Speak up to county charter review or wait five more years
Written by Michael Lewis on March 28, 2017
If you read only the daily newspaper and haven’t seen Miami Today’s reports, we’re going to tell you a well-kept secret: within two weeks a 15-member team should be named to review Miami-Dade’s equivalent of a constitution, dissecting every facet of government.
It’s a great opportunity we won’t get again until 2022. Make the most of it.
We need to proactively tell those 15 handpicked representatives of elected officials what citizens need at county hall.
Don’t wait until the year-long study ends to speak up. That will be too late.
As we reported, commissioners voted unanimously last week to begin to review the county charter – as close as we get to a constitution – and name the review team within 15 days.
Some commissioners bridled, even though the charter itself requires a review this year and commissioners will control who does the job and whether any of their recommendations will ever go on the ballot.
These commissioners consider public discussion of their powers and functions an imposition. Besides, they think they know just how things should be done: the way they are today.
Maybe those commissioners are right, maybe not. But this every-five-years review is as close as the public gets to helping tweak the system.
Don’t miss that chance. If the charter review opens the door to public comment, be alert. If it doesn’t, tell the team’s members your concerns.
Frankly – knock on wood – Miami-Dade County today works better for the public than it has in years. It’s no disaster zone.
But that’s not to say we can’t do better. The problems in most cases are not those we elect but the structure under which they function.
And that’s just what a charter review should look at: the rules and structure that shape our county. It’s not a case of throw the rascals out but how to make county hall more functional. Because a charter is a constitution, it’s not the place to legislate specifics but to structure how government can run.
While the charter review can examine anything under county control, nine perennial concerns need probing:
1. Every inch of Miami-Dade might be put into a city, town or village, with more city councils doing the purely local things that 35 of them already do in the county. That would let the county focus on regional, big-picture issues that improve lives. The county can go from micro control to visionary action. This was the plan when the charter was created 60 years ago, but it never happened.
2. The charter could specify that the county commission can’t decide who gets county contracts. State and federal governments leave such decisions to departments and procurement officers who don’t get campaign donations from those who seek contracts, or their attorneys or lobbyists.
3. The review could look again at term limits. Voters sought term limits because officials previously could stay on forever, but as term limits oust commissioners in three years, long-timers who know the key issues will be forced out no matter how good they are. New blood, however, is not always better blood. The ballot box can limit terms at every election without mandating it.
4. For 60 years the charter has frozen commission pay at $6,000 although the job is now full time. Should we really pay those who spend billions just $6,000 and assume they’ll live on only that $6,000? Every other Florida county pays more, ranging from $25,000 in the smallest up to almost $100,000. How can honest commissioners get by on so much less here?
5. A corollary to fair pay is that we might bar commissioners from outside jobs. That’s dicey. It could avert obvious conflicts of interest, but would it rule out of office true executives? A good debate.
6. It’s also a valid debate whether commissioners should be on every county ballot even though they must live in specific districts. Decades ago that system limited parochialism because every commissioner had to appeal to every voter, while still making sure that every area had a representative on the commission.
7. At the same time, we might ask whether our 13 commission districts are too many. At what point is diversity reached? Again, the county did well with nine commissioners who debated every issue together without breaking into multiple committees first. Why shouldn’t all commissioners be at all debates?
8. The county’s single crying need is an impartial professional manager who reports to both mayor and commission rather than forcing the mayor to be both a strong, visionary political leader and a technocrat who makes the trains run on time while being ordered about by the commission. The two worlds don’t mesh. The present mayor, a former city manager, has done it well, but that luck will run out when he exits in three years.
9. Finally, should the charter limit sources or amounts of campaign funds? It would make for heated debates.
There are more provisions to probe. That’s what the review is all about: to look broadly and deeply into how our county should function and seek upgrades.
After the review comes a far harder step: persuading commissioners to allow the public to vote on each proposal. Usually, commissioners decide what’s best – at least, best for them – and limit public choices.
That will play out a year from now. But first, the public should weigh in and help the charter team focus on what will help us all. If you don’t speak up, you’ll have to wait five years to try again.