County walks away empty-handed from a nourishing buffet
Written by Michael Lewis on July 2, 2018
At a buffet we often overeat. We see so much that’s tempting that we overfill our plates.
But if we think of the review of Miami-Dade’s charter as a buffet, we just walked right past all the meat-and-potatoes issues and came away with only a glass of water.
The review was meant to upgrade governance, a way to enhance the broad range of the county’s relations with its citizens.
Think about the US Constitution and its 27 amendments, changes mostly substantial and sometimes transformative. The First Amendment alone insures the freedoms of religion, speech and press, the right to assemble and the right to petition government over grievances. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
Not all amendments are so substantial – they couldn’t be – but the intent has been to reset in some way the compact between a government and its citizens.
Miami-Dade County just had the opportunity to alter its own major structural issues in ways that could also be transformative. We got that right because the county’s charter – our equivalent of a constitution – requires a review every five years so that citizens can improve the format under which we live.
So county commissioners – reluctantly – abided by the charter and formed a review team to see what it would recommend.
That team dined at the buffet, able to pick any facet of the county to review for change. And the team’s 17 members did dig into the meatiest possible items:
They talked about how we could best be represented at county hall, whether it would be better to have at least some commissioners face countywide votes to decrease parochialism and broaden focus.
They looked at whether electing a mayor/manager – a very new system here – works as well as electing only the mayor and hiring a trained professional to lead operations, as we’d done successfully for decades.
They looked at whether every resident should have a city, town or village meet local needs and let the county focus on big-picture, area-wide issues as framers of the charter intended rather than today’s patchwork where some folks live in cities but others must look for their very local needs to county hall, which governs 2.7 million people.
They talked about whether control of development beyond the Urban Development Boundary should be by charter rather than a whim of whatever commissioners we elect this year.
They even discussed the process under which commissioners award contracts when campaign funds and votes are stake. State and federal governments bar elected officials from decisions on contracts.
They also talked about whether the term limits that voters set for commissioners a few years ago should be nullified.
They discussed too whether commissioners, who have been paid $6,000 a year for what’s truly full-time work, should be paid on the scale that the state sets in every big county except Miami-Dade, because only Miami-Dade has the right to set its own commission pay and it has never given a raise. Every other county must pay annual cost of living raises.
Those seven items were the meat of the menu, though the charter team browsed among a number of “salad” choices. In the end, the team bypassed all the meaty choices except commission pay and term limits, where it did recommend that voters get a seat at the table.
Well, last week county commissioners decided that we need a serious diet. No meaty issues for us. They even knocked out some side salads.
So what’s left? In November you can decide whether to keep electing Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin as a Democrat, as you have for decades, or elect him as a non-partisan (he seldom even draws opposition). I’d say re-elect him as a nonpartisan official because clerk truly is a nonpartisan job, but whichever the voters decide will hardly be transformative.
Likewise, you can decide whether a county-paid bus driver or secretary can run for a non-county elective office and keep the county job, or whether to require runoff elections when candidates for mayor clerk are unopposed – questions that would never occur to 999 of 1,000 voters.
A glass of water would be more nourishing.
But some of us hunger for improvements – personally, we’d like to send all seven of those excluded meat courses to the voters.
Despite the frothy issues the county commission has put on the ballot, the charter is vital. In weight it’s no US Constitution, but the way we structure the county, and the ways we choose and pay those who govern us, can be impactful.
Imagine, for example, if a big-picture county had focused for decades on climate change, transportation needs, water and sewer (where we’re now about $13 billion in the hole), and affordable housing instead of debating small-town cracked sidewalks in Commissioner Fulano’s district or spending $3 billion on a baseball stadium (interest included, but that’s money too) or debating which lobbyist’s client will get an overpriced contract.
Structure shapes performance. Structure the county for success. To succeed, all seven meaty and transformative issues should go before voters.
Instead, either enjoy your glass of water or consider this line from charter review chair Robert Cuevas’s final report: “Amendments may be proposed and placed on the ballot either by the Board of County Commissioners or by petition of the citizens.”
In charter reviews every five years we see the same pattern: commissioners name the panelists, who won’t recommend for citizen vote anything meaty that commissioners don’t like. Then, commissioners take the salad that the review panel hands them and water it down until very little is left to fortify voters.
If you find the diet as bland and un-nutritious as we do, you are left the petition route to the ballot box. County commissioners always leave the real meat sitting on the buffet table. Energized citizens won’t.