Three changes in format can move Miami-Dade forward
Written by Michael Lewis on December 26, 2018
While Miami Today has called for vital mobility gains throughout 2018, we’ve also targeted potential governance gains.
As we head into 2019, we offer three advances in county leadership waiting to happen. None is flashy. They might not make you scream like traffic congestion does. But each is important, and each opportunity remains there for the taking.
First is the need to pay elected officials fairly for public service. Candidates should seek office based on the desire to serve, but most of our neighbors can’t afford to hold offices that take a large chunk of their working time without some fair compensation.
We point in particular to Miami-Dade’s county commissioners. The job of commissioner, done properly, is more than full time. Just reading materials that back up what they vote on means digesting perhaps a thousand pages for each meeting, noting questions and being ready to debate. That’s not to mention the meetings each must attend, perhaps 10 hours or so a week.
For that we pay commissioners a miserly $6,000 a year – not a penny more than 60 years ago. Commissioners who decide on how to spend hundreds of millions of our dollars take home less per hour than they would flipping burgers. And we wonder why some miss crucial elements of legislation – like voting nine years ago to spend $3 billion for a baseball stadium without realizing that the true cost would ever even reach $1 billion.
Commissioners can’t raise their own salaries, but the public can force a referendum to do so. How many millions we lose to choices that don’t get the proper study is incalculable.
Commissioners in every other big county in Florida get $100,685. We alone have the right to set the rate – and by inaction we take that costly $6,000 choice.
In 2020 we’ll see six commission seats open up because occupants face term limits. If you want the best candidates for those jobs – bright citizens who can earn good outside livings and need decent county pay to serve the public instead – it would be wise to start now to pay fairly. We don’t have to match outside pay – there is indeed cost to public service – but $6,000 is right out of the history books.
Another petition opportunity could serve as a safety net. That step would be to separate the job of mayor from the role of county manager. They were separate until a decade ago, and they should be again.
That’s not because of any inadequacy of present mayor/manager Carlos Giménez. He’s been able through a combination of experience and temperament to navigate what should be two separate jobs. But candidates to replace him when he reaches his term limit in 2020 are unlikely to have his broad background, so we face dangers.
The mayor is the county’s political and public leader. Whoever we elect is expected to have the vision, drive and ability to rally the public and other elected officials to follow an agenda of big-ticket items. That’s a full-time job.
The manager, on the other hand, is a trained professional in public administration and leads a county staff of about 25,000, with the major task of making sure they are within budget and are achieving the aims of commissioners and a county leader, the mayor. A major part of the manager’s job is to insulate staff from outside pressures so they do their jobs professionally, efficiently and impartially. That’s also a full-time job, but far different than the mayor’s.
It’s almost impossible to meld those roles – political leader and successful trained, experienced manager, if only because the manager must do what the votes of 13 commissioners order him to do, while the mayor should be pushing an agenda to serve the voters and achieve the aims he or she campaigned on. At every meeting the commission issues orders to follow. Following orders doesn’t square with being the top elected official.
The fact that Mr. Giménez in the past held both kinds of roles – an elected official who earlier rose through the ranks to become Miami’s city manager – is a rarity. Finding someone exceptional at both management and political leadership is unlikely in 2020 – or ever. Miami-Dade deserves exceptional leaders of both sorts – and it doesn’t need a mayor who must at times follow commission orders.
Every resident would also benefit if we elected our 13 commissioners so that each represented a local district, as they do today, but each county resident could vote on the representatives of all districts.
Why should all vote on commissioners from all areas?
The answer is that commissioners will continue to represent their own areas but they must also think broadly enough to win countywide.
Today, a commissioner who simply deals with the concerns of a slice of the county can win election with no concern for broader county needs. Getting potholes filled and sidewalks patched is a skill, but this county needs 13 people who also think about universal concerns like housing, transit, suitable infrastructure for a growing metropolis and societal issues.
One way to vote countywide for broad thinking but get people who also serve nearby neighbors well is to hold primaries in which district residents alone vote, but let the top two candidates then battle it out countywide in the general election. It’s more complex but would produce commissioners popular at home but well regarded by all.
All of those changes would benefit Miami-Dade: commissioners paid fairly so they can spend the time to be thorough, commissioners local yet with a broader view of major needs, a professional manager devoting full time to a team of 25,000, and an elected mayor with leadership and political skills to guide a county toward broad vision for the future.
Frankly, given these three structural deficiencies, Miami-Dade is working extremely well for taxpayers.
But upgrade these areas and what’s already good can be vastly better, with more-informed commissioners with broader vision and a mayor and manager each doing their jobs without having the two roles conflict, as they do now.
Isn’t that worth changing in the year ahead?