City Officials Walk Out On Their Consciences And The Voters
Written by Michael Lewis on April 24, 2008
By Michael Lewis
Two Miami commissioners have added meaning to "voting with your feet."
The phrase had meant, variously, switching to something you like better, moving to a lower-tax community, or going elsewhere rather than staying and complaining.
But commissioners Michelle Spence-Jones and Angel Gonzalez have added an all-encompassing meaning: demand a switch for the better, yell about taxing community payments, complain loudly, and then use your feet to walk out on a key vote.
In a meeting of the five-member city commission two weeks ago, the two ranted on and on about the county making the city redevelopment agency hand the performing arts center $5.3 million a year as part of a deal to build a stadium that might never rise. They were upset that the complex deal forces the city to keep paying even if the baseball portion dies.
As it happens, they were dead right — and theirs were the pivotal votes in a measure to amend the redevelopment agency’s budget to let the money go to the arts center. With Tomás Regalado firmly on their side, they could have stalled the deal they decried.
Instead, the two voted with their feet. After they exercised their vocal cords against the measure, they exercised their feet in favor of it by walking out before the vote, allowing it to pass 2 to 1.
They went on record against what they knew was wrong for taxpayers, then went off the record by walking out and covering their backsides as the taxpayers took it on the chin.
That creates a fourth theory of how elected officials should vote.
The first method was simple: a party line. You voted the way your party dictated and you couldn’t be faulted.
But city and county voting here is nonpartisan, so officials generally either go the way they think voters in their district feel or else vote their conscience, trying to do what they think is right regardless of how neighbors feel.
Any of those modes — party line, district line or conscience — is acceptable. While only voting one’s conscience requires an independent choice, under any of these philosophies the commissioner must go on the record and vote in the yea or nay column for all to see — and for opponents to cite at election time.
The new Spence-Jones/Gonzalez voting method has an advantage over the others — if, that is, you’re cynical. Their system offers the ability to criticize every facet of a measure on the record, thus pleasing opponents, while walking out to aid proponents.
"Sometimes you have to take a position," Ms. Spence-Jones said in objecting to the deal — though her walkout had the opposite impact.
"Shame on me that I allowed them to convince me that this was a good deal for the City of Miami," said Mr. Gonzalez — just before his walkout allowed the deal to stand.
And shame on both of them that they didn’t vote the party line, didn’t vote the district line, certainly didn’t vote their consciences and in fact didn’t vote at all.
By definition, not all commissioners agree on a controversial vote. We don’t condemn Commission Chairman Joe Sanchez or Commissioner Marc Sarnoff for voting to send more poverty area funds to a performing arts center even though we strongly disagree. Presumably, they voted their consciences.
The fact that Mr. Gonzalez and Ms. Spence-Jones were right just makes it all the more deplorable that they didn’t vote at all. Where were their consciences when they walked out of that room?