Illegal Miami meeting plays right into budget-cutters' hands
By Michael Lewis
Legislators this week plan to force Miami to slash $22 million more out of its newly adopted budget, and an illegal meeting that the city whitewashed may help them succeed.
It would be an uphill fight to make Miami cut a legal budget today. The year began Monday, so a cut is tardy. But because the city met illegally on the budget, a court could nullify the budget and order a new one, enabling a legislative order to slash spending.
The mess is entirely the city's making. First, it didn't notify the public of its only budget workshop. That violated state law. Then, officials announced they wouldn't fix things by repeating what was said outside the sunshine in a legal workshop.
So the city has left itself open to both a court challenge to a budget and a legislative drive to force a $22 million cut in spending. That trim would leave spending plans about $20 million below last year's, a cut city officials successfully repelled last month only because legislators in error had exempted Miami from a 9% cut. Now the Legislature wants to kill that exemption.
The mess is reminiscent of the fire-rescue fee scandal that began a decade ago, when city commissioners passed an illegal public fee, then stalled a refund until the mayor and manager could huddle with an attorney in a restaurant and connive to hand $7 million to five people and leave 80,000 taxpayers empty-handed. The city finally resolved the fight this summer at a cost to taxpayers of $15.5 million in refunds, countless legal bills and a shiny black eye for Miami.
The illegal budget meeting came Aug. 20, when city officials briefed three commissioners and all debated spending. By state law, any meeting of two or more commissioners is illegal if the public isn't given notice.
When Miami Today reporters asked commissioners about the lapse, they professed shock and dismay. The city manager acknowledged the meeting's illegality.
"The only remedy is to have an advertised workshop before the second reading of the budget," Commissioner Tomás Regalado said, and by law he was right. That was the only way to make the budget process legal.
But that's not what the city did. As in the case of the fire fee, elected and appointed officials acknowledged the problem and then ignored it when they passed the budget last week, leaving the budget open to legal challenge from any taxpayer and to a state order to slash a new budget that could follow.
Of course, it's all theoretical. Maybe nobody will challenge the budget.
But it's a big gamble — just like a private deal to pay off a handful of people in the fire fee case was, a deal commissioners later said they didn't understand. The city lost that gamble, big time.
At last week's commission meeting, City Manager Pete Hernandez said commissioners weren't aware that the workshop wasn't advertised. City Attorney Jorge Fernandez said he had talked to the state attorney's office and "we believe we have satisfied their concerns."
That's true regarding criminal action, said Joe Centorino, chief of the public corruption unit of the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office. But he says he also cautioned the city's lawyers that by forging ahead without holding a new budget workshop, a city budget would be open to legal challenge.
And the city forged ahead without trying to repair the damage, like a ship's captain and crew ignoring a leak on a trans-Atlantic voyage. Maybe they're right — even though it's evident to the world that the city should have done something, maybe they'll get away with it. Maybe.
They tried that with the fire fee, ignoring the 80,000 people they'd left out in the cold and hoping the statute of limitations would expire before anyone caught on. That failed. But maybe they'll get through the year before some overburdened taxpayer challenges the budget to win a state-ordered cut. Maybe.
It's a gamble no prudent business person would take.
But it's a way of life at the city. Make a private deal, or hold a meeting privately, and hope nobody does anything until it's too late — or until you're out of office.
And if eventually the city has to spend lots of time in court and loses a lot of money in a judgment, well, it's not city officials' money anyway — it all comes out of taxpayers' wallets.
That's the difference: business folks put their own money at risk, while city officials are playing with yours. It's a lot easier to gamble when your losses come out of someone else's pocket.
Shades of the fire fee.
Of course, nobody went to jail in the fire fee scandal. And the state's attorney's office says the illegal city meeting won't cost anyone jail time, either, because nobody meant to hold an unadvertised meeting.
The lack of intent is clear: the city merely bumbled into illegality in failing to advertise a meeting, just as it bumbled into illegality in charging an illegal fire-rescue fee.
It's what happened afterward in both cases that's telling. Instead of making things right, city officials looked the other way.
The commissioners who passed the budget last week ducked blame. Marc Sarnoff said he had assumed the August meeting was legal. So did Mr. Regalado and Commissioner Joe Sanchez.
But nobody moved to make it right. They just forged ahead.
City Attorney Fernandez said the illegal meeting was "an incident that never has happened before." Commissioner Sanchez asked for a remedy to make future meetings legal. City Manager Hernandez said his office is working on a protocol "so this won't happen again."
But, after acknowledging the lapse, they didn't try to resolve it.
Now they can bite their nails as they wait for the Legislature to tell them to slash $22 million that they plan to spend and for a lawsuit to turn the Legislature's wish to reality. It took a lawsuit in the illegal fire fee case; why not in the illegal budget meeting case?
And it certainly should give legislators more ammunition in their war on the city's budget. They can say that not only is the budget too high, it's also illegal.