Commission Should Reverse Field Add Charter Study Team
Written by Michael Lewis on October 26, 2011
By Michael Lewis
Facing red flags of doubt, commissioners should reverse their aim to dictate which potential Miami-Dade charter changes we can vote on.
The charter is our constitution, and Miami-Dade’s is unique: it gives us more power than anyone else in Florida to shape our own destiny instead of the legislature doing it to us.
That right brings responsibility. We citizens perform our duty by vote. But we can’t exercise our right unless commissioners put all logical choices on the ballot.
The charter says we must study its details every five years. Last week, however, commissioners decided that rather than let a citizen team review what we can vote on, they’ll do it themselves. Skirting charter aims is a bad start.
There’s good reason to use a review team: change must be holistic. Tinkering with any part of government affects other facets.
The commission has some sound ideas for charter change, but ramifications of piecemeal action could trigger more problems than an isolated amendment repairs.
Clearly, the commission will bypass possible changes that are in the public interest but don’t preserve 13 commissioners’ power or perks.
Commissioners are grudgingly advancing charter issues from impure motive. Activist Norman Braman has threatened recall of those who block his charter aims, many of which are valid. But no vote should come just to protect a job. Fear, not conviction, now spurs the commission.
Because it’s being dragged by the heels while trying to protect itself, the commission is unlikely to let voters weigh in on nine key issues:
nCommissioners spend individual slush funds of hundreds of thousands of dollars with virtually no oversight.
At best, that’s bad management in a cash-short county, as they spend millions while higher priorities go underfunded. At worst, it’s vote buying, as commissioners send cash to those who help them at the polls.
The charter should address this individual use of public funds. But someone has to put it on the ballot. Commissioners won’t.
nNine commissioners once ran our county well. Today we have 13. The more in office, the higher the cost of office space and staff salaries.
The charter could reduce numbers and costs. But 13 commissioners will never vote to cut to nine jobs. A review team, however, might recommend it — or pick seven or 15. Is 13 the lucky number?
nWhatever the number, spending on county election campaigns is in the millions. Should we cap campaign spending?
Commissioners won’t touch the question. A charter team might.
nWhen we had nine commissioners, all served at large and could put broad policy questions ahead of parochial concerns. Today we elect 13 by district and none is forced to think broadly.
Parochialism is arguably the worst county problem. It raises spending because if one commissioner’s district gets something, everyone else does too.
How many performing arts venues did we build or expand because downtown got the Arsht Center? That’s a clear example of government by pork barrel.
What if every commissioner ran by district but the top two vote-getters in each went to countywide runoff? A charter review team should ask.
nShould every area have a city, as our charter originally intended? Some commissioners act as mayors in unincorporated areas, while others have cities that handle local issues so they can look countywide.
Would a review team recommend that all areas be equal?
nAs casino plans explode, commissioners claim control over their creation and taxation. But the law is squishy about whether the county has any say.
Should the charter formalize control and end infighting for licensing and taxation?
nRecent change abolished a county manager and left the mayor in both jobs. But few mayors have managerial training. Most good politicians differ in style and background from good managers.
Our system works because Carlos Gimenez acts more like the city manager he once was than a political leader. But a charter provides a norm, not an aberration. It should call for professional management, or at minimum codify the massive structural change Mr. Gimenez has just made so that we don’t start over with each new mayor.
nMassive waste long has rippled through the county because the commission approves big contracts. Big contracts lure cadres of lobbyists, so some deals get debated for years, with final decisions geared to serve competing interests rather than taxpayers.
Congress OKs no contracts, nor does the legislature. Why, other than wheeling and dealing and campaign contributions and votes, should the commission?
It’s a vital charter issue, because commissioners will never voluntarily yield this power.
nFinally, use of recall to achieve political aims is wrong. Those with the most money wield the recall ax. So far this year, a mayor and a commissioner have fallen.
Recall is vital in democracy to deal with corruption and moral issues. Using recall to achieve individual or group goals is wrong, but our charter doesn’t specify causes for recall.
It should. Otherwise, groups with the most cash can openly threaten politicians. That’s demagoguery, not democracy.
The commission won’t put these issues to voters. All need independent study by a review commission whose recommendations by, say, a two-thirds vote go directly to a ballot.
Conversely, commissioners should rethink several ballot questions on their list.
While we hear an outcry for term limits, such limits virtually crippled the state legislature, destroying institutional memory, handing power from short-term elected officials to a long-term bureaucracy and focusing legislators on future jobs rather than the job at hand.
The ballot box already provides term limits if we end slush funds, unlimited campaign spending and virtual non-payment of commissioners.
Commissioners deserve real pay, not the $6,000 they get. But tying higher pay to either term limits or no outside income would raise multiple questions in a single ballot item and might be both wrong and illegal.
An outside taskforce would be more credible seeking higher commission pay, as well as on other questions. Citizen volunteers are far more trusted that commissioners themselves.
That’s another argument for placing taskforce recommendations directly on a public ballot rather than letting commissioners limit what citizens can do to their own county constitution.
Without a taskforce we also lose its methods: consult experts, examine best practices, listen to community voices and, best of all, act impartially.
All this is what the commission will subvert if it ignores the charter’s spirit and bypasses a review team.