Recalls relieve pain but charter review MDs can cure ills
By Michael Lewis
Ironically, the legacy of Carlos Alvarez and George Burgess is likely to be medicine to cure maladies they left us.
That's ironic only because as mayor Mr. Alvarez, recalled from office last week, did so little.
His only unqualified success was tossing the lobbyists out of the mayor's office, where they had been ruling the roost for years. For that, he merits our gratitude.
But he did that his first day on the job. It was a valuable but not particularly difficult achievement by an honest cop turned inept politician.
Things went straight downhill from there as he did little in office other than complain that he lacked the power to do more.
So voters handed him his second achievement, a strong mayor's powers that he never exercised. He handed that control to dictate a broad array of action to the manager, Mr. Burgess, who ruled by intimidation until he resigned after the recall.
Achievements three and four, if you want to call them that, were spending $3 billion over 40 years on a baseball stadium and raising tax rates more than 14% while telling us over and over "I have proposed a no tax increase budget..."
That's it for six-plus years as mayor of a county sorely in need of visible leadership.
But the backlash of his lack of involvement in vital issues, misreading of a taxpayer revolt, underestimating voters and lack of candor on taxes has triggered far more than his recall.
A once-complacent public, spurred by an economic tailspin of which officials seemed blissfully unaware except when it came to protecting county hall, is in revolt. It's not Egypt or Libya — nobody is in the streets — but the public wants blood.
Commissioners have taken note as their pit bull, Natacha Seijas, was recalled as well. Their jobs may be on the line too.
So at a meeting this week to call elections to replace the recalled, they plan to discuss charter reform, which could be the most beneficial legacy of the Alvarez/Burgess/Seijas departures.
Because sentiments run so high, and because the deep-pocket head of the recall movement, Norman Braman, has patented his own medicine in a charter change cure-all, commissioners feel intense pressure to swallow that pre-packaged remedy for the county's ills.
In fact, commissioners could do worse than vote to put the cure-all intact to voters and wash their hands of the mess — and shampoo Mr. Braman out of their hair at the same time.
They could do worse — but they'd do far better by creating an arm's-length charter review on a short time leash with a guarantee that all review team recommendations go to the public for a binding vote.
Mr. Braman and Victor Diaz Jr., who chaired the last charter review four years ago, have outlined solid ideas, but nobody selected them to decide what's best for us all. A full charter review team would fine-tune things more democratically.
Further, their manifesto ducks vital issues that should be up for charter debate, including commission control of contracts that attract big-money lobbyists, a process that poorly serves both taxpayers and government.
It also doesn't touch on damage Mr. Alvarez's strong mayor format has already done and future perils it raises, or commission slush funds of $800,000 each, or failure to limit recall to misfeasance and malfeasance to bar threats as policy leverage.
The fact is, bright and committed individuals seeking the absolute best for the community often disagree on remedies. No charter review team's idea for change will seem perfect, but it should nonetheless be a vast upgrade.
Further, a full review should be just that: it should examine how the system works and how one change affects everything else.
The strong mayor change, for example, led to the upcoming excising of the manager's job. But despite strong-arming by Mr. Burgess under a strong mayor system, a truly impartial manager reporting to both commission and mayor and following their leads can vastly improve a county's functioning.
A holistic review of functions via a charter taskforce should produce a diagnosis far better than merely stuffing a patent medicine down our throats. That's why physicians prescribe specific remedies for illness rather than telling us to take two aspirins off the shelf and call them in the morning.
Rather than take a generic handout remedy from anyone, the commission this week should call a full 15-member charter review team to meet within a month, study hard and well, and send charter recommendations by 60% of appointees directly to the January 2012 ballot for public decision.
To keep the review team truly independent, commissioners should tap outsiders to name everyone but their single choice: a former commissioner, manager or mayor gone from office at least three months who can bring high-level county concerns to the table without conflict of interest.
The commission would specify outsiders to name the other 14. We'd suggest appointments by:
The last charter review team and also its predecessor team, to get the wisdom and experience of two panelists who went through the process in the bad old days when commissioners vetoed most suggestions.
The League of Women Voters, a thoughtful and respected group devoted solely to good government.
County employees themselves, because these 27,000-plus workers would directly feel change and could provide insider insight.
The presidents of the University of Miami and Florida International University, who each could name an expert academic to help guide the process or as governance experts could choose themselves to serve.
The Coalition of Chambers of Commerce, the Miami-Dade Chamber and the Greater Miami Chamber, who each could name a person to provide business viewpoints and values.
The Beacon Council, whose appointee could make certain that charter change takes into account the community's economic development and ability to compete globally to add jobs.
The Miami-Dade County League of Cities, whose appointee could speak to the interrelationship among all local governments and the potential impact of county structure on municipal resources and further incorporations.
The Dade County Bar Association, whose representative could bring the perspective of law to government.
The United Way, whose representative could look at the impact of change on underserved residents.
Leadership Miami, whose appointee would be among the younger leaders of the community who would in the long run live with any charter changes.
The commission could ask each for appointments within two weeks, with meetings to begin within two weeks thereafter.
Further, the commission should vote to send all measures gaining 60% taskforce approval directly to the January ballot, with no county hearings or vetoes.
And, to facilitate the charter review, the commission must provide scarce funds to hire staff outside the county, to avoid the way Mr. Burgess stacked the deck as the county stripped control from the Citizens Transportation Trust and then misappropriated voter-approved tax funds.
That kind of sleight-of-hand is a reason behind recall and the need for charter review.
To be fair, not everything Mr. Alvarez or Mr. Burgess did in office was wrong. Both had some merit, and Mr. Alvarez in particular did a vital public service when he pushed out ex-mayors' lobbyist handlers.
But their biggest contributions may be yet to come, in the cures for county ills that their less-than-salubrious actions will force charter reform physicians to prescribe.
It should then be up to voters to follow doctors' orders.