Timing opens door wide to needed county charter reform
By Michael Lewis
Charter questions on Tuesday's ballot are the first of a vital list. Whatever the outcome, Miami-Dade commissioners should empanel a team to dissect other issues and offer voters options.
Tuesday's vote won't register reform demand. In a Republican primary, most independents and Democrats won't turn out. Charter votes will be few.
Poorly crafted questions also don't lure eager citizens. One has two parts and the other three, and voters will be torn whether to support either.
The first question would double the period to petition for ballot initiatives, which aids democracy. But it also would force a wait to vote until a general election, slowing the democratic process while cutting election costs.
The other question is even more mixed. It would raise commission salaries to a scale Florida imposes elsewhere to attract candidates who couldn't serve for the current $6,000 but could for a proposed $92,097. That would improve candidate crops.
But passage would force commissioners to quit outside jobs. Few elected posts in this nation demand that. The ideal of citizen lawmaker would thus become professional politician. Policing could be a nightmare as spouses slip into commissioners' former jobs, muddying who is really at work.
The ballot question would also limit commissioners to two four-year terms but exempt time now served. Since the aim is job turnover, the exemption is huge.
Then, look at what happened when the legislature limited service to eight years. Everyone started jockeying for the next job on the first day as vital institutional memory shifted to staff and lobbyists, whose power grew as legislators' clout diminished.
Combine those elements and unintended consequences kick in.
Commissioners would be cut off from outside work for eight years yet grow to rely on $92,000. On leaving office, few would have jobs waiting. Their best shot to retain their pay level would be to work as lobbyists or for winners of contracts via commission votes.
This charter change could thus, quite unintentionally, turn citizen lawmakers into lifetime political operatives.
Whether or not these questions pass, far more important issues loom but could reach voters only via a formal charter review.
Those include whether to end a misguided unification of manager and mayor. A mayor is a politician who leads through vision. A manager is a civil servant who carries out visions of others. Few persons embody both.
Another key question is whether to elect commissioners at large as we used to instead of all by district. At-large commissioners face a broad constituency. Our structure now systematizes parochialism.
We should also question how large a commission should be. Is 13 sacrosanct?
We might also outlaw slush funds that allow each commissioner to spend almost $1 million a year on anything at all.
We might limit campaign spending. As campaign costs rise, it's harder to unseat incumbents. Those needing favors fund sitting candidates. Should we continue to institutionalize that disadvantage to challengers?
Should we strip commissioners of the power to approve contracts? State legislators can't, nor can Congress. But at the county it builds campaign contributions while raising the ultimate cost of contracts to taxpayers.
The 1957 charter intended the county to handle regional issues, leaving nuts and bolts to cities. Yet many residents aren't in cities. Should the charter finally move us toward two-tier local government?
Should we limit recall? We just ousted an honest mayor and commissioner by recall. Results appear good, but waving recall threats whenever a powerful bloc seeks something special can let terror subvert democracy.
Finally, should a review team seek a charter change so that future reviews would put questions directly to voters? We've seen how poorly the commission has constructed the issues on today's ballot and the dangers of piecemeal charter review. Let's institutionalize a better way.
As we do that, institutionalize charter review at arm's length from the commission. While the charter demands a review each five years, commissioners often ignore that — as they seem poised to do in this, the fifth year since the last review.
Fortunately, six of 13 commissioners face August reelection and a seventh, Chairman Joe Martinez, will run for mayor. That majority in the public eye should be primed to offer charter review for two reasons:
First, they'd be reformers, not roadblocks.
Second, a charter review wouldn't end until after the election. They'd be reelected before they actually had to let the public vote on anything.
Call it cynical, but it's one way to kick off charter review.
A review isn't always reform: impartial citizens can be as wrong as commissioners, though they'd have far smaller stakes in impeding the democratic process.
But commissioners have forever impeded the public from voting on changes to the county's central building block, its charter. Now timing seems ripe — even for commissioners — to give reform a chance.
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