Miami-Dade County commissioners to seek a pay raise without term or employment limits
By Risa Polansky
Marking a 12th try, Miami-Dade commissioners plan to ask voters for a raise, this time in the form of an about $92,000 salary with no term limits or restrictions on outside employment.
But there are questions over whether the employment issue is clear in the proposed ballot language commissioners initially approved Tuesday.
After lengthy discussion, they voted on a measure that's to come before the electorate in August pending a final commission vote May 18.
County commissioners since 1961 have tried 11 times with no success to break the now 53-year local mandate of $6,000 annual salaries.
In hopes of victory on the dozenth try, they debated individually the three elements that generally come into play when their pay is discussed: how much money, whether terms should be limited and whether lawmakers should have the option of outside employment on top of their government job, which they have today.
No vote was unanimous, with some commissioners protesting asking for a raise at all during hard times and a crunched county budget.
In the end, a majority chose the proposed about $92,000 salary using a state formula based on population that's commonly used in other localities.
Many reasoning that voters can end elected officials' tenure anytime at the ballot box, the commission decided not to include term limits in the proposed ballot language.
Commissioners decided also not to reference on the ballot a limit on outside employment for lawmakers, in part because some felt it could deter qualified leaders who might not be willing to give up their careers, and also because full-time county employees who are paid full-time salaries aren't banned from having side jobs.
Though they decided to leave open the option for outside jobs, some lawmakers pushed to include the words "full-time" on the ballot — and won.
Commissioner Sally Heyman made the initial move to specify on the ballot that lawmakers would devote full-time service to the office of commissioner without making mention that outside employment would be allowed.
The idea is to illustrate to voters that commissioners have and will devote 40-plus hours a week to the job, supporters insisted.
At first, county attorneys questioned the move, fearing the term "full-time" left undefined might cause confusion and possibly invite legal challenges, potentially leading a judge to throw out the whole ballot question.
County Attorney R. A. Cuevas Jr. initially advised leaving the term out, or if the commission felt the need to add the qualification, to specify whether it would limit outside employment.
"Say what that means as clearly as you can to avoid someone in a black robe from saying "that's unclear,'" he said.
Mayor Carlos Alvarez chimed in to question why, if commissioners aren't prevented from working outside jobs now, "can't you just leave it alone?"
Commissioner Katy Sorenson agreed.
"Let's not get ourselves into language that's going to trigger a lawsuit off the bat," she said.
Still, others pressed to include the phrase.
"Full-time to me means you work to get the job done," Commissioner Barbara Jordan said, whether that be four hours one day or 18 hours the next.
Agreed Commissioner Heyman, "it's something we do now. It's just going to qualify it."
Eventually, Assistant County Attorney Oren Rosenthal piped up with a phrasing suggestion the legal department felt would hold up in court.
Rather than asking voters to approve a salary for commissioners who would devote full-time service to the position, he suggested beginning the ballot question with, "Whereas the members of the Board of County Commissioners devote full-time service to the office..."
The idea was a winner, passing muster despite Commissioner Sorenson's lingering fear.
"I think it's ambiguous language," she said. "I think it implies that there would be no outside employment, but that's not what our intent is…. I think that will cause voter confusion."