For big picture’s sake, examine cityhood for all of county
Written by Michael Lewis on July 11, 2017
A tiny item that county commissioners tentatively OK’d last week proves that the Miami-Dade charter needs updating.
The vote was to keep alive a study of South Dade cityhood. Almost four years after the commission OK’d the work, a study team has yet to vote whether it favors a city.
This should give a brand-new charter review group a hint: it’s no easy matter to form cities under the charter, which needs to be altered to make creating cities not just easier but inevitable, and countywide.
About 60% of county residents now live in cities or towns that oversee very local matters. Local councils are closer to the people and usually know their areas well.
But that leaves about 40% living where the county makes local laws and handles local matters. That’s a lot farther from the people and often makes the district county commissioner almost a “mayor.”
While some county commissioners watch every facet of localities and make sure concerns are met, it strains a county that oversees an economy larger than those of two-thirds of all nations, more populous than 100 nations and broader than 65 nations. A micro-managing county has less energy to look at the big picture – or to think long range..
What if the county had been looking for decades exclusively at broad concerns with a long-term view?
It might have dug into future transit needs before we hit today’s crisis. It might have examined affordable and workforce housing before today’s shortage. It might have been on top of sea level concerns years earlier. It might have pored over water and sewer concerns before we got $16 billion behind in pipes and pumps. It might have planned land use better, made economic development a top priority and far more.
The county might have done all of that if it wasn’t worried also about circulator buses and potholes and curbs and the kinds of issues that city councils handle and, frankly, often do it better.
Back when this county got a charter in the 1950s, drafters expected every speck of land to go under a very local government, leaving to the county the big issues that require planning that links together all of our needs.
Today, that planning would link land use, transit to those land areas, water and sewer links, environmental impact, economic impact and jobs created, new technology’s opportunities and so forth. No municipality has the broad reach of the county to lace together all these strands that together compose the community’s mosaic.
Well, that was the plan that never happened. And county commissioners who are more district oriented than big-picture oriented are happy to be “mayors” too.
But given the stresses on this county, which is one of the nation’s biggest and plays a larger and larger role globally, it’s decades past time for a charter to seek two-level local government countywide.
Our system of allowing cityhood only after an area jumps through hoop after hoop could push this goal 50 years away, with no guarantee it would ever be met.
Take the slice of South Dade that’s now looking at cityhood. It stretches 11 miles from Southwest 120th to Southwest 232nd streets, mostly west of US 1. Ten years ago the county commission froze all new cities, including five areas that wanted to be cities and everywhere else, including South Dade. After the commission lifted the ban, the county allowed nine areas to study cityhood. South Dade was one.
The county commission in 2013 allowed the South Dade study. Then it had to be consulted to approve more study, provided that two years more would be maximum. Those two years are about up and now the county is about to add an absolutely final year. But by charter it can’t do even that for another six weeks.
Every step will require another county approval.
Meanwhile, most of the other cityhood studies fell apart. Those areas don’t have hometown governments, and the county must provide the very local services and attention that virtually every city gives residents.
Universal hometown governments that leave an increasingly strapped county with less on its plate should be near the top of charter review concerns. It’s way too hard to create new cities, too slow, and too much under the thumb of the county. Even if a charter review recommends countywide hometowns, in fact, the county commission can kill it rather than let voters decide.
But just imagine a county with a big-picture, long-range mentality and what living there could be.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that, even without hyper-local concerns, county hall would always plan ahead and then work its plan. We are only human.
But the odds would be far better if we gave the county a fighting chance to think regionally, look at the key issues, plan a future and then follow through. Today, it has no chance.
So, ask our charter team: Don’t our citizens deserve both very good very local government and a shot at overarching big-picture governance?
Give them a chance at both.