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Front Page » Opinion » Miamis Elected Officials Misappropriate Benefits You Are Entitled To

Miamis Elected Officials Misappropriate Benefits You Are Entitled To

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Written by on March 17, 2011

By Michael Lewis
Local governments’ biggest sin isn’t corruption. Far worse is a stolen sense of entitlement.

Corruption — the kind that leads to jail — isn’t the norm. Most local officials stay within legal lines even as they stretch ethical borders.

They think they’re being honest. And, by law alone, most are.

Ah, but that sense of entitlement. Without breaking any laws, officials erode public trust by confusing what the community is entitled to with their own personal benefit.

Because they’re in office, they feel entitled to anything and everything. Government, and the community, is theirs.

Take Ticketgate in Miami Beach, one of a stream of micro-scandals as those in office get payoffs they don’t call payoffs. They’re just perks — their entitlements.

With the city holding a $15 million grant due to the New World Symphony, city administrators listed what they wanted in return, including 18 prime free tickets for every performance in the new symphony hall every day and night every year.

City Manager Jorge Gonzalez said that’s standard: officials get free tickets for everything, or else. The "or else" seems to be no $15 million.

We’d call that blackmail and bribery. But at Miami Beach City Hall, Mr. Gonzalez makes clear, that’s an entitlement.

In fact, it’s a bargain: one assistant city manager had demanded the total be 26 tickets, not just 18, so some symphony-loving officials got left out.

That’s business as usual locally. Officials feel entitled to convert public resources to their own use.

Ticketgate doesn’t end in Miami Beach. Take the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where an outside mouthpiece says public officials get no free tickets.

Think back, however, to the center’s opening night in 2006, when City of Miami officials got the free front-row seats, which infuriated Miami-Dade commissioners whose free tickets were farther back.

Some county commissioners — who still fund the center heavily each year with taxpayer money — exploded. They threatened the center’s tax handout if they weren’t treated in the future to better seats.

Did you know we had so many culture lovers in office?

Ticketgate goes beyond highbrow entitlements, too, right to the people’s game.

Negotiations over the new Marlins baseball stadium, which is dipping into taxpayer funds for $3 billion over the next few decades, included how many free seats and luxury suites must go to local commissioners, mayors and managers.

One plan sought 22 prime box seats at 81 games a year for three decades for the Miami and Miami-Dade mayors, managers and commissioners — one seat each or to give to supporters or friends, more than 53,000 tickets in all.

That plan also included two large luxury suites, one for city officials and one for county. If you don’t want to sit in your box, which taxpayers built for you, go sit in your luxury suite, which taxpayers built for you as well, and enjoy the free food too.

But the Marlins haggled far better than County Manager George Burgess, leaving the city and county with the box seats but sharing a single luxury suite for each game and non-baseball event all year long.

And why not? The officials gave away our money, so they deserve something in return for themselves.

But please don’t call that bribery or corruption. Why, it’s simply their entitlement.

Don’t misunderstand: public figures often get invited to events. But there’s a huge gulf between accepting legitimate invitations and demanding tickets forever because they feel entitled.

Elected officials also feel entitled to very fancy cars at public expense, cellphone allowances larger than any executive would ever need and huge pensions for their elected service.

They feel entitled because they control our money and set the rules about what they’re entitled to extract from it.

Damages from a misguided sense of entitlement go beyond mere perks and waste of public funds just because officials feel entitled.

Misappropriated entitlement can be game-changing. It certainly was this week in recall votes on Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas.

Some voters upset with Mr. Alvarez but balking at a recall merely for policy issues reversed course after the mayor sent county employees, ranging from the manager on down, into battle for his job on taxpayer time.

He felt entitled to benefit from public expense. It might or might not have been illegal, but it arrogantly displayed a misplaced entitlement.

And we’d bet Mr. Alvarez never thought what he did was wrong. After all, isn’t a mayor entitled to use his powers to keep his job?

And take Ms. Seijas, who decided to hand $245,000 in public funds on election day to supporters like the head of one nonprofit who also runs a company paid to prevent her recall.

Self-serving? Sure. But she felt entitled to use our money to stay in office.

In fact, every county commissioner may freely spread hundreds of thousands of tax dollars yearly because they gave themselves that entitlement.

Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Seijas are visible offenders but scarcely alone. The shift of the people’s entitlement to the officials’ benefit is pervasive.

Recall elections alone will not change that mindset.

As long as the law allows, they’ll keep giving our money and public contracts to friends and generally using office as a personal privilege.

If you want to discuss that with commissioners, just join them at their luxury ballpark suite or sit with them at the symphony and go over it in detail.

After all, as a taxpayer you’re absolutely as entitled to those tickets as they are.

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