Alvarez outraged at county's hiring of lawyer
By Eric Kalis
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez is questioning the wisdom of Tuesday's county commission decision to hire an outside lawyer to fight an attempt to block a referendum on shifting significant powers from the commission to the mayor.
In an interview after the commission voted to hire a Tallahassee lawyer, an outraged Mayor Alvarez initially threatened to veto the decision, saying the commission is trying "to lose" the case scheduled to be heard in court Oct. 23.
But after later consulting with attorneys, the mayor decided not to veto. Mr. Alvarez was to send a memo explaining his concerns about the commission's vote to county officials Wednesday.
Among the mayor's complaints is that the commission voted to spend "thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars" to seek outside counsel instead of allowing County Attorney Murray Greenberg to handle the case. The commission voted 7-5 to hire George Meros of law firm Gray Robinson after three hours of contentious discussion. Mr. Meros is to represent the commission in a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Open Government, a group opposed to letting voters decide whether the county should adopt a strong-mayor form of government.
The measure comes after the strong-mayor referendum survived proceedings in three courts, leaving the county to schedule an election between Nov. 24 and Jan. 25. The commission is expected to set a date at its Oct. 24 meeting.
Mayor Alvarez said the commission's motive is transparent. "What I find appalling is that the commission basically hired outside counsel to prevent the citizens from voting," he said. "They are utilizing taxpayers' money to lose the case. I commend the five commissioners who voted against this, especially commissioners [Katy] Sorenson and [Carlos] Gimenez."
Mayor Alvarez said he wants voters to decide that the mayor should have the power to hire the county manager and department heads and have more of a say in contract negotiations.
The lawsuit is the second filed by Citizens for Open Government, which lost a first attempt to block the referendum in September. The group claims that Lester Sola, county supervisor of elections, approved 130,000 signatures from a petition calling for the referendum despite not receiving background documentation explaining the petition. If the group wins the case, the petition would be deemed invalid and an election would not take place.
According to a 2001 commission measure, a signature on a petition is valid only if it is accompanied by supporting text.
Mr. Greenberg said that while Mr. Sola did certify the petition without the backup after the commission approved it in April 2005, he acted in the same manner as past supervisors.
Mr. Sola should have rejected the petition in its entirety, Mr. Meros said, but the commission should go to court to defend its vote to approve it.
"My opinion is that in dealing with any legislative body that passes a law, that body is obliged to defend it," he said.
Dissenting commissioners expressed concern that vigorously defending another lawsuit could make the strong-mayor issue more confusing for residents.
"We should not disenfranchise voters based on a technicality," Ms. Sorenson said. "I disagree with the strong-mayor item, but I say move forward with the campaign. Do not discourage voters from petitioning their government."
In explaining his vote to hire Mr. Meros, Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said, "I want to feel comfortable that I'm doing my job to protect the county's charter."
He said he sees the absence of supporting text in the petition submittals as a weakness in the commission's legal position. "When people sign a petition, they need to know what they're signing."