Dull task may determine how well county meets our needs
Written by Michael Lewis on February 21, 2017
How well Miami-Dade County Hall meets needs of business and residents will soon rest on a task that few know about and even fewer care about: a charter review.
Stop. Don’t turn the page. Nothing brings more yawns than a charter review, which is a study of how to upgrade our equivalent of a constitution – the county’s rulebook. But little may be more important.
Last week a committee began the process with a vote to set up a 15-member charter study. Few commissioners were happy – most love the status quo. But our charter requires a review every five years, and it’s time.
Depending on how much leeway a review team gets in structure, membership, timing and funding, it could give voters the chance to decide on these game-changers:
■Should every home and business be in a city, town or village that decides issues ranging from traffic speed to zoning to local taxes and perhaps police and fire service, with a local mayor in charge instead of county commissioners who now play quasi-mayor for more than a third of county residents?
Having cities and towns blanket the map was the aim when the county got a charter 60 years ago allowing Miami-Dade, not the state, to control its destiny. But commissioners dug in their heels and banned new cities for years. The commission still rules areas that don’t have local control.
The biggest advantage of letting cities everywhere handle local issues is county hall would be freed to deal with the big picture. Commissioners not bogged down in potholes might have seen transportation and water and sewer disasters coming before they mushroomed.
■Should the mayor’s job be split to add a county manager? The roles merged in 2007, which forced the mayor to be both our bully-pulpit political leader and a professional bureaucrat who takes commission orders right down to arcane reports.
Fortunately, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who did not initiate the merger of jobs, is a former Miami city manager and administrator. But as the federal level proves, elected leaders rarely are detail-oriented bureaucrats who can run a staff of 25,000. Why take the long gamble that our next mayor will have the rarely combined skills of civic leader to rally the community and impartial administrator?
■Should commissioners be bound by term limits that will in 2020 push most of them out?
Miami-Dade never had term limits. Citizen mistrust led to the new limits, which parallel state term limits that have knocked long-term institutional memory and experience out of the House and Senate. Commissioners detest term limits, which can end what otherwise could be life-long jobs. Should even the best be forced out?
■Should commissioners – all of whom are now voted on only in the district each represents – be elected by votes from throughout the county while still representing their own areas?
That change would restore a former structure that was less parochial yet had every voter represented by a single commissioner.
■Should we pay commissioners more to reflect full-time work instead of the $6,000 a year we pay now? In Florida’s other 66 counties, commissioners get a state-established scale, with each big-county commissioner paid nearly $100,000 a year; Miami-Dade alone has leeway to set its pay, and it’s been $6,000 for 60 years while pay in every other county rises annually.
It’s not fair to expect 13 commissioners to work full time in a $6,000 job, yet somehow all do. But be honest: aren’t we begging for really big trouble by paying people who handle multi-billion spending just $6,000? A charter change could fix that in an instant.
■Should commissioners exit the business of procurement contracts? State and federal legislative bodies let professionals decide. We leave it to lobbyists beseeching commissioners.
Talk about asking for trouble: after staff experts pick the best bid, why do commissioners often make very different decisions? These commissioners depend on campaign funds controlled by lobbyists who plead with them to overturn bid decisions. The conflict is clear.
Those are just some issues for a charter review. And that’s precisely what worries some commissioners, who won’t like every proposal.
Last week’s meeting showed that some want maximum control of charter review and wish it would go away. Fortunately for voters, it can’t just go away. The charter that residents approved requires a review this year.
In past years, commissioners reined in charter reviews by limiting study time, naming a review team shaped to do their bidding, limited topics to review, limited resources that a review team can use – and then, after all that control, left to the commission a decision of which proposals finally go to the voters.
Such issues – including who will appoint the review team and topics it can study – surfaced last week. Some commissioners balked at cities and towns having an appointment. Others bristled that a state legislator might name someone.
Expect more balking and bridling in the full commission.
Amid lingering public concern, the county functions reasonably well despite these issues and others that a charter review could probe. We’re getting by.
But we must surpass “reasonably well.” Why didn’t transportation top our agenda earlier? Or water issues? Why does the county continually overspend on contracts with fulfillment issues to follow? And why are we so parochial, impeding long-range thinking and action?
Problems and opportunities are broader than just who we elect. Government structure can help create success.
Central to such vital gains is the dullest of dull subjects, a charter review. The more room to roam a review team gets and the less commissioners tinker with findings, the better chance for long-term gains in Miami-Dade County.