Mayor, commissioners begin battle for control
By Dan Dolan
A shadow war for control of Miami-Dade County government has begun in earnest as Mayor Carlos Alvarez methodically has tightened his grip on daily operations and commissioners have sought to bind the newly powerful chief executive in unbreakable fiscal chains.
The commission's finance committee Monday approved Carlos Gimenez' legislation that would ban departmental slush funds, impose stringent budget controls and require commission approval before departments transfer large sums of cash between projects and operations
And last week, commission chairman Bruno A. Barreiro revealed that he's pushing a plan to gut the county's budget department and bring key financial analysts directly under commission control — despite County Attorney Murray A. Greenberg's opinion that the move violates the county charter.
Meanwhile, commission vice chairwoman Barbara Jordan is sponsoring a bill to force the mayor to approve all budget, zoning, policy and business recommendations prepared by county staff before they could be considered by the commission.
Mayor Alvarez is neutral on Ms. Jordan's legislation, his aides say. But he opposes Mr. Gimenez' plan even though commissioners voted Monday to strip the bill of a controversial proposal to impose $500 fines on department heads who violate the new rules.
Mr. Alvarez is certain to fight to keep control of the budget department, government officials said. But the commission is equally committed to putting fiscal constrains on the executive branch.
"The power of the purse is all we have left to make sure there are checks and balances," Commissioner Joe Martinez said. "We have to start looking at the budget in a different manner."
That's why Mr. Barreiro wants to put key players from the Office of Strategic Business Management, headed by budget director Jennifer Glazer-Moon, directly under commission control. Ms. Moon's staff now vets all departmental budget submissions and monitors spending.
Before voters gave the mayor authority to hire and fire department heads last month, the commission relied on professional government managers for budget advice. But now commissioners feel the budget process could become politicized and they wouldn't be able to trust budget submissions, Mr. Barreiro said.
"We need our own expert budget analysis to make decisions," Mr. Barreiro said. "Bringing in sections of the Office of Strategic Business Management would help the commission without really hurting the executive branch. Every county department already has budget analysts on staff."
The county attorney says breaking up the budget department violates the Miami-Dade charter, which controls all government operations.
"Under the new charter approved by voters last month, administration of county departments is now underneath the mayor," Mr. Greenberg said. "You cannot do something by ordinance that would defeat what the charter change implemented.
"The bottom line is if you move the budget department or a significant portion of it under the commission, you would be defeating what the citizens voted to do last month," he said. "In my professional opinion, the Office of Strategic Business Management must remain under the mayor."
Mr. Greenberg said the commission could create its own budget arm and even hire away Ms. Moon's staff without violating the charter.
Mr. Barreiro said that would be the last option. He said he doesn't want to increase the size of the government's payroll — and he's not convinced that Mr. Greenberg is correct.
"We understand the county attorney's position, but we're doing more research on this issue," Mr. Barreiro said. "It's a work in progress. We need to ensure accountability."
Ms. Jordan said that's the idea behind her legislation to require a mayoral signature on every item the executive branch presents to the commission. Before last month's charter change, the county manager had the power to propose items for a commission vote.
Now, the mayor holds that authority. Ms. Jordan's bill, which will be considered by the commission next week, would prohibit the mayor from delegating that power to anyone.
"This makes sure the mayor is held responsible for recommendations coming from county staff," Ms. Jordan said. "This way, when a recommendation comes through, the mayor can't claim ignorance. If we continue to allow the county manager to propose items, we're letting the mayor off the hook."
Mr. Barreiro said Ms. Jordan's bill would make it tougher for the mayor to veto legislation based on executive recommendations.
"Right now, the mayor gets two bites at the apple, which isn't right," Mr. Barreiro said. "He can order staff to recommend an item, then veto it after we pass it. We want the mayor to state his position before we vote."
Mr. Barreiro is taking a conciliatory approach in his dealings with Mr. Alvarez. He angered several commissioners when he approved a two-hour delay of the start of next week's commission meeting so it wouldn't conflict with the mayor's official State of the County address at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
Commissioner Natacha Seijas and Mr. Martinez were angered by the mayor's decision to begin his speech at 10 a.m. Feb. 20, the time the commission was scheduled to start its meeting.
The commission schedule was set a year ago, Mr. Martinez said. He said Mr. Alvarez' action is the government equivalent of slapping the commission's face.
"This is Strike 1," Ms. Seijas said. "It's offensive to the legislative branch of government."