Pay the commission, move contracts, but nix strong mayor
By Michael Lewis
"There are no good guys in this one," a former elected official said last week of plans of Mayor Carlos Alvarez to gut the powers of the manager and make himself king of the county.
That's true. But there are no bad guys in this one, either.
Last week the county commission held its collective nose and did what it must do by law - allow the mayor's team to seek signatures to put on the fall ballot three changes that would revolutionize Miami-Dade County government.
As those who have suffered them know, revolutions aren't pleasant. The war is on between commissioners, whose sway would be curtailed, and the mayor, who would be both king and manager.
It seems being manager is what the mayor most wants. He would make the county manager the mayor's assistant rather than the professional who conducts government as far from politics as possible. While the commission would still make policy, the mayor would run government.
What a battle royal this would be, considering the gap between an unyielding mayor and an unyielding commission.
But, it's a battle this county should not endure. Approving the mayor's whole package this fall would be worse than the sorry situation that has given the mayor a shot at pulling off this revolution.
First, look at today's problems, the catalysts for his attack.
The commission for years has meddled in contracts, inflating costs. Each commissioner represents a slice of the county and focuses on it, giving short shrift to long-term issues. Meanwhile, minuscule pay bars many high-quality persons who need a fulltime income from running, limiting the quality of both officeholders and governance.
The mayor's response to the first and last of these impediments is admirable, to the second abominable.
One of his proposed charter amendments for which signatures can now be gathered would keep the commission from deciding who will get contracts and instead let administrators closest to the issue choose. That's how state and US governments function. It's logical for a massive county. It could slash costs by stripping lobbying fee add-ons out of contracts.
Another proposal is to pay commissioners about $85,000, using the same formula as neighboring Broward County and non-charter Florida counties instead of the long-outdated $6,000 salary. If you want honest politicians, pay them for what they should do and demand that they do it.
Wise as these two proposals are, however, their impact would be eviscerated by the linchpin of the mayor's plan, which would formally put him in charge of government in every way. While the commission could set policy, he would run everything - and could even join in commission debates.
Some argue this would mean voters would know who is responsible for government. But everybody also knows who is responsible in a dictatorship. Handing one politician so much power can turn a civil service into the mayor's private service. While voters could eventually throw out a rascal who played politics with employees, four years' damage to personnel decisions could take decades to repair.
The pernicious plan to change powers is so sweeping that details wouldn't appear on the ballot. Voters might not know that:
nThe commission would no longer be the county's governing body.
n"The Mayor shall be recognized as the official head of the County for all ceremonial purposes, by the courts for purpose of serving civil process, for the signing of all legal instruments and documents, and by the Governor for emergency management purposes."
nThe mayor would administer all departments of the county and execute contracts.
nThe mayor would get the power to recommend commission resolutions, ordinances and other actions.
nThe mayor could attend and be heard at commission meetings.
nThe mayor would have sole authority to appoint the manager unless the commission immediately voted that down by a two-thirds vote, which would require nine of the 13 votes.
nThe mayor alone could direct or dismiss the manager.
nThe mayor would appoint all county representatives to boards, commissions, committees and governmental agencies.
nThe mayor would appoint all department directors unless nine of the 13 commissioners immediately overruled the appointment.
nMost dangerous of all, the mayor and the mayor alone could reprimand, remove or discharge department heads, leaving the manager a mere figurehead. With a political mayor - and aren't mayors supposed to be politicians? - this would be a disaster.
All the advantages and safeguards in a professional manager system would disappear with this single change. A mayor who was not good at managing on a massive scale would be a disaster, and mayors have never been elected for their housekeeping skills.
This would be such a sweeping change in how Miami-Dade is run that approving the executive mayor proposal would be tantamount to revolution. Usually, revolution is not the best way to improve things.
Mayor Alvarez has kept under wraps his compatriots in this, leaving skeptics to speculate on the worst of motives. A single committee of two persons is what has shown up, hardly reassuring when massive change without debate is involved.
Unfortunately, there can never be fair debate before a commission that is set against change where its powers are concerned. Voters may be sick of how the board functions, but commissioners themselves seem oblivious. A commission that refused to see its own flaws is what gave the mayor an opening for all of this.
If you're asked to sign these petitions, remember this: there is nothing wrong and everything right with paying commissioners as much as the office - if not the individual now holding it - deserves. Better pay facilitates better candidates and is fair to whomever wins, good or bad.
There is also nothing wrong, and everything right, with stripping contracts from a commission where they have never belonged and handing them to administrators who may not be approached by lobbyists.
But that's only the case if the administrators are not under the thumb of a strong mayor who can personally and solely determine their futures, a mayor who would be heavily lobbied by those with financing for his next campaign.
So when it comes to the strong mayor itself, the centerpiece of Mr. Alvarez's plan, run, don't walk, in the opposite direction. It would cure the county's ills by cutting the heart out of the patient. The remedy is even worse than our current mess.
While our commission is no paragon, it deserves firm support in defeating the mayor's bid to turn commissioners from dogs into lapdogs.
There really aren't any good guys or bad guys in this one - just two good ideas and one atrocious one.