Miami strong mayor would walk slippery tightrope as king
Written by Michael Lewis on August 21, 2018
Some Miamians are resisting the drive by freshman city Mayor Francis Suarez to grab vastly more power by creating a strong mayor job for himself.
Frankly, his personal power grab bothers us far less than the specter of those greatly augmented powers in the hands of some less-capable and less-principled future mayor who could single-handedly control city hall.
When city voters are asked in November to enhance the mayor’s powers in multiple ways, they most likely will envision the affable Mr. Suarez in the mayor’s chair.
That may be well and good. But government structure should not be tailored for a single individual who won’t be there forever.
A decade ago Carlos Alvarez had county voters do that for him by creating a strong mayor system – but those voters soon recalled him from office, leaving behind at county hall an unwieldy structure for future mayors to grapple with, as they must lead politically while also following commission orders as the manager.
Having watched the rapidly changing political scene across the nation, in a climate where partisanship and rancor are rapidly replacing cooperation and the old spirit of public service, we are concerned about consolidating the balance of any government’s powers in a single pair of hands – the hands of some now-faceless future mayor who won’t match Mr. Suarez’s character and abilities.
Remember, voters are being asked to rip out a whole system and insert an untested model in which the mayor, qualified or not, replaces a professional manager and heads the entire staff – which even Miami’s professional manager does not do now. That same mayor would be chairman of the city commission.
Think about all those powers in the hands of someone who may be able to win votes and might even have vision but has never managed a large, professional organization and has no concept of impartial and selfless civil service in operating one of the nation’s best-known cities.
Think of the damage that could quickly be done by a mayor ousting qualified city professionals – and yes, skeptics, the City of Miami has plenty of qualified, dedicated executives – and replacing them with political supporters no matter what their qualifications.
No, we don’t think Mr. Suarez at all capable of this. But we know from example that persons capable of rapidly wiping out of years of valuable experience are elected in this nation. Some may call it draining the swamp; we fear that it would be a brain drain. And with whom might such a mayor replace them?
Much of the value of the city’s present system lies in separations of powers. The mayor now is the face of the city and leads from the bully pulpit by persuasion and vision – if he or she is capable of leading. The commission is separate from the mayor and crafts legislation. The manager serves both mayor and commission and is supposed to be a professional, managing impartially rather than politically – and incumbent Emilio Gonzalez more than capably fills those roles with military precision. The manager also has the duty to protect the city’s staff from political influences.
But under the plan that the city commission last week slated for the Nov. 6 ballot, the mayor would also become the manager – a nearly impossible duality in which the political leader is also the apolitical manager.
Yes, we know that as the county’s strong mayor Carlos Giménez now is successfully walking that same tightrope – though he has far less power than Mr. Suarez would obtain should his plan pass. But Mr. Giménez has a singular background: he was the city’s manager before he entered politics, and he has managed to separate his two roles. Still, he opposes the city strong mayor measure as excessive.
The only other person we can think of who has been both a City of Miami mayor and a city manager (in Doral) is Joe Carollo – who as a sitting Miami commissioner also is opposing a strong mayor structure. We think he’s right.
Several Miami commissioners said in voting on putting the strong mayor question on the ballot that they believe it will face court challenges. Several also cited other reasons for not putting the issue to voters.
But if we set those vital points aside, there remains the question of whether the strong mayor system would actually work, not for the current mayor or persons who might want the job in the future but for the residents of Miami.
Looking at the example of Mayor Giménez – again, in a less-powerful format but our logical local example – we can see the city’s strong mayor proposal working with the ideal individual.
Whether or not Mr. Suarez is perfect, however, we can confidently state that very few perfect people are walking this earth, and even fewer are running for office in Miami.
If voters cannot guarantee that they will always be able to elect persons who not only exemplify vision and leadership of their community but also the professional background of running successfully major civil service organizations before they are elected, they should turn down this chance to elect a king.