Bullets start flying in gunfight at the Stephen P. Clark Corral
By Michael Lewis
Why is anyone surprised or angry that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez is starting to use the guns voters slipped him in the Jan. 23 strong-mayor election?
The question that passed handily gave the mayor the specific power to "direct, supervise, reprimand or remove the county manager and department directors."
So when he ousted the transportation, employee-relations and planning and zoning directors last week, ex-top cop Mr. Alvarez was just using the firepower he explicitly asked voters to grant him. They did, and he did.
"I think it's been very unprofessional to say the least," the Herald quoted Commission Chairman Bruno Barreiro.
No, the mayor in fact followed all the rules to a T — that is, he just shot 'em dead.
He followed the rules because there are no rules. To dump any of the more than 60 department heads, the mayor need file no charges. He need follow no procedure. He need hold no debate. He need initiate no discussions with commissioners or tell them in advance. It's all his call.
In other words, the mayor can wield the ax any old time and any old way he wants. That's what he asked for, and that's the power voters gave him — unfortunate, but true.
Department heads can be terrible or great, Democrat or Republican, black or white, Anglo or Hispanic, it matters not. They're supposed to be the mayor's guys and gals — and when they're not, they're gone. It's that simple.
That's the strong-mayor system the voters wanted. Now they're seeing it in bloody action.
Let's hope the mayor wields the ax judiciously.
There's no doubt the county has plenty of fat to trim, plenty of weak executives to move aside, plenty of inefficiency to set aright.
If Mayor Alvarez is wise, he'll find pockets of waste and worse and root them out. If he isn't, he'll destroy the ample good in county government along with the bad and cripple its workforce and services. There's no guarantee he'll do the right things, no safeguard to keep him from doing the wrong.
That's the strong-mayor system voters approved: one guy with six-guns in hand out to clean up waste, mismanagement and corruption and bring law and order to the wilds of county hall.
How much change is needed? The mayor alone gets to decide. Who will the replacements be? They mayor alone gets to decide, though nine commissioners can overrule a hire.
The mayor, to his credit, says he'll undertake national searches to fill the three jobs. Of course, the buck stops with him, so no matter whom a search recommends, he'll decide who gets the job.
There's a danger in national searches, however: Once word spreads that a mayor guns down department heads at will without trial, a lot of solid candidates will bow out, unwilling to become target-practice victims. And in the civil-service world, just as in the Wild West, word travels fast about a sheriff with an itchy trigger finger.
But though the commission is handcuffed until the bodies of department heads show up in the gutter, commissioners have found their own weapon: the hiring freeze.
The mayor can gun down whomever he wants, but when a national search produces a potential replacement, commissioners want to prevent Mr. Alvarez from filling the job without their seal of approval.
So even before the first shot was fired in the department-head bloodbath, commissioners took a first step last week to force the mayor to freeze all hiring. If the commission as a whole were to enact this perfectly legal freeze, the mayor could still gun down whomever he wanted, but he couldn't recruit new bodies without the commission's OK.
Voters wanted a change to a strong mayor — at least, the few who went to the polls wanted it. They got it.
Now, as the mayor and commission exchange shots, the gunfight at the Stephen P. Clark Corral seems sure to get deadlier.