Duck and cover: The county takes aim on citizen oversight
By Michael Lewis
When county voters approved a record $2.9 billion in bonding for improvements in November, they were told exactly what they would get for the money and that a citizens' committee would see to it that it happened.
That's what they thought they saw in a list of 344 projects, each with an exact cost. So the public-spirited voted, to the surprise of many, to tax themselves to make it happen.
Though massive clinkers lurk among the projects, many are vital to our county.
But just which ones we do, and how much we spend on each, is something the county commission will decide later. The referenda we passed at the polls don't spell out which projects will eventually get money - the list we saw was an empty promise.
Its heading: "Recommended projects." When was the last time the commission let almost $3 billion float past its nose without concerted tinkering with "recommendations"? Even the county administration acknowledges there will be changes.
And the 21 citizens' board members who are to review spending aren't even to be allowed to say what they think about spending, before or after the fact, unless commissioners ask for advice - to which they needn't pay a bit of attention.
That's the gist of an ordinance the commission passed on first reading Dec. 14. It's due back at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 9 in a hearing before the Budget and Finance Committee. Volunteers whose efforts got bonding passed should be there to howl about the way the commission plans to cut the public out now that it has the money in its hands.
The citizens' group the commission envisions - as recommended by Manager George Burgess - bars it from saying or doing anything the commission doesn't want. It's powerless window dressing.
And in case members do try to hold commissioners to plans voters thought they were buying into, the ordinance would let the commission shut down the advisory board and send 'em all home.
The legislation seems crafted to avoid an error - from the commissioners' perspective - that created an independent oversight board for spending of a 0.5% transportation tax approved in November 2002. The tax never would have passed if voters, wary of the commission, hadn't been promised an ironclad group to prevent the shuffling of funds.
That panel got so active that the commission cut the legs out from under it - leaving commissioners with pretty much free rein to spend as they please.
Now the county has crafted legislation specifically for the bond-advisory team to be as weak as possible.
The committee is being established, by legislation, "for the sole purpose of advising" the mayor, commission and manager on the bond program. The group is to "assist in the preparation of quarterly reports" and an annual report - the key word is "assist," not "prepare."
Any advice could be "either a written or oral presentation, as may be requested by the county commission." No independent action requested, expected or wanted, thank you.
As Mr. Burgess notes in a memo, back in July, his team promised "an oversight proposal" to consider. After voters bought into the taxation out of their pockets, oversight was watered down to advice - and then only if commissioners request it.
Bait and switch on a grand scale.
This isn't solely a concern about how today's commissioners are going to play with $2.9 billion in contracts after deciding which projects to do in what order, what to scrap and what to add.
These folks won't be here forever. If the sitting 13 were the world's best commissioners, they wouldn't get to do all the spending - or the allocating of money to their districts for new, expanded or revamped projects. The bonds are to be issued over 13-15 years, and we'll pay them back for a half-century.
What if future commissioners aren't as trustworthy or thoughtful or fair as those we have today? There is no oversight - though we were promised we would have it.
Assisting in the issuance of reports on spending after the fact isn't oversight.
Those who worked so hard to get the bonds passed often had designs on the proceeds - not to get any money themselves but to have it spent to help their neighborhoods or special concerns.
Today, they have no more guarantee that their interests will be protected than the word of commissioners that their successors will be as faithful to plan as they are. That, given our county's history of promise keeping, is something less than the chance of the Miami Dolphins winning this year's Super Bowl.
A 1951 film, "Duck and Cover," listed last week by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, told schoolchildren how to protect themselves from an atomic bomb: Get under your desks and cover your heads.
That's better protection than this legislation offers voters.