Penelas, Rep. Lacasa have strategies to create strong mayor position
By Paola Iuspa
Alex Penelas plans to design a strong-mayor form of government that he hopes the county commission will support and circumvent chances the Florida Legislature will consider similar changes for Miami-Dade in its next session, according to a spokesman in the mayor's office.
A final draft of a similar plan by state Rep. Carlos Lacasa should be unveiled in the next week or so, the legislator said.
Both proposals will try to eliminate the county manager's post and transfer many of those powers to the mayor, who would be able to hire and fire department heads. Rep. Lacasa, of the Coral Gables-Pinecrest area, proposed a similar change in county government during last year's legislative session and said he has offered to help the mayor write his plan.
Any such changes require amending Miami-Dade's home-rule charter, established in 1957. Amendments to local charters require county commission approval or a change in the Florida Constitution. Both methods require a countywide vote.
"They could put the question on the ballot in the November 2002 general elections," Rep. Lacasa said. "But for that, they will have to move fast. But I see no reason why they would not move fast."
As he envisions the new office, mayors would have line-item veto power over the county's budget, Rep. Lacasa said. Other elements of his original proposal included that county commissioners would hold office for no more than 12 years and their salaries, now capped at $6,000 a year, would be about $80,000 annually.
If a strong mayor government is adopted, Mayor Penelas, now serving his second term, might be able to run for a third term since the office could be considered a different job.
"He told me he is not committed to run for a third term at this point," Rep. Lacasa said Thursday after a meeting with the mayor.
Rep. Lacasa said he is not interested in running for the new mayoral seat, if created, because he plans to run for the Florida Senate in 2003.
He said the change is needed because the county, which runs on a $4.5-billion budget, should be run more like a state, with the mayor resembling the power of the governor and the commission that of the legislature.
If Mr. Penelas and commissioners do not come up with their own strong-mayor plan by December, Rep. Lacasa said he will proceed with a two-tier plan of his own to change the county's weak mayor form of government.
In May, legislators approved the amending of the state constitution to hold a statewide referendum on Miami-Dade's government in November 2002. That amendment, backed by Mr. Lacasa, needs approval by voters statewide to take effect.
Next, Rep. Lacasa said he is ready to introduce a bill in January calling for a countywide referendum by 2004 where constituents would be asked to vote on each of his proposed changes to the charter.
The county's charter was recently reviewed by a committee that made recommendations for changes that will go to the county commission, and eventually the voters. The group considered - but chose not - to endorse eliminating the county manager in favor of a strong mayor or changing the overall form of government.
"Everybody in the task force had their particular reasons," said Walter Harvey, an attorney and member of the county's charter review task force. "But the main concern was which form of government would deliver the service and political goods the public wants from the government."
A strong mayor form of government would create a clear separation of power between a mayor with strong executive powers and a commission with more legislative power, Mr. Harvey said.
Opposing such a move is Commissioner Dennis Moss, who said he sees no need for any changes and hasn't received any phone calls from constituents trying to change the mayor's powers.
"We need to maintain a professional county manager, especially with the issues we have had in the county and that we read in the paper," Mr. Moss said. "I don't feel comfortable having a mayor being able to fire and hire the head of the departments. Now the manager reports to the commission and to the mayor. We need a system of checks and balances."
Mr. Moss said the mayor may try to persuade commissioners to create the strong-mayor proposal by saying it is better to deal with the matter at home rather than allowing people from across the state to vote on amending Miami-Dade's charter.
"We are going to fight it out in court" if necessary, Mr. Moss said. "I don't think the state has the right to do this."
Mr. Harvey said he understands Mr. Penelas' move.
"The mayor has the right to lobby the commission like anybody else," he said, "and the commission has the power to put the proposal on the ballot in 2002."
Mr. Harvey said if Mayor Penelas wants to use the new office to run for a third term, the proposal needs to be approved next year by voters.
"I don't see how the proposal can get on the 2002 ballot, he said, "without getting the county commission involved."