Forget Corruption Personalities Ndash This Vote Is About Basics
Written by Michael Lewis on January 18, 2007
By Michael Lewis
Misconceptions are swirling in the countdown to an election that could stand Miami-Dade County on its head. Let’s cut the confusion about the perilous vote that could create a flawed strong-mayor system.
First, this vote has nothing to do with corruption, present or future. We have had corrupt commissioners. We could have a corrupt mayor. No structure will create honesty or prevent dishonesty.
Second, the issue is not those now in office but the future. Love or hate the current mayor or commissioners, they won’t be there in the long run — but the system we choose will.
So, the point: Tuesday’s election will determine whether we destroy a civil-service system for more than 30,000 workers and install a system where any mayor can suddenly shout "Jobs for all my friends!" and make any county post a political appointment rather than relying on merit.
The strong-mayor plan on the ballot — differing from many by that name elsewhere — would let a mayor name and dismiss not only the county manager but department heads, who decide who holds the jobs under them.
That would raise the mayor alone to the top of a jobs pyramid with no significant checks on that power. It could work, but someone who needs votes and campaign contributions to be reelected — which a county manager doesn’t — would be sorely tempted to meddle. Some mayors undoubtedly would.
That wouldn’t be corruption — just terrible government.
The flaws you see in county operations today would be nothing compared to what you’d have under a mayor who used political powers in what should be administrative situations. And mayors, by definition, are political. Managers aren’t supposed to be — and both a mayor and 13 commissioners now keep a manager in line. Nobody would keep a strong mayor in line.
Making the mayor the manager, too, is mingling politics and administration in the worst possible way.
Our focus should be not whether today’s mayor is good or bad or whether today’s commissioners are, but whether the system is good or bad — and whether we’d just make things worse if we made a change.
Person or persons unknown drafted the revolutionary changes on the ballot. You are being asked to reshape a government larger than dozens of nations to accept the plan of someone you don’t know, whose motives you know even less. Nobody has been willing to say who did this.
Fortunately, there’s a better way, and it’s in the works: A charter commission will debate in public, with expert testimony, on the best way to structure our government. Then, the public can vote on that.
Such a review team will be named soon, as law requires. It should dig into the whole span of government, not just making a mayor a king but looking at the far-reaching ramifications of any recommended changes.
That team should be carefully chosen, at arm’s length from officeholders. It should be staffed by workers independent of the mayor, the manager or the commission and be funded in advance with enough resources to bring in experts from out of the county or the state. And recommendations should be guaranteed in advance a place on the ballot in the next election. Do it right.
Doesn’t that months-long study offer us far better than something drafted in a rush by nobody knows whom?
With luck, a charter review will spot a true need: at-large commissioners with broader vision than pothole fillers from a single district.
Unfortunately, pothole powers are what Mayor Carlos Alvarez craves. In a letter to us two weeks ago, he said he wants the added clout this election would bring so that he can solve residents’ calls for individual help himself — a mammoth undertaking with almost 2.5 million of us set to dial his number right after the election.
Those minutiae are what the county’s 30,000-plus workers are supposed to handle.
Of course, Mayor Alvarez could do far worse than help residents one by one as a one-man Action Line. That’s a noble cause — though a misguided use of time. We elect a mayor to look broadly and lead us down the right path. Every minute doing otherwise detracts from effectiveness. It’s not bad but not overly helpful.
But then, this is not about Mayor Alvarez, or the commission, or the guy who didn’t patch your pothole or overcharged to do it. It’s about making sure we have the best system and not letting someone we don’t know tinker dangerously in a back room just because we like Mr. Alvarez or don’t like some commissioners or are annoyed by that pothole.
Since you realize all that we stand to lose by tinkering out of frustration, please go to the polls Tuesday. We can’t let misconceptions make a bad situation worse.