Mayor Can Exercise His Right To Be Wrong We Shouldnt Bite
Written by Michael Lewis on June 8, 2006
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez’ bid to create a strong mayor with unprecedented power has been ruled legal, but nothing says it’s sensible.
Until opponents next challenge it, an appellate ruling allows him to ask voters to revamp government. But his populist bid for a cure-all remains unwise.
It was crafted in 2004, when voters disgusted with scandal sought change. They elected Mr. Alvarez, a police chief with no political acumen who rode his election on a crest of anonymity into battle with commissioners to accumulate power.
Mr. Alvarez spent a year decrying a lack of ability to do anything. To prove his powerlessness, he tried nothing of substance.
Once an initial court ruling sidetracked his bid for a referendum to revamp the county, however, Mr. Alvarez shifted to more worthy efforts. His focus on such key issues as workforce housing gave a hint of leadership that had been totally absent as he baited commissioners and then wondered why they wouldn’t cooperate.
Now the court’s ruling threatens to exacerbate friction between 13 commissioners elected by district and a mayor who, elected countywide, could accomplish significant good without adding an ounce of formal power if he could build alliances instead of erect fences.
If the mayor succeeds at the polls, however, voters would turn professional management into a lapdog for a mayor.
In a way, it is understandable that Mayor Alvarez is fomenting revolution. While the post to which he was elected should be a rallying point to persuade the public, elected officials and county workers to support big-picture needs carried out by neutral professionals for the benefit of all, the mayor is more technocrat than charismatic leader.
The job of mayor is political. The job of manager is administrative. Mr. Alvarez aims to meld the two.
Unfortunately, he constructed a plan to upend this county in backroom dealings with who knows whom – he has refused to say who drafted the plan or what data support it. It’s all in his back pocket, the worst way to revamp a world-class urban community.
Had Mr. Alvarez been serious, he would have toiled in public before a countywide charter commission. That would have given his ideas a cache a backroom project cannot win.
To be fair, despite its dubious origins, Mr. Alvarez’ plan could nonetheless succeed if a mayor were a charismatic visionary of exceptional stature who also happened to be a manager competent to head 30,000 workers effectively, impartially and nonpolitically.
But that pairing comes along once in a lifetime at best, so most of the time the holder of the job Mr. Alvarez seeks to create would fail.
That’s no way to restructure government.
We’re lucky enough to just get the rare mayor with charisma, vision and stature – and that’s just the leader, not the administrator we also need.
Nothing personal. Nobody elected Mr. Alvarez to be manager. They sought a leader. In enlightened governments, a politician shouldn’t name or direct department heads. Patronage and favoritism could run amok.
That is the key reason we now separate mayor from manager. The mayor is a politician. The manager shouldn’t be. You cannot weld them together.
Set aside the king-size feud between the mayor and commission Chairman Joe A. Martinez, who worked under him in the police force. This isn’t about good guys or bad guys but a good system of government or a bad one.
Our present system does have one massive flaw. Commissioners run by district and think parochially. Only the mayor is chosen countywide – a sole political leader who should not also be manager.
If we’re looking for change, find a way to elect commissioners who can represent us all. That’s sensible. That’s vital.
But don’t turn county jobs into a power base for an elected mayor. Because even if Mr. Alvarez were a saint, his successor wouldn’t be.
A century ago, bosses ran big US cities. It got so ugly that national reform created administration apart from politics. That is our present system, imperfect to be sure but far superior to its predecessor.
Nothing will deter Mayor Alvarez from trying to go backward by charging forward to the ballot box. As court rulings now stand, that’s his absolute right.
But it’s still wrong.
Parochialism born of single-member-district elections should never goad us to vest political and managerial powers in one person as a solution that must fail.
Absolutely nothing is wrong with the mayor’s court victory. It gives him the opportunity to carry his ideas to the voters.
But absolutely nothing will be gained, and much lost, if voters accept his backroom nostrum for county government ills.