How To Win Battle Over County Control Without Firing A Shot
Written by Michael Lewis on February 1, 2007
By Michael Lewis
Miami-Dade commissioners fighting a rear-guard battle against newly minted strong mayor Carlos Alvarez can exert real muscle next week when they OK a review of the county’s charter.
While the cameras focus on Mr. Alvarez, Commissioner Katy Sorenson is about to offer a less-photogenic plan for charter review, which is required every five years and is past due. Its outcome could once again radically alter how this county is run, nullifying much of what exists today — including some of the added clout voters gave the mayor two weeks ago.
Ms. Sorenson stalled a charter review vote last week, saying she wanted to increase public representation. If she’s wise, she’ll go further and ensure that we get a review panel devoid of elected officials, whose mere presence would chill debate. With commissioners voting beside you, try talking about their weaknesses.
She might also learn from the travails of the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, which commissioners have hamstrung since Day 1 by failing to provide enough funds or independent staff. If commissioners truly seek reform rather than revenge, they shouldn’t handcuff the charter review — and they certainly won’t want Mayor Alvarez controlling the staff.
So, what is charter review?
It’s a detailed probe of the code under which county government exists, the framework that allows Miami-Dade to operate without state interference. Some call it our Constitution.
In the review, residents examine how government works and how it could be better. After public deliberation, the panel sends recommendations to the county commission. Commissioners then decide what to put before voters. The public, not the commission, changes the charter.
Because the commission these days finds itself about as trusted as your garden-variety burglar — but not quite as highly regarded — Ms. Sorenson should provide that everything a review recommends will go to voters uncensored. After all, the commission names the team, so the dice are loaded in favor of the status quo before a review starts. Don’t give the commission a veto at the end as well.
Ms. Sorenson is smart to seek more public representation. A good way, paradoxically, would be to have fewer than 13 members. That would force commissioners to agree on who serves rather than name one member each, a sure invitation to sycophants.
The panel, as we’ve suggested before, should include a professor of government picked from nominees from local universities and colleges, a former commissioner, a former county manager, a business leader, a pair of unaffiliated residents and a wildcard chosen by the commission. Those seven could then add two or four more members to fill gaps in expertise and representation.
One more suggestion: For credibility, provide that no lobbyists registered with the county can play. If the reason isn’t obvious, you haven’t been following Miami-Dade County for long.
Commissioners will continue to snipe at Mr. Alvarez as he pushes them out of the limelight and begins one-man political leadership and county management. Some push back is not unexpected. The mayor himself talks of checks and balances. Now it’s the mayor, not the commission, who must be kept in check.
But if commissioners summon the wisdom and courage to handle charter review properly, an independent panel deliberating in public for 18 months is likely to attain a better government format than the strong-mayor plan drafted in short order in backroom machinations by unknown authors.
That will be a stronger, more effective and longer-lasting response by the commission than the guerrilla warfare that has already begun — and much healthier for Miami-Dade residents.