County Dumps Bigpicture Strategic Thinking As Road Kill
Written by Michael Lewis on May 30, 2013
By Michael Lewis
It’s hard to find clearer insight into Miami-Dade’s commission in action – or inaction – than last week as parochial views trumped far-ranging thought in a meeting mired in minutia.
At issue was a big-picture probe of major infrastructure needs over the next two decades and how to meet them.
New York has such a plan, proposer Juan Zapata said. So does Jacksonville, which got state taxing authority because of it. Why not us?
This logical idea was put through the commission meat-grinder and dumped as road kill, with Mr. Zapata advised to meet objections that conflicted with each other as he begged for guidance he never got on how exactly to satisfy them.
He had proposed a task force to within a year list needs and plans, how those plans might be stitched together and where money could be found.
Team makeup was the pitfall. Mr. Zapata wanted the head of the county legislative delegation to pick two members, the mayor to name two business people, and the League of Cities, Jackson Health System, Miami Dade College and Florida International University to each name one. He’d serve himself as head of the appropriate county committee.
As he explained, big players individually ask the state to fund their aims with no coordination or county input. The legislature ignores whatever county hall suggests and it’s frozen out.
"It’s not because I want other people telling us what to do – not at all," Mr. Zapata said. "I think we should all know what they’re doing and I think we should be able to have some sort of input and say as to how things unfold and move forward."
His plan would put at the table the players most likely to seek state funds and would get the top of the legislative delegation – one Democrat and one Republican – on board.
In the end, he explained, the county commission would vote on a plan, but the task force would detail what other players might seek so the county could act in unity and not be left out.
Without such a team, he said, the other players would get tax aid from the state and freeze county hall out of state funding. The task force would put key players at the table under the thumb of the county.
The idea was so logical you knew the commission would kill it. As commissioners praised it, they tore it apart. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks.
Commission Chair Rebeca Sosa said over and over she loved the idea but "this is Miami-Dade County" yet people other than elected officials would name task force members.
She also asked to put experts on the team to "bring more light to the ideas."
Jose "Pepe" Diaz also loved the idea but was concerned that what a task force recommended might actually occur. Appointed groups, he said, "sometimes take a life of their own" and their ideas become a mandate, but commissioners should decide.
He also sought different unspecified appointees to get "expertise."
Lynda Bell wanted more "local people" involved. Besides, she said, the search for funds could encourage the county to enact a 10-year sales tax increase of 1 cent for infrastructure and she’d be uncomfortable with that.
Barbara Jordan said she’d favor a task force if it was forced to put infrastructure for the next two decades first in unincorporated areas because they have less.
Sally Heyman, on the other hand, said the key need is to get more understanding of what the incorporated cities want. They aren’t represented and "I don’t think this is inclusive."
Javier Souto questioned where the idea was generated. Was it a plot? "I don’t know who drafted this resolution or how it was drafted. I have some ideas…"
Besides, why include Florida International University? Why not the University of Miami or Nova, he asked, though they’re not public and so not likely to ask the state for taxes.
Mr. Souto also saw the study putting more tax burdens on the middle and lower middle class. "The very rich, they don’t care. The poor people, they don’t care."
"I can’t go for any of this," Mr. Souto concluded.
Dennis Moss asked Mr. Zapata to defer action to find a better task force makeup. The team, he said, was "skewed toward individual agendas" – which Mr. Zapata had said was the idea: link the key agendas together.
"I need to have some more representation in that mix," Mr. Moss said.
Mr. Zapata said he’d alter task force makeup and felt there was no time like the present to learn who everybody wanted at the table.
"It would be a guessing game on my part. We’re in a public meeting…," he said, so commissioners could tell him right there in the sunshine.
Instead, with seven of 13 already objecting, the idea was deferred into the vast void of creative thought about big issues, giving commissioners time to perhaps name some more roadways for living persons who have asked for the honor.
It’s not like infrastructure is far from commissioners’ minds. They’re talking these days about more than $10 billion just for water and sewers, needs that because they’re underground have been overlooked for decades. The public works department also told commissioners it needs $1.4 billion more.
What else lurks unseen? That’s what the task force would ask, together with ways to prioritize and fund needs – plans the commission itself could approve or kill.
Discussion made obvious that the commission is unable or unwilling to coldly examine anything this big without acting on the lowest levels first.
Much of what sank the plan last week was needs of unincorporated areas versus cities. That issue is valid, Mr. Zapata said, but not the one on the table.
He sought, he said, a visioning exercise and better coordination between stakeholders and the commission "to give us a big picture perspective so we can as a body decide where we want to go, and then when these groups start to advocate for their own individual agendas be able to say that, ‘Wait, there is a much broader picture. How does this fit into the broader picture?’"
Broader pictures, however, don’t fit with a commission where members focus on limited agendas of their own constituencies.
Mr. Zapata laid out a plan and a strategy to look cohesively at the future from, as he put it, a 30,000-foot altitude with those involved at the table.
Other commissioners saw instead a table they could fill with players on the fringe of the action who’d like to be there – or, instead, no table at all.
Mr. Zapata tried to comfort them: "Rest assured that at the end of the day we hold all the strings on this."
It made no difference. They didn’t want any strings to hold.
If the county does some day create a big-needs task force, it’s destined to be treated as charter revision teams have been: picked by commissioners, told to think parochially and, whatever you do, don’t offend anyone – even though the commission has the last word anyway.
Mr. Zapata is out of step. He was thinking strategically from 30,000 feet, when he should have been thinking tactically about bringing new street names to his district.