A timely and wise route to more great candidates for office
Written by Michael Lewis on January 9, 2018
Commissioner Dennis Moss’s concept that an independent body set salaries for Miami-Dade’s mayor and commissioners couldn’t be wiser, or more timely.
It couldn’t be wiser because officials shouldn’t seek raises for their own posts, yet a big increase is vital.
It couldn’t be more timely because voters will elect a new commission and mayor in 2020, when most incumbents will for the first time be term-limited from running. To get the best candidates, we should make seeking office economically feasible for the most possible people.
It’s certainly not feasible today for most good citizens to run for the commission, which has paid the same $6,000 a year for a fulltime job since 1957, when the county’s charter – its equivalent of a constitution – took effect.
Granted, there are always people who will seek a $6,000 job that Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava estimates has most incumbents working 70 to 80 hours a week.
But as Florida’s minimum wage for the most menial job rises to $8.25, we still pay 13 commissioners $1.44 to $1.65 per hour to annually spend $7 billion of taxpayers’ money. We’d have to pay commissioners at least five times today’s level just to match our state’s minimum wage.
That pay limits those who will run to four groups: the wealthy or those whose spouses make a very good living; those who someone else pays well in what are essentially no-show jobs; those with real outside jobs who then can’t spend full time on county work that can require 70 to 80 hours; and those who leverage county seats to pocket a very nice outside living by whatever means.
Relying only on those groups of candidates, we’ve been lucky that our current crop of commissioners is as good as it is to handle our $7 billion and legislate our quality of life.
But we shouldn’t be structuring a pay scale to eliminate candidates who don’t fit the best of those criteria or who aren’t willing to accept the worst of them – stretch, bend or break ethical or criminal codes to make a nice living by whatever means.
So, as Mayor Carlos Giménez asked commissioners to look at his own salary, which he voluntarily cut in half in bad times and now wants to restore as his term comes to a close, Mr. Moss and fellow commissioners are faced with setting salaries, and few are comfortable doing that.
They shouldn’t have to face that issue. While the commission in the past has set the mayor’s pay, the charter sets commission salaries, and nobody – commissioners or a pay commission or the State of Florida – can alter that without a voter-approved charter change.
If the county were to seek an independent pay commission, in fact, voters would have to stick that body and its work into the charter before a pay commission could even form. Mr. Moss must wrestle with that procedural issue based on his best legal advice.
Models do exist that would keep pay-setting out of the hands of commissioners.
Wisconsin sets elected officials’ pay every two years when its top personnel executive recommends to a joint committee on employee relations the pay for all state elected officials. That committee sets the pay.
In Washington State’s model, 17 unpaid citizens set elected officials’ pay. Ten are picked randomly from voter rolls, one from each congressional district. The president of the senate and speaker of the house jointly pick one college professor, one business executive, one professional in personnel management, one lawyer, one labor union official and then one person recommended by the chair of the state personnel resources board and one recommended by the four university presidents.
Oregon’s model is simpler, with six compensation commission members plucked from pools of random voters and five individually appointed by state officials.
States generally bar raises from applying to sitting officials until they are re-elected. Mr. Moss should incorporate that provision, although it could be argued that the mayor’s true salary is the one he halved after he was elected, not the half he gets.
Other routes could also raise commission salaries to a reasonable level.
One is to simply adopt the salaries scale for Florida elected officials used in every county except Miami-Dade. The other 66 counties must use state levels, which are adjusted annually for inflation. Miami-Dade opted out of any state pay control in 1957 and has never adjusted commission salaries.
Florida sets commission pay by population. In the smallest county, Lafayette, population 8,621, commissioners get $25,749 a year. In the largest (other than ours), Broward, population 1,854,513, commissioners get $99,997. In Miami-Dade, population 2,700,794, commissioners get $6,000 because we wanted local control.
If commissioners recommended that we alter the charter to accept the state’s scale – it doesn’t have a scale for mayors – our commissioners would get as much as far smaller Broward’s $99,997, which is atop the state scale.
We might also alter our charter to index to the state’s pay scale for commissioners adjusted for population. Since our population is 45% larger than the county atop the state’s scale, Broward, we would pay 45% more, $145,000 – certainly fair pay that would permit many talented people to seek office, vastly increasing competition. Voters would choose from a far wider and presumably better field.
If far larger pay sounds like a gift to commissioners, it isn’t.
First, $99,997 or $145,000 or whatever a pay commission set would surely be fairer than $6,000 for the time, work and brainpower.
Second, it’s a gift to taxpayers, who would gain a possibility of choosing among great people who now are frozen out by economics from even considering running. We’d also have commissioners with time to do the job right.
Proper pay would even permit us to bar commissioners from outside jobs, reducing conflicts of interest. Whether that’s wise is another argument, but it would be possible.
Term limits effective in 2020 are a mixed blessing. They’ll certainly oust those who’ve served a decade or more, changing government. But the officials we’ll lose have valuable background about what they’ve done and our big issues. New commissioners must spend even more time on the job just to ingest vital history.
With $13 billion in water and sewer spending pressing, housing needs mounting, transportation vexing us all, rising sea levels to attend to, new needs at airports and the seaport and many more issues awaiting future commissioners, we require the best and brightest who also have full time to attack challenges.
Increasing pay is not just equitable, it’s vital – the lowest-cost path to help Miami-Dade not only catch up on major issues but get ahead of them and others that we have yet to meet.
So we applaud this effort by Commissioner Moss to create a mechanism to help us pay the best and brightest to serve our needs. We eagerly await his proposal for how to craft a fair and functioning mechanism that voters will embed in our charter.