Warfare Over Broken City Promises Needs Flower Power
Written by Michael Lewis on March 30, 2006
By Michael Lewis
Zinnias could halt an escalating war in Miami-Dade. Stay with me and I’ll share the secret, gleaned from a companion at Saturday’s half-century dinner of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
In New England growing up, she told me, a recluse who cut zinnias left them for sale in condensed-milk cans beside a teacup near the road. On the honor system, buyers left coins in the cup. Nobody cheated. Nobody slipped behind the house to steal flowers, either.
Same honor system in Michigan’s cherry country, where we found an unattended roadside stand covered with fruit-filled baskets and a tin box. We took bright red cherries and left our money in a box already green with cash.
On that trip, we revisited a newspaper I had founded. Going out, I’d never lock the office door, and we’d return to find a counter awash in news items and cash payments. We never lost a penny. Decades later, the new owner told me he does the same – still with zero loss.
Cities function when we can count on others to behave acceptably and keep commitments. In those towns, the standard was to do the right thing with unattended cash.
Big cities also set standards. We don’t push ahead in the supermarket line. We let a motorist pull out into heavy traffic. We give the infirm first choice of seating.
Count these among society’s norms. While it would be illegal to take zinnias without paying or grab cash from the teacup, it’s not laws that made the zinnia system work any more than laws keep us from butting in line. Standards of conduct and codes of honor are at work.
One of those codes is "giving your word" or "shaking hands on the deal." You do what you promise no matter how it may pain you. After all, it’s your word of honor.
Such codes help society run without a lawyer or policeman at every turn. If you borrow you father’s car, your father has your word that it will be back tonight – no contract or policeman required.
But what happens when trust breaks down? What if you didn’t return the car? Do you think the newspaper office would remain unlocked if someone came in and scooped up the cash on the counter?
Society can only function if a basis of trust means you don’t always need the law. Violate the code and people will freeze you out or penalize you.
So, finally, the point. An entente between the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County has crumbled because of a broken vow.
When City Manager Joe Arriola wrote to County Manager George Burgess this month that he was reneging on a city pledge to repay 70% of a loan for Parrot Jungle Island, it was the third time around. First, the city had pledged to repay 100%, then 80%, then 70% – and then said, agreement or no, it wouldn’t pay a cent.
Set aside for now why government is funding a business or who should have repaid what in the first place. The fact is, the county acted on promises the city kept breaking. The city not only didn’t bring the car back on time, it kept the car.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me three times and you’re dead meat.
Mr. Burgess, who grew up in New England and may well have bought roadside zinnias, blew up in a March 14 county committee meeting.
"The way I was brought up," he said, "a handshake means something. Sadly, that’s not the way it works everywhere, and at City Hall, a handshake does not carry the same meaning as it does here."
Without trust, accords break down. The city didn’t bring back the car, so the county cut off its allowance.
Mr. Burgess persuaded commissioners last week to not extend the lives of two city redevelopment areas. That not only cost the city tens of millions in taxes that will now flow to the county, but it penalized both the Performing Arts Center and a developer of more than 1,000 housing units in Overtown, damaging innocent bystanders as the county punishes the city for breaking its vow.
Take my car, will you? Hah!
That’s not all. Mr. Burgess last week got the commission to propose that the county, not the city, hold and spend tourist-development room-tax receipts the city has controlled since 1978.
That’s how we cut off the allowance around here.
That’s what happens when you don’t return the car. It’s what happens when you don’t follow accepted rules, based on law or just on honor.
If Miami is going to be an unruly teen, the county is going to keep punishing it. More penalties may follow if the city doesn’t become adult and keep its promises.
While everyone acknowledges Mr. Burgess has an agreement with Mr. Arriola and elected city officials, Mr. Arriola decided his word doesn’t mean much. "The more I sleep on it," he told us, "the more I can’t agree to it."
Unfortunately, that’s a little late. He did agree – over and over and over. Now, he says he had his fingers crossed so his pledge doesn’t count.
Reneging has caused international wars. Now an escalating local war threatens to maim bystanders such as the Performing Arts Center, affordable housing and more.
This is just not acceptable. The teen who kept the car needs to be grounded.
Mr. Arriola, if he remains in office much longer, and Miami’s elected officials need a consciousness-raising trip to zinnia country.