Miami is headed for a train wreck with strong mayor vote
Written by Michael Lewis on October 30, 2018
Miami voters are being asked to make an elected mayor, who already holds an outside job, manager of 4,000 city employees too, replacing an apolitical manager. That’s three fulltime jobs.
Tuesday’s ballot question would also give the mayor control of two more arms of the city that are now beyond the reach of even the current manager – the attorney’s and clerk’s offices. That’s more than three fulltime jobs.
The mayor would also chair the commission, which he doesn’t do now, giving him another role. And if he’s sick, incapacitated or even jailed, he could name a successor. For doing all that work, it would also give him a big raise.
We’re not talking just about a strong mayor: we’re talking about Superman.
Now, maybe Mayor Francis Suarez, who is asking voters for all that added power and money, can handle it. Maybe the city’s new mayor really is Superman. You judge.
But no matter how good Mr. Suarez might be, not all future mayors will be Superwoman or Superman. And not all will be benevolent dictators, which is what this job calls for.
The city’s charter is its constitution. You don’t change it lightly or often. You’re carving it into stone for generations or centuries.
Can you image assuming for generations that voters will always elect a visionary leader who can rally public opinion to his ideas while concurrently serving as an experienced manager who can run a civil service of thousands of employees? We can’t. And this demanding structure only works if we keep electing perfect people, who are very scarce indeed.
Don’t forget, while the current city manager must be full time, this mayor-manager could also have an outside paid job, as Mr. Suarez does.
Governments should be structured to be run by real people, not Superman – by people we want in office but who are our peers, not our bosses. The strong mayor structure on the ballot is for a boss – one who won’t always be as benevolent as we could wish.
When you vote, don’t imagine Frances Suarez – imaging the run-of-the-mill political candidate or even Mr. Suarez’s predecessors. Would you want to give them that extraordinary control?
By the way, those predecessors – including Mr. Suarez’s own father – managed to be pretty powerful mayors without the extra clout that Mr. Suarez is seeking. Exactly what vision has he for Miami that requires more than a very good politician using the bully pulpit of mayor?
Of course, every mayor everywhere feels hampered by elected commissioners, city bureaucracy, budgetary constraints, union contracts and more. Separations of power work as checks and balances, so it takes a good visionary leader and politician to be mayor. Mr. Suarez hasn’t been in office long enough to prove that any barriers to achieving what he wants should be attributed to more than his own abilities.
A court challenge exists to this ballot question. But set that aside: voters also should challenge provisions Mr. Suarez and his backers have cobbled together in this power grab.
The most dangerous is giving the mayor a second role of manager.
A mayor is a visionary who can get others on board to enact his programs and fire up the community as the city’s leader. A manager is an apolitical professional who gets the staff to enact the aims of the city’s elected policymakers while nurturing and encouraging those 4,000 people. Those two jobs don’t mix well.
Mr. Suarez, it’s true, might try to retain highly professional Manager Emilio Gonzalez as an assistant if voters make the mistake of passing this charter amendment – if he’s willing to stay in a diminished role.
But again, don’t think of Mr. Suarez and Mr. Gonzalez: think of the decades ahead and what could happen if a less-than-perfect mayor decided that, though he’d never run a group bigger than a carpool, he could manage 4,000 city employees himself while still being a political leader who also holds an outside job.
Who is good at everything? You’re looking at a train wreck.
Think about what happened two decades ago when county Mayor Alex Penelas picked a likeable Homestead realtor and small-city mayor and made him county manager of 30,000 employees. It didn’t end well or last long. How much worse could it have been if the mayor and manager were the same person?
Mr. Suarez has said he needs these changes to enact the people’s will. But the people’s will is a fiction – it’s what every elected official invokes to do what he wants to do. Listen to officials who say that “the people elected me to do X” or Y or Z. Actually, each of us votes with a slightly different aim.
Latin America was beset for many decades by dictators who used the “people’s will” as an excuse to seize power. So were New York and Chicago – in fact, the boss system of powerful US mayors almost 120 years ago gave rise to the city manager system to offset political bosses.
Yes, some big cities have returned to more powerful mayors – but please find me just one so powerful that he gets to name his own successor from jail or his deathbed. Only dictators get to do that.
This ballot question is not a referendum on the ability of Mr. Suarez or on whatever program he might actually have. It’s on how Miami should be operated by the kinds of women or men we might elect in the future as mayors and city commissioners.
Unless you know that benevolent Supermen and Superwomen who can do three or four jobs at once will always win election as mayor, dump this ballot question where it belongs – in the trash with a “no” vote.