Wow A Thoughtful Proposal To Probe County To Its Very Core
Written by Michael Lewis on March 8, 2007
By Michael Lewis
The best tool yet devised to repair and reshape Miami-Dade’s governance is in the eager hands of Katy Sorenson, who intends to ask the other commissioners to put it to work soon.
Ms. Sorenson has just revamped her proposal to study the county. The new format is light years ahead of what she suggested last year — and, indeed, of any other charter study. It deserves rapid passage.
Instead of having the mayor and commissioners name a review team, Ms. Sorenson now wants experts and community organizations to nominate members. The commission would choose among those nominees.
While commissioners would name nine of the 12 members, they’d be picking from carefully winnowed lists. That would avoid the conflict of interest in the last review, when four commissioners and three lobbyists constituted a majority.
Charter review is a little like talking about nuclear physics. It can numb the mind to the point where nothing sinks in. Unfortunately, while political name-calling may be entertaining, the county’s charter is far more important in the long run to every taxpayer.
The charter is the rulebook under which the county operates. The state gave Miami-Dade vast powers a half-century ago, letting us decide how to shape government. By law, we must review those rules every five years.
The review team can examine every county function and recommend changes, but voters would have the last word.
Review is vital because voters just changed things piecemeal, shifting many powers to the mayor without debate on what ancillary changes would make that shift work well.
In reaction, Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz is proposing that four sectors of the county employing more than 5,000 be run by additional elected officials. That would weaken the mayor again but would exacerbate problems as parts of government’s delicate mechanism change radically and affect the rest. Any such change must come only after a charter review.
But a review wouldn’t be limited. It would be open-ended. It almost certainly would study a mechanism to elect some commissioners countywide. District elections have engendered parochialism, a defect felt far more widely than oft-made allegations of corruption.
In fact, give a good review team the 10 months Ms. Sorenson proposes, and there’s no telling what reforms may emerge.
Ms. Sorenson’s proposed team is logical. She wants the county’s three law-school deans each to name a professor. Commissioners would choose the other nine, each from among three nominees by the League of Cities, the chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, the Human Services Coalition, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the chairman of the county’s legislative delegation, the NAACP, the Latin Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
That group should be qualified. Certainly, commissioners would carefully sift each slate of three nominees. Commissioners and their lobbyist friends wouldn’t dominate talks. That’s healthy — and would make output far more credible with voters leery of the commission.
Compare that with Ms. Sorenson’s plan of last October to have the 13 commissioners and the mayor name one member each to the task force, and the improvement is vast. Credibility would have been zero.
That doesn’t mean her current plan is perfect. It doesn’t include funds to bring in out-of-town experts. It doesn’t provide an independent staff but says the county manager, county attorney and county clerk would staff the panel. Those three all have vital interest in the status quo.
The biggest flaw is the lack of a guarantee that what a panel recommended would go before voters. Output would go to the commission, which in the past killed charter suggestions even though it appointed the review team. So no matter how wise a review might be, output would filter through a commission that usually puts its own interests first.
With luck, Ms. Sorenson will tweak her plan to make certain commissioners won’t censor recommendations.
Still, Ms. Sorenson’s shift from direct appointments to selection from among outside nominees is noteworthy. It will take grace and wisdom for other commissioners to buy into that storehouse of good sense.
Pray that recognizing that their stock is near rock-bottom, they take the high road in charter review. The only way their stock could sink further is if they were to dump Ms. Sorenson’s thoughtful plan and once more put themselves ahead of the public.
The only improvements needed are to guarantee funding, independent staffing and placement of all output on the ballot.
Charter review is a powerful tool. Commissioners shouldn’t hamstring the craftsmen.