Charter panel holds key to upgrading county government
By Michael Lewis
Flying far under the radar of public scrutiny, a 21-member task force is debating major revisions to Miami-Dade County's equivalent of a constitution.
The Charter Review Task Force, though nearly invisible, could produce a panoply of proposals affecting every resident. Some potential ingredients are vital, some terrible — and in the end, we might be required to swallow the mixture whole or not at all.
Even worse, every single proposal must meet county commission scrutiny that could strip out the most wholesome elements and then send the dregs on to voters.
The meetings that began last month are required every five years by the very charter the task force is tinkering with. In theory, it's a wholesome exercise of citizen power as our stand-ins for Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and the other framers of the US Constitution update government's operating rulebook.
But six conditions impede optimal solutions.
First, at 21 members, the panel is too large. A smaller group could deliberate better.
Second, time is too tight. The county commission gave the panel just 180 days, and that shrank by the time meetings began. The task force is asking to add 90 days, still not enough to dig carefully into all key questions.
Third, membership is skewed. Every commissioner named one member and four put themselves onboard, so a majority is beholden to the commission and its aims, which could bury true reform.
Fourth, the team has no money to travel or bring in out-of-town experts, so far limiting non-local advice to elected Broward County officials pushing their own agendas.
Fifth, the task force is caught in a seismic shift as a strong-mayor system is overlaid on a 50-year-old charter. Lots of charter changes are vital to oil the strong-mayor engine voters just approved. The commission that lost powers to the mayor has named most of those who move the chess pieces and might push them one by one back to the commission.
Sixth, no matter what the task force says, the commission can still decide what goes to voters. Even if the task force offers great ideas, voters may never get to make them reality.
Beyond all that, however, are 21 persons charged with doing their level best. Despite the impediments, they could well draft proposals that would markedly improve this county should first the commission and then the voters approve.
Unfortunately, the first issue the panel took up — at the commission's behest — was to directly elect four officials who are now appointed. Since the sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections don't make policy, the only reason to elect them would be to create independent fiefdoms whose powers would be stripped from under the mayor.
But then, anyone could be elected to a vital post whose primary requirement is competence, not campaigning. Four current professionals could be displaced by politicians who know nothing about the job. The sheriff might never have spent a day in police work, and the tax assessor wouldn't necessarily be able to count to 10.
The review team is also to look at commission pay, which clearly must be raised from the $6,000 set in 1957 for what has become fulltime work. Creating a living wage would produce many more competent candidates.
The team is also likely to look at commission term limits. In Tallahassee, term limits have cost the Legislature institutional memory and empowered the staff, which often knows the game better than freshly elected officials. Why would it work better in the county?
The task force may also target a return to countywide election for some commissioners. When we shifted to district elections, the focus of many commissioners narrowed from policy to potholes. The sticking point will be pleasing minorities that now are sure of commission seats. There's more than one way to get broader thinking; the task force must choose a good one.
Once the panel decides how to change the rules under which government works, getting recommendations past the commission to the voters isn't the only stumbling block. The other is whether the public could vote on each change individually or would have to approve or reject the whole package with a single vote.
Panel member Raul Martinez says piecemeal voting might confuse electors; he wants a single charter package, "take it or leave it." That makes sense if the pieces of the puzzle must all be present to complete the picture, if passing some items and rejecting others would leave government dysfunctional. But proposed amendments to the US Constitution are offered individually; voters get to choose which ones they want. The public can be wiser than Mr. Martinez, a former Hialeah mayor, might wish.
Without fanfare, the review goes on this week. For all the barriers the task force faces and with all the imperfections in the process, we wish the 21 members well. May they be courageous in setting an independent and wise course as the political winds whistle around them.