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Front Page » Opinion » Electing Specialists In Government Is Too Much Democracy

Electing Specialists In Government Is Too Much Democracy

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Written by on March 1, 2007

By Michael Lewis
How much democracy is too much? We’re about to find out.

Legislation being drafted would let voters decide whether to elect a sheriff. Hot on its heels come more of Commissioner Pepe Diaz’ plans: elect the tax collector, the property appraiser and the elections supervisor, too.

Instead of the mayor appointing professionals, we’d decide. "People have asked me to propose this type of reform," Mr. Diaz says.

People may be asking, but it’s not reform. It’s a long stride backward.

Miami-Dade a half-century ago won the right to shape its government. Florida’s 66 other counties elect sheriffs and elections supervisors and so on. We don’t because we want professionals, not politicians.

It’s possible, of course, to elect to technical roles politicians who also happen to be skilled professionals. Possible, but rare.

Take the property appraiser. The county today requires at least a bachelor’s degree in real estate, business administration, public administration or a related field plus 10 years of progressively responsible management in property appraisal.

If the office were elected, anyone with enough votes would be responsible for "planning and directing all tax-roll functions in conformance with Florida statutes and Department of Revenue rules and regulations, establishing and installing departmental policies, directing complex divisional property-appraisal operations, supervising fiscal activities and preparation of the annual departmental budget" and far more.

Today, Marcus Saiz de la Mora oversees 283 employees who handle these complex functions. He reports to the mayor, who can remove him if he doesn’t perform or meet budget.

You’ve never heard of Mr. Saiz de la Mora? That’s a plus. If the job were elective, you’d hear over and over — and the only requirement would be to get votes, not to have ever done appraising or studied or even understand what an appraiser does. Nobody could fire him for incompetence or overspending.

The same can be said of the supervisor of elections. Quietly, Lester Sola oversees 128 employees. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration from Florida International University. He’s been in Miami-Dade government for more than 13 years in key jobs and was chief deputy supervisor of elections until he got the top job two years ago.

We’d be highly unlikely to elect someone with similar qualifications.

If these jobs were elective, our best hope would be that winners would hire someone to actually do the work. We’d then be paying two people — one to win the election and the other to do the job.

What happens when you elect someone who isn’t qualified and decides to do it herself?

You get the popular Miriam Oliphant, elected in 2001 as Broward elections supervisor with more than 65% of votes and suspended in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush for "grave neglect, mismanagement and incompetence." She fired experienced assistants and gave the jobs to inexperienced friends, ran almost $1 million over budget and failed to hire enough workers to run elections. And as an elected officer, county administrators couldn’t do a thing about it.

That’s what can happen when amateurs win technical jobs.

Miami-Dade’s mayor today can remove an appointed technician who is a disaster. He couldn’t, however, touch an elected official in the same job who ran amok.

Commissioner Diaz is right: Some people would like to elect those who police us, who decide how properties are appraised and taxes are collected and who run elections.

You can understand why special interests would contribute to campaigns for those jobs — a big property owner, for example, might make election gifts to an appraiser or a tax collector hoping to lower assessments or collections.

But concerns about electing people to run key functions extend beyond ethics. We can’t legislate ethics, but we can control job qualifications — unless the jobs are elective.

In a democracy, we elect those who make laws and policies and run government. They need no specialized education or skills. They’re our representatives, deputized to take our places at the table to make broad decisions.

On the other hand, we should never elect people to jobs that require specialization.

First, the people best at those jobs are unlikely to also be politicians who can win.

Second, we cannot limit elective posts to those who have requisite skills and education.

And third, voters have no way to judge whether candidates are fitted for exacting roles.

In a mayor and commissioners, we look for ethics, intelligence, energy, public spirit, judgment and leadership. If we get these qualities, we win.

But a person with these six qualities can still flop in a specialized role. In a brain surgeon, for example, they’d scarcely be enough — where were education, medical manner and a steady hand?

OK, running the police or assessments may not be brain surgery. Still, persons with ethics, intelligence and so forth might not have the qualities needed.

The simple rule: Elect for oversight and policymaking but hire for substance and specifics.

Electing people to jobs that require expertise makes democracy a very bad idea.