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Front Page » Opinion » Term Limit County Commissioners At Ballot Box Not By Fiat

Term Limit County Commissioners At Ballot Box Not By Fiat

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Written by on April 29, 2010

By Michael Lewis
As Miami-Dade commissioners in coming weeks reason out a reasonable pay to seek from voters, some plan to tack on a provision to limit how long a commissioner could serve.

That’s a major mistake. The only limit should be at the ballot box.

First, absolutely no logical link exists between paying commissioners fairly and forcing them from office after a fixed time.

Second, and far more important, while raising pay is likely to raise quality of the commission as a whole, term limits would pull quality down.

Tying term limits to a pay hike would force quickly from office high-quality newcomers who couldn’t have sought the office without reasonable pay — far more than today’s $6,000 for a full-time job.

Eleven times since the pay was set in the 1950s commissioners have sought a raise. Eleven times voters have said no.

In recent years, the reason probably was disgust with the commission. Rightly or wrongly, its repute is low.

So when commissioners seek a raise, they feel throwing voters a bone — pay us more and we’ll go away faster — will win support, if only because we’re so eager to get rid of many of them.

That’s great short-term strategy but miserably short-range thinking.

One reason to raise pay is plain fairness. Asking people to handle $7 billion thoughtfully and responsibly but paying them only $6,000 doesn’t compute.

An equally good reason to raise pay, however, is to attract more candidates, stronger individuals who could upgrade the commission.

If we do that, why would we then want them to exit quickly? Just because we might not favor some commissioners today is no reason to handicap the entire commission in the future.

A sad example of what term-limiting does is on view today in Tallahassee — bodies that through term limits have also become quality-limited.

As the Florida Legislature concludes its session, look at what happened in 2000 when service in any seat was limited to eight years, the result of a 1992 constitutional amendment in which voters said Eight Is Enough.

Turned out eight wasn’t nearly enough.

The limits forced out legislators who’d become statesmen and experts in key state issues. New legislators knew they had at most eight years in office and that no veterans were around, so from day one they focused on grabbing power, not building expertise.

Who then recalled past issues and how they had been resolved? It was staff and lobbyists, whose powers ballooned as legislative expertise vanished. Lobbyists provided the vital information and set parameters for debate.

Don’t county hall’s lobbyists have enough clout without handing them vastly more by forcing every commissioner out in a set period?

Granted, commissioners now seem commissioners for life and some long-timers might well give way to stronger candidates. But the way to achieve that is to pay a living wage so more good candidates can run, not by forcing out the weak and strong alike, willy-nilly.

That’s what the ballot box is for — to let voters decide who stays and who goes. Term limits limit our choices.

Of course, we have that voting right today — but not solid opponents for sitting commissioners. Pay decently and good opponents will surface. Then, run the election and let the best candidate win.

If commissioners are truly serious about leveling the playing field at the ballot box, they’ll propose not higher pay with term limits but higher pay with campaign spending limits.

On that score, don’t hold your breath.

Our best chance today is to raise the pay with no time limit on service. If commissioners put that before voters, we’ll at least get the chance to do the right thing on our 12th try.