Charter Review Now Could Save County Hall From Firing Line
Written by Michael Lewis on February 3, 2011
By Michael Lewis
The optimal outcome of Miami-Dade’s heightening recall drama would be an early charter review to retool government.
The worst result would be that chaotic forced changes in county hall stall such reform.
Nearly as bad, commissioners pressured by recall threats might put onto the ballot willy-nilly stopgaps to alleviate pressure or ward off recall.
Such unstudied changes could cause havoc, as a strong mayor initiative did four years ago, setting off a chain reaction over the format’s utter failure.
The charter — really a constitution — requires that every five years a panel review county structure and recommend vital change. One last did so in 2007. The charter requires it again by next year.
Reasons to update the charter earlier should be obvious to spectators of the drama at county hall.
While elected officials are to blame for actions that incensed voters enough to trigger multiple efforts at recall, charter rules now distort who is able to seek those offices. They exacerbate problems and limit solutions.
Hence, the need for reform.
That need isn’t new. The last thoughtful, six-month review posited reforms we still need today. Disgracefully, commissioners kept most of the 18 items off the ballot.
So that’s where we stand, with a public seeking reform while an embattled commission holds firm against it.
The last 21-member charter review team wasn’t wild-eyed. Commissioners appointed most themselves, then rejected most of a 42-page report.
Killed were a bid to allow any recommendation by two-thirds of the review team to go straight to voters and one to make it easier for citizens to circulate ballot petitions for reform.
What else might a new review deal with?
Some will seek term limits and a smaller commission.
Our top choices are countywide commission elections, fair commission pay, a restructured mayor’s role as political leader but not also manager of staff, and restoration of an apolitical manager as chief administrator.
A review will certainly look at whether commissioners can still hold outside jobs.
Charter review might even seek to bar recall of an official merely for voting "wrong." Natacha Seijas, who faces recall March 15, has proposed some limitation of recall, which merits close study.
Ms. Seijas, in fact, suggested properly in November that rather than reform the charter piecemeal, a formal review is vital.
She’s right, and it’s due now. These questions need careful public airing fully independent of commissioners, with two-thirds review team decisions placed directly onto the ballot for voters to decide.
Moreover, despite their long history of choking off charter review reform, we should allow commissioners a final opportunity to call an immediate independent review.
Perhaps commissioners are savvy enough to read the writing on the wall and realize that being far out of step with the public is unhealthy for both the community and their longevity in office.
Give commissioners four months to begin a review. If by June they haven’t empanelled a truly independent charter review taskforce, the mayor — either Carlos Alvarez or a successor after a March 15 recall vote — should.
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce annually invites the mayor to keynote its June goals conference. What better forum for a mayor to seize the bully pulpit and start charter reform rolling?
What better way to allay public disaffection and at the same time cement the mayor’s status as leader?
If neither the commission nor mayor acts, a far more expensive and far less cohesive process is to push forward multiple public ballot box initiatives of what are perceived to be needed reforms, put forth by whomever.
But a careful study in a charter review — with a commission guarantee that all panel recommendations go quickly to voters — is better than acting willy-nilly out of pique with officials.
The commission is required to start a charter review within a year anyway. There could be no better response to disaffection than to do so now.