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Front Page » Opinion » Strong Mayors Job An Impossible Highwire Act With No Net

Strong Mayors Job An Impossible Highwire Act With No Net

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Written by on December 28, 2006

By Michael Lewis
Strong mayor. The term appeals to Miami-Dade voters sickened by our three-ring clown circus of silliness, shortsightedness and scandals.

Just give us a strongman, say proponents – some say the job on the Jan. 23 ballot borders on a dictator’s role – to get the county back on track.

But wait a minute. Look at what the new-style mayor would do and ask: Who would do this powerful job well?

Forget about whether the 13 commissioners are effective or how good County Manager George Burgess is or if Carlos Alvarez today is a good mayor and look at who would wind up doing the job the mayor’s team has pushed onto the ballot.

Forget, too, about Mr. Alvarez as for-sure mayor. If voters approve a change Jan. 23, a lawsuit is certain to seek an election for a new mayor because the job isn’t the one Mr. Alvarez won two years ago. New job, new voting, new leader.

What candidates could administer the county impartially yet be effective political leaders, using all their clout to advance their own agenda?

We’re talking about radically different roles, administrator and politician. Who’s good at both?

You might get former mayor Alex Penelas and his merry band of insider lobbyists, eligible to run despite leaving office after his allotted two terms because the reformulated mayor’s job would be a new position.

Or you might see Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, whose business partners operate on government lands and have included an elected commissioner and the city manager who reported to him.

Perhaps a present commissioner would run. None can stand Mr. Alvarez, and somebody would try to stop him for sure.

Which among these would you pick as both an able, impartial administrator and a strong political leader for the whole county?

The question, of course, is unfair. Almost no elected official in this nation qualifies as both a political powerhouse and an honest, impartial and effective leader of a civil service of 30,000 workers. Why should any of the folks I’ve mentioned have to qualify for both roles?

Only because the job, as it goes on the ballot Jan. 23, would require a supercharged leader highly skilled in diametrically opposed roles of politician and administrator. We’re asking the superhuman, and very few folks who run for office will ever qualify.

We’re asking a person to head government, administer departments, oversee contracts, take over some appointments to boards and committees, appoint and control a manager as an assistant and name all department leaders – yet at the same time, we require a politician with clout and charisma to enunciate a vision and to drive government to achieve it, pulling a recalcitrant county commission in tow.

That’s a workload for two real heroes, not one superhero who doesn’t exist.

The impossible load was lightened slightly when the question was prepared for the ballot, eliminating power to recommend commission actions. That power, proposed in seeking signatures to send the issue to referendum, slipped away last month as the measure was sent to the ballot – though this column last week erroneously said it remained.

Still, if the measure passes – and experts say it has a good chance – voters will have set off a time bomb. Regardless of whether Mr. Alvarez or anyone else mentioned won the job initially, very soon, someone would be able to win election but not to administer government’s daily service to the public. Don’t forget, most perfectly capable politicians cannot manage a massive civil service – a specialized role with very different qualifications.

And when you have a $6.9 billion budget and a history of misspending, placing an amateur at the helm – even if honest and well-meaning – would invite disaster. We sputter with a professional in charge. Imagine how much worse it could quickly get without one.

With the wrong engineer, a train wreck is just around the bend.

Worst of all, there’d be nobody to put on the brakes because the driver would not be a county manager answering to both a mayor and a commission but a mayor who would report to nobody.

Yes, voters could kick out an incompetent or dishonest mayor at the polls, but years of damaging political appointments could destroy a 30,000-employee team before the next election.

By choosing the strong-mayor variation we’re facing, we’d be doing away with our present safety nets and letting one person go it alone on the high wire – carrying all of us along. Someday, there’d be a fall – maybe very soon.

It’s not a gamble we should take.

Yes, we need a change in the circus that is Miami-Dade County, but we should choose other, far safer ways of making a change with a better chance for success and fewer opportunities to fall from the high wire. We’ll discuss those options in the weeks ahead.

There are far better ways to end the circus than by sticking our heads into a hungry lion’s mouth.