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Front Page » Opinion » Souto Blows Whistle On County Hall Ndash Is Business Listening

Souto Blows Whistle On County Hall Ndash Is Business Listening

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Written by on December 17, 2009

By Michael Lewis
Business should firmly enter Javier Souto’s gutsy campaign to shine the light of day into the ugly dark corners of Miami-Dade County Hall.

Although the daily press incredibly has yet to notice his drive to make the public’s business more public, the former state senator has suddenly become the foremost proponent of county transparency.

But he needs help, because only the most innocuous sliver of his public-spirited legislative package has advanced even a step as he plays the role of White Knight battling county hall’s Darth Vaders.

Sliding rapidly forward from a seat as backbencher, in the past two months Commissioner Souto has:

—Issued a white paper pointing to county hall "vote trading," "hanky panky" and "wheeling and dealing," breaking with the pattern of go-along, get-along commissioners looking the other way at transgressions.

—Produced legislation to make public the manager’s twisting of commissioners’ arms in private meetings as he rewards friends and punishes enemies via public spending.

—Proposed that the county print in newspapers the voting records of commissioners.

—Offered legislation to reveal the names, job titles, professional backgrounds and salaries of all county employees paid more than $100,000 a year.

—Proposed to place in regional libraries the names, job titles and salaries of every county employee.

—Initiated a plan to require elected officials to sign affidavits that they’ve read and swear to comply with the county’s conflict of interest and code of ethics ordinance.

—Issued an open letter calling county government dysfunctional and "corrupted by the pervasive organizational politics" and stating "I refuse to settle for anything less" than county hall reform to "bring transparency in government, ethics in government and integrity in government."

Predictably, none of Mr. Souto’s proposals to open government to public eyes has passed.

Only the requirement that commissioners swear to uphold the conflict of interest and ethics code that already exists has cleared even the first of three mandatory legislative hurdles.

"Let’s see if this item survives the committee process and is ultimately adopted by the full board," he wrote skeptically in his open letter.

Moreover, he has promised to continue to battle for openness and to bring back repulsed legislation anew. He will soldier on.

Not only is it surprising that Mr. Souto is the one who has blown the whistle on dirty county hall behavior that everyone sees but nobody seems to notice, it’s also a pity.

It’s a pity because few commissioners take Mr. Souto seriously. When he speaks, they roll their eyes and smirk. He is not, bluntly, a force on the dais.

But in this case he’s spot on. Whether he’s acting out of pique with County Manager George Burgess for not joining his regular district tours to assess needs, or because his pet projects weren’t fully funded, or out of burning conviction that has long been smoldering unseen, he is dead right in word and deed.

The agriculture-oriented commissioner may be charging ahead like a bull in county hall’s little china shop of horrors, but from whatever motive Mr. Souto is doing the public an unbidden favor that deserves public support, not silence.

As it is, in a state where sunshine law aims to illuminate public activities, key officials adamantly keep the cover of darkness on county hall.

In last week’s debate of Mr. Souto’s proposal to list county employees’ names, positions and salaries in every regional library, Commissioners Rebeca Sosa and José "Pepe" Diaz objected, ostensibly to protect employees’ privacy. Then Carlos Gimenez pointed out in Mr. Souto’s support that everything he wants to make public is already public record.

But to see the records today, Mr. Diaz objected, someone has to request them from the county. Even for those who know the ropes, that entails a hard climb over bureaucratic walls that could take weeks. Mr. Diaz noted he didn’t want to make that climb to the public records easy.

"Why is anybody afraid of that?" Mr. Souto asked later.

Why, indeed?

Maybe because of recent scandals over huge raises for the mayor’s inner circle while everyone else’s salary was being cut to balance the budget. Or maybe because for years many people, qualified or not, have landed high-paid county jobs with a commissioner’s aid.

Maybe that’s why Mr. Souto is anxious to shine the light of day into hidden county matters for voters and taxpayers to see. He says he feels the public clamoring for that.

Or maybe he’s just angry at being left out of the goodies himself. Would he be blowing the whistle so hard if his concerns had received what he considered proper attention and funding?

His true motivation we may never know. But this fact remains: he is absolutely correct in his allegations and in his aims to open the county, notwithstanding those who would do the public’s business under veils of secrecy.

Unfortunately, Mr. Souto has broken the code of the governmental underworld: he has squealed on wrongdoing — legal or not, it’s wrongdoing — by commissioners and officials. And he has done it in public.

He will not be forgiven by Mr. Burgess, who punishes all but yes men. He will not be aided by those commissioners who are themselves yes men, who go along and get along.

But he deserves active support from civic groups like the Miami Business Forum, League of Women Voters, Greater Miami Chamber and other chambers of commerce of this county.

That may not be a natural alliance. Although he holds a University of Miami School of Business degree, the Westchester commissioner is a man of the people who in the past has railed against "the wine and cheese crowd" and people behind office doors and big desks resting on "heavy, heavy carpets."

But in this instance there is a natural alliance between a commissioner seeking county hall openness and groups that claim they want it too. He won’t be asking them for help, but they should reach out and offer aid.

Mr. Souto has shown courage by blowing the whistle. Let’s see who has the civic guts to hear the call and respond.

After all, as Mr. Souto himself so often says, "Is this America or what?"