Charter review's cave-in needn't be a permanent collapse
By Michael Lewis
Nothing was more predictable than the Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force's unwise cave-in to support election of a property appraiser.
The charter review, which should have been independent, was forced under the county commission's heavy thumb from day one. With the commission clawing for power against a newly strengthened mayor, it was clear that review of the county's constitution would become a convenient battleground.
In this case, commissioners forced the task force to recommend election of a job Mayor Carlos Alvarez had filled less than a month before, pulling the rug from under him. Election of a complex technical post now seems headed to voters.
Commissioners tried to ensure that last month, when Natacha Seijas quarterbacked a committee move to put the question on the ballot, bypassing the charter review and pressuring the task force — which had deadlocked — to get in line. It misguidedly did two weeks ago, 12-4.
The overt subversion of the charter review incensed Murray Greenberg, retired county attorney and task force member. "It shows what the commission really thinks about this group," he said.
But that disregard was evident from day one, when commissioners decided to control membership — naming 13 of the 21 — and study time, initially just three months and now six. Commissioners also kept a firm grip on what's to go to voters — nothing without commission OK.
Commissioner Katy Sorenson, recognizing the problems, had suggested that commissioners appoint from lists nominated by outsiders and let the task force work 18 months.
Instead, commissioners decided to name their own teams, the impact of which was evident when Miguel DeGrandy, Ms. Seijas's pick, defended her move to bypass the task force on electing an appraiser.
"We failed to move the ball," he told members. "The commission was within its rights to proceed" — though the task force hadn't yet decided anything; it just hadn't hastened to do Ms. Seijas's bidding.
Task force chairman Victor Diaz Jr. then announced the job ahead is to keep in closer touch with commissioners — no doubt to be sure the review yields predetermined results.
So much for an independent review. The word spineless comes to mind.
The task force had already caved in by rubberstamping commission structure, the county's greatest flaw. No commissioner is now elected countywide, and the charter team says none will be, so parochial views will linger.
Nothing, however, points up charter review failures more clearly than the buckling to commission pressure on electing an appraiser.
That job today has stringent county requirements: 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.
The appraiser supervises 283 employees and is responsible for more than 955,000 personal property parcels in the state's largest assessment roll, with a taxable value of $245.3 billion.
Were the office to become elective, anyone who could muster the votes would be solely 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.
How many good vote-getters would also be skilled enough to handle this complex job?
On Sept. 26, Mayor Alvarez appointed Marcus Saiz de la Mora, who'd been acting in the job since Jan. 1 after receiving four major promotions in the appraisal department, which he had joined in 1984. He has a bachelor's in economics with a minor in finance from Florida International University, is a licensed real estate broker, a certified Florida appraiser and an accredited senior appraiser. He is also past president of the National Association of Hispanic Public Administrators.
Compare those qualifications with this county's average political candidate and quake in your boots.
We should elect posts that require general oversight and policymaking, appoint to jobs requiring expertise. We can't allow this job to become a popularity contest, where election is a recipe for disaster. But that's what our county commission has pushed the charter review task force to recommend.
Why contemplate this perilous step? Because an elected appraiser, no matter how weak, would not report to the mayor. The commission can slice up the mayor's power and hang the consequences.
Bad as all this sounds — you'd be justified to throw up your hands in disgust — it remains possible that the charter review could do the right thing on the property appraiser, election of county commissioners and more.
"I just feel like I'm wasting my time. I think we all are," Mr. Greenberg told task force members two weeks ago. "Maybe they should just disband us."
Or maybe task force members should decide, what the hell, let's do the right thing regardless. What do we have to lose? Forget the pressure, recommend what's best and send it forward. Let commissioners do their own hatchet jobs, rather than having the task force be the bad guys so commissioners can get their way but still look clean.
Force commissioners to act on good recommendations and something worthwhile might actually make it onto the ballot. That's better than a task force quietly caving in to the worst county commission instincts.