Bet that final chip on a smart new deal for county taxpayers
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade commissioners are down to their last chip in the high-stakes power game of County Hall shuffle.
An election nears to plant a mayor with wildcard powers atop the county. Commissioners' final play would be to order an independent review of the county charter, targeting studied reform rather than the reckless power handoff that's on the Jan. 23 ballot.
Will commissioners boldly play that card, or will they do what they've done before: stack the charter review's deck by appointing themselves and lobbyists instead of independent citizens and experts?
An unbiased task force would examine the commission structure, possibly adding countywide seats with broader views than the single-member districts from which all 13 commissioners now are chosen. Commissioner Katy Sorenson has wisely suggested that a review team study that — the most important reform possible.
Now, two county officials are elected countywide: the clerk of the courts, who is also clerk of the commission, and the mayor. Electing commissioners countywide as well could stifle Mayor Carlos Alvarez' cry that he is the only countywide elected official.
But that helpful change would be just one benefit of an overall review — a study that requires broad and deep thought untainted by pressures from current officeholders.
That's why the charter team named under a plan up for commission action this month must be independent, funded in advance, staffed independently and guaranteed that its output will appear on the ballot and not be blocked, as commissioners have done in the past.
Only if commissioners confirm all of that before Jan. 23 can they counter the mayor's call for a revolution that in wrong hands could make today's bad situation far worse. If you want to talk about corruption, think of the wrong person controlling county contracts and jobs with no independent civil service to temper a mayor's edicts.
If commissioners guarantee voters a full and fair charter review, they might trump the mayor's bid to lump political and administrative power in one pair of hands, though even if he wins new powers at the polls, he might not wind up holding the cards — someone will sue for a new election because a strong mayor's role is not the job to which Mr. Alvarez was elected.
Remember, it's not how well Mr. Alvarez would play the strong mayor's hand but how well a mere mortal might. We've had mere-mortal mayors before: How would they have stacked up in dealing superpowers?
Even if the strong-mayor plan passes, a charter review is required — by charter. But it won't be done until late 2008.
Then, a review could undo the revisions on the Jan. 23 ballot — but too late for commissioners and taxpayers, who could feel pain long before charter reform could salve wounds.
Don't think this is a plea to keep the current commission riding high. Change in membership and actions would be unlamented. We all suffer from the faulty power structure.
An isolated change to a strong mayor without a thorough public probe of how government should play the game, however, isn't the answer for the public any more than it is for the commission.
But if commissioners don't bet their last chip on a truly independent charter review before Jan. 23, they'll be out of the game.
So, unfortunately, will taxpayers.