Splitsville: Divorce the roles of county mayor and manager
By Michael Lewis
There's reason to hope Miami-Dade's new mayor will craft a functional administration without a county manager. But there's even more reason to hope charter reform restores a manager's role, which in the long run is vital.
The manager's job is to run operations effectively, following initiatives of the mayor and policies of the commission. Manager Alina Hudak, newly installed and about to be deposed by Carlos Gimenez, is a chief operating officer.
But the manager's job is headed to the scrap heap. Mayor Gimenez plans to take operations in hand personally, splitting key powers under a new corps of deputy mayors who report to him.
That might actually work well for Mr. Gimenez, who before he turned politician was a functionary: a Miami city manager and before that fire department head. He clearly has a head for administration.
But most mayors aren't, and shouldn't be, administrators. Their role is to trumpet a county vision, rally the troops and lead the community forward, inside but especially outside of county hall. A good mayor speaks for the community and espouses forward thinking.
The administrative duty is a recent tack-on to that role, one that rarely fits the background and proclivity of political leaders who claw their way up to the mayor's post in a diverse metropolitan county.
It was the strong mayor system that former mayor Carlos Alvarez duped voters into creating that in 2007 handed all the manager's tasks to the mayor. It's up to the mayor to delegate those powers to others or try to do both jobs.
Mayor Alvarez, as it happened, did neither job. For that, voters recalled him in March. But even before that, voters raged so at the mayor/manager performance — or lack of it — that they abolished the manager's job by charter change starting in November 2012.
It's that change and the strong mayor format that spawned it that we must rectify. Mayor Gimenez has promised to push for an early charter review, a pledge he should keep, though the commission would have to cooperate.
The team that reviews the charter from top to bottom will face a very full plate, assessing pay for commissioners, potential term limits, the pressing need to elect commissioners at large, removing contract awards from commission purview and far more.
But a prime topic should be divorcing the role of mayor from that of manager. The former is a leader who sets agendas that the latter administers and executes. Rare is the elected official who can do both well. Pray that Mr. Gimenez is one of the few with both talents and proclivities.
But even if one person can do both jobs, the danger is that the politician mayor will use the role of the functionary manager to achieve political ends by manipulating the staffing and work of the county's professional corps of administrators.
Think, for example, of the danger in a mayor placing campaign supporters in key administrative jobs or manipulating contracts for political reasons.
That's why reformers a century ago developed the manager system for local government, to minimize political use of staff and funds and to maximize efficiency at the expense of expediency.
We expect Mr. Gimenez to be professional in administration, but pressures of politics do strange things — pressures a professional manager can ward off.
So while we hope Mr. Gimenez chooses aides wisely and realigns and trims government impartially, we also recognize that he and Commission Chairman Joe Martinez might well be battling for the mayor's job in less than a year. Such battle could cause administrative frictions that a manager could buffer — except that we won't have one.
That's a vivid example of why the strong mayor/no manager system we've cobbled together endangers good government.
After all, our system was tailored to the needs of Carlos Alvarez, and we've already seen where that got us — a riled electorate, a recalled mayor, an ousted manager and a heap of financial trouble. No need to wait for a rerun.
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