Charter review is timely – without commission censorship
Written by Michael Lewis on November 8, 2016
Last week Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava made a strong case on this page for a county charter review. Today (11/10) she’s bringing the issue to a committee vote.
We couldn’t agree more that it’s time to review the charter, which is akin to a constitution for how the county is run. In fact, the charter requires a review every five years, and her measure is right on time.
She suggests a 17-member review team, with one named by each of the 13 commissioners, one by the mayor, one by the chair of the county’s legislative delegation, one by the League of Cities and one by the clerk of courts.
That’s about the best you can do – except to bar the mayor and commission from any choices, which would keep matters at arm’s length to avoid self interest in what a hand-picked charter review will turn up. We’ve in the past suggested tapping multiple organizations to each pick a task force member, but that won’t happen. The commission wants a thumb on the scale.
It would help, however, if the legislation specified that the mayor and commissioners couldn’t themselves serve, as one commissioner does in the City of Miami’s charter review. Commissioners’ valued knowledge and insight are outweighed by their clout in tilting outcomes to their own self-interest.
We wonder, too, how Ms. Levine Cava’s dictum that “the Charter Review Task Force shall reflect racial, ethnic and gender balance and diversity” can possibly be guaranteed unless selecting persons and groups collude. Since each selector gets only one pick, balance has to come naturally, not through a guarantee.
We’d also prefer more than a year-long study. The 2008 review had 18 months. And since some commissioners always lag in their task force selections, no charter task force in memory has started close to on schedule.
But those are niggling concerns beside the one big flaw. In every charter review, county commissioners weed out key issues that never get to voters – in some reviews, they weed out almost everything. Even though they’ve picked the review team, they don’t want to trust voters to act on what charter reviews wholeheartedly recommend.
The 2012 review was initiated with a resolution expressing the “commission’s intent to forward any recommendations of the task force approved by two-thirds vote of its membership for placement on the ballot of the next general election.”
That intent lasted until commissioners got the recommendations. Then they stripped away most of them.
As Joe Martinez, a commissioner then who is returning to become one again, stated at the time, “A lot of these are over-reactions. People are putting pressure on this board. If you put these thing in, you’ll tie your hands.”
Or as Dennis Moss explained why task force items would not go to voters as promised, “We’re a representative body and some want to take that away. I got reelected so I represent the people.”
The fact is, many impactful proposed changes directly affect commissioners’ self-interest. If they can cherry-pick what to send to voters they will make sure we never get to decide how many commissioners we actually should have, whether commissioners should be elected from districts but voted on countywide as used to be done, whether the current commission slush funds should be outlawed, whether commissioners should have any role in county contracting, whether the whole county should be incorporated into cities or other vital issues a task force could suggest.
In short, what’s best for taxpayers is not always best for commissioners protecting their turf.
Ms. Levine Cava’s legislation would merely forward all charter task force recommendations for commissioners to do as they like. Unless she updates it to firmly guarantee that every two-thirds task force recommendation will go directly to voters at the next general election, no charter review will be meaningful.
What we have gotten on ballots to date is anything that commissioners like that a charter team also recommended. Anything that commissioners like that the charter team rejects also goes on the ballot. But commissioners are the censors – if they say no, it’s no go.
Commissioners are always free to propose charter changes to voters. That’s proper and good. The charter task force should have that same ability. Without it, we’ll get another sham, as we do every five years, with public-spirited folks debating for months on key issues that will never get on the ballot because seven commissioners disagree.
As Mr. Moss said, the commissioners were elected. They should be proactive in suggesting charter upgrades. But they were not elected as censors to prevent the public from voting on what a charter task force – which is mandated in the charter itself – recommends.
We encourage the Economic Prosperity Committee today to build trust in the commission by trusting the public to vote on how government should be structured. Guarantee that two-thirds recommendations of the charter review will also get ballot box review.