County to consider stripping powers from transit watchdog panel
By Shannon Pettypiece
Miami-Dade County commissioners today (3/18) are to consider reducing the powers of a voter-mandated watchdog group that oversees spending of a half-cent sales tax.
The resolution, introduced by Commissioner Dennis Moss, would strip the Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust of its ability to change a $17 billion transit-expansion plan funded by the half-cent tax voters passed in November 2002.
Under the plan, the Board of County Commissioners would take on that responsibility and the trust would only approve or deny the commission's changes.
Under the current ordinance approved by voters when they passed the surtax, the trust is the only board able to alter the transit-expansion plan. The county commission must approve the changes or send them back to the trust for reconsideration.
That role is reversed when it comes to issuing contracts for surtax revenue.
The issue is to go before the commission today for a first reading, after which it would go to a hearing before the transportation committee, led by Mr. Moss, and a vote by the commission as soon as next month.
Mr. Moss was at the commission's monthly board meeting and was not available for comment Tuesday.
John Cosgrove, trust chairman, said the move would "neuter" the trust and make it a "lapdog instead of a watchdog."
"We are charged with a public trust, and this is a betrayal of public trust by weakening what our responsibilities and authorities are," Mr. Cosgrove said. "Everything is going to be initiated by the commission, and the trust just becomes a ticket taker with no tools to do the job."
The county's 30-year mass-transit improvement plan has been amended several times since its inception. Some of the changes have come from commissioners who went before the trust asking for amendments. Changes that have been made include accelerating certain parts of the plan and removing others that were not financially feasible.
Javier Soto, chief of staff for Mayor Alex Penelas, said the mayor is keeping a close eye on the proposal and will step in if necessary to protect the trust's independence.
Mayor Penelas supported creation of the trust, which he has said improved voter confidence enough to get the tax passed.
"We have some concerns with (the county resolution)," Mr. Soto said. "We are going to allow it to go through the process and intervene if necessary. The mayor has always been an advocate for the independence of this board."
Mr. Cosgrove said he has heard that the mayor might be willing to veto the change if it won commission approval.
Before voters passed the transit tax they were told a group of citizens would monitor spending of the tax, said trust director Hilda Fernandez, who worked for the mayor on the campaign for the tax. While the explanation of the trust's power was not on the ballot, it was outlined in an accompanying ordinance and conveyed to the public during an education campaign, she said.
"A general description of their powers were obviously conveyed during the education campaign. We let (the voters) know what the powers of the CITT would be," Ms. Fernandez said. "Was the community told these were to be their powers? Yes. Was that part of the voter education? Of course."
Mr. Cosgrove said the move by Mr. Moss is the latest attempt by commissioners who oppose the trust to reduce its powers.
"They want to blindfold us, and I think it is obvious that it is a deliberate attempt to subvert the will of the people by preventing us from performing our duties," Mr. Cosgrove said.
The trust began meeting in May, six months after voters approved it, and has yet to have all members appointed at one time. Most of the appointments are made by the 13 commissioners.