Reforms could give ugly county soap opera a happy ending
By Michael Lewis
A failing and flailing Miami-Dade mayor gropes weakly for straws to avert a recall election.
Five commissioners are targeted for recall battles of their own, one for a second time.
Another commissioner with ambitions to become mayor puts forward vital reforms but quickly pulls most back.
The courts clerk inadvertently enters the storm's eye as the mayor's legal team targets a scapegoat.
And the commission seeks ways to fill the gap should the mayor be recalled. The chair jockeys to take control himself.
Meanwhile, solutions — charter reforms that would have prevented much of the havoc — sit on a dusty shelf where commissioners buried them so voters couldn't exert control.
And you thought soap operas were passé.
Unfortunately, this daily drama, with its never-ending twists and turns, isn't fiction. It's impeding the county, and many players in the cast are to blame.
Start with our nominally strong mayor, who by turning to a specious loophole to avert a legally mandated recall vote is rapidly morphing from upstanding tough cop into cringing loser.
Whether a recall was ever vital — we felt mayoral missteps that ignored public need weren't so grave as to trigger such drastic action — Mayor Carlos Alvarez's fight should be at the polls.
Instead, he choose a picayune legalism, claiming a deputy's formal signature in clerk Harvey Ruvin's office wasn't sufficient to initiate the recall process.
But Mr. Alvarez used a deputy clerk's signature himself several years ago to get voters to add to his powers.
His response: he got away with impropriety but his opponents won't. That's no tough cop talking.
Weaseling out in the face of 112,000 recall signatures is no path for Mr. Alvarez. He should go down fighting, not on a technical knockout. He's likely to be memorialized, pitifully, as the cop who couldn't shoot straight.
As Mr. Alvarez stumbles, five commissioners face recall as well. They and the mayor are targets of massive disaffection that, while deserved, wouldn't have gone far had economic woes not been callously met with $3 billion debt for a stadium followed by a double-digit tax hike after the mayor gave county buddies big raises.
But timing set off the perfect storm. Elected officials didn't create the county's wretched economy, but they exacerbated it.
The voters get it.
So does Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, a likely mayoral candidate in 2012, if not before.
He recognizes the need to change rules of the game. When a commission-appointed 21-member charter review team recommended 22 reforms two years ago, Mr. Gimenez asked commissioners to let the voters act on most of them.
Others, however, successfully blocked it, saying they feared voters would enact reforms. They killed most and slipped in their own changes.
So Mr. Gimenez put on an agenda for this week five major proposals, only to at the last minute pursue just two and say he'd let fellow commissioners amend even those.
The final two: limit commissioners to two consecutive terms and ease the public's path to petition for charter changes, initiative, referendum and recall beyond commission control.
While the public is clamoring now to stop making commission seats lifetime fiefdoms, limiting terms has weakened the state legislature and can be done at the ballot box.
His call to restore the public's right to alter its charter — a right the commission hijacked — is far more vital. His battle for the recent charter review and commission intransigence might have informed his thinking.
Mr. Gimenez planned to pull back his most vital proposals.
One was to elect all or some commissioners at large rather than by votes from small districts that keep the self-serving in office with no concern for the common good.
The other was to pay commissioners state-determined levels. We now pay $6,000, far less than tiny counties, but need fulltime service, which his provision would have mandated by barring outside jobs.
We understand his retreat, though we wish he'd push ahead. He said he's awaiting census data to restructure districts. He also says that as raises have failed 12 times since commission pay was set in the 1950s, he's unlikely to get support.
Both should be planks for the next charter review team.
The county must begin review by spring 2012. It has no legal choice, though commissioners often bend the deadline by years.
They oppose change they can't control, even though they pick the review team. They've successfully kept most changes from voters by ignoring careful review team recommendations.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gimenez sees a tiny window for his own proposals. He wants to get them to voters along with the mayoral recall vote to avoid a special election.
If Mr. Alvarez wriggles out of an election or delays it, however, Mr. Gimenez wants his measures on the ballot in January 2012, the next scheduled election.
Other jockeying goes on. Commissioners last week discussed how to fill the gap should voters eject Mr. Alvarez, because the charter doesn't provide for an acting mayor.
That leaves the way clear to commission Chair Dennis Moss, who proposed a line of mayoral succession right to the chairman. Commissioners brought up leaving Mr. Moss in place, though it's time to change chairmen.
The most unlikely player in this drama is Harvey Ruvin. He's caught between a mayor alleging that a deputy clerk couldn't act in a recall and Norman Braman, who initiated the recall and doesn't like procedures Mr. Ruvin plans to validate his petitions.
We expect Mr. Ruvin to act honorably and fairly, as always. While he's a former commissioner, he has no speaking role on this shaky stage. His inclusion just shows how messy the whole affair has become.
At this point there's no valid excuse to delay a recall vote for the mayor. He should take it like a man and campaign with voters rather than lawyers to keep his job. Let the voters decide.
If commissioners don't want to follow at the recall polls, they should first advance the charter suggestions of Mr. Gimenez, then enact a charter commission now to holistically review reforms rather than continue piecemeal.
Commissioners should also guarantee that the reform suggestions will go on the ballot rather than back on dusty shelves once voter disaffection wanes.
Such openness could actually save their jobs from the perfect storm they have helped create.
Otherwise, the recall wave seems destined to keep rolling and wash over them.