.