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Front Page » Opinion » Commissioners Love Em Or Hate Em Should Get A Big Raise

Commissioners Love Em Or Hate Em Should Get A Big Raise

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Written by on February 23, 2006

By Michael Lewis
Bruno Barreiro, for whatever reason, is about to ask fellow Miami-Dade County commissioners to seek a 1,400% pay raise on the September ballot.

From a taxpayers’ standpoint, it’s a godsend.

Unfortunately, his proposal stands little more chance than does a visit from Mayor Carlos Alvarez of getting a warm welcome in commission chambers.

There are two reasons.

First, commissioners long have been reluctant to ask for raises, either because they fear voter backlash or because they’d rather be paid too little than make it easier for qualified people to run against them.

Second, voters have rejected raises eight times, probably because they don’t think the commissioners they already have are worth more.

But in the 49 years since salaries were set at $6,000 in 1957, Miami-Dade County has blossomed into an international metropolis, with population and budget larger than many nations. The job of commissioner, once part-time, has ballooned to require fulltime attention by knowledgeable and sophisticated officials.

Stop sniggering. I mean it.

Look at what has happened to us over the years by electing less-than-stellar representatives.

No, I’m not talking about the commissioners who have gone to prison or fled prosecution. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill kind – run-of-the-mill and nothing more.

The kind of commissioner who could overlook a housing crisis until it was too late.

The kind of commissioner who could overlook a water crisis until it was too late.

The kind of commissioner who could overlook a transportation crisis until it was too late.

The kind of commissioner who could overlook an environmental crisis until it was too late.

The kind of commissioner whose vision extends only to needs of big campaign contributors.

The kind of commissioner who could tell another commissioner that if she didn’t watch out, she’d leave the meeting in a body bag.

That kind of run-of-the-mill – the kind we all know because we have plenty of them.

These are people who should be paid more?

Yes, and I’ll tell you why.

If we don’t pay them more, we’re condemned to mediocrity forever.

Paying more doesn’t guarantee we won’t get more of the same. It just offers a lot more people the chance to seek office without facing poverty.

Would you, good reader, take a $6,000 job – even with $40,000 in perks – that would subject you to scrutiny and merciless criticism like this from the press?

Probably not, unless you expected major payback that would never see public light. One man joined the commission with no visible means of support and left a millionaire – thanks, no doubt, to careful investment of his $6,000 pay.

That is exactly what the present salary encourages. We get a few selfless thinkers who have independent income and an urge to serve, bless ‘em, but often we get folks for whom $6,000 can somehow be parlayed into a whole lot more.

Other times, we get honest and decent folks who somehow miss the big picture, things like housing and traffic and economy and environment, but focus on minutia with which they are more comfortable.

Commissioner Barreiro, in asking compatriots to ask voters for a raise, is about to upset this smelly apple cart.

If a raise somehow gets on the ballot, it’s entirely possible that voters who feel we can then elect better people will approve a fair figure instead of $6,000 and all you can steal.

That wage would cost taxpayers about $1.1 million a year total for 13 commissioners but could encourage thoughtful challengers to less-than-thoughtful officeholders and tip the balance in the right direction.

That, in turn, could save hundreds of millions, improve life in Miami-Dade and perhaps – miracle of miracles – even offer rapprochement between the commission and the mayor.

If this analysis seems to denigrate a commission that you, dear reader, think is doing a good job, fine. You’ll certainly want to reward those very good commissioners with decent pay for their excellent work.

If, on the other hand, it seems to you that we could and should be doing better down at county hall, then you’ll want to pay commissioners more so we can get better candidates.

So, love those commissioners or hate ‘em, there’s every reason in the world to pay $89,000 for what should be a full-time job.

Even Mayor Alvarez should support that. After all, he campaigned on giving the commission a decent salary.

Only someone content with mediocre government that consistently misses the big picture would oppose doing the right thing.

Now, all that remains is the tiny little step of getting commissioners who consistently miss the big picture to put on the ballot a raise that would make it possible to weed out the worst among them.