New Miami-Dade mayor should line up a county manager
Whoever we elect Miami-Dade mayor in November faces a vast structural pitfall. Fortunately, a wise winner has a ready escape.
We will elect either Esteban Bovo Jr. or Daniella Levine Cava as strong mayor, a job that combines two opposite facets: elected political leader and impartial administrator of staff and operations, roles requiring totally different skill sets and behaviors.
As political leader, a mayor is to be the visible face of the county with a vision for the future and the political ability to achieve it, rallying support for the vision and building consensus.
As administrator, on the other hand, a mayor is to be an impartial servant who carries out aims and orders of commissioners, following directives rather than leading while also directing professional experts in specialized and technical fields.
The operating side of the job administers, the political side directs. The roles are nearly incompatible. That structure never should have existed, yet it is what the newly elected mayor will face.
That’s because voters eight years ago rolled together an existing mayor’s job and a former county manager subservient to both mayor and commission. We then elected Carlos Giménez, who combined years as a City of Miami executive and elected years as a county commissioner. He had experience in both facets of the job. Neither Ms. Levine Cava nor Mr. Bovo has administered a large local government.
Before voters merged those two opposite roles, the county hired managers to carry out policies of the commission and orders of the mayor. Control was always with the mayor and commission, never the manager.
Back then, as today, the mayor was elected to hold the bully pulpit, rally the public and elected officials toward major actions, set out broad vision, be the county’s public face, and guide us through crises.
The manager, with very different skills and behavior, was to run a staff of 25,000, more than three-quarters of them union members, with an even hand. The manager had to slot people in the right jobs and be sure they performed, but also to protect them from politics. No elected official could order the manager to hire or fire anyone.
Most important, the manager had to carry out commission policy and mayoral orders, follow directives and provide information, while running government at lowest cost and highest impact.
A manager had to know every function, from police and fire to sewers and water, from land use and planning to housing, from air and sea ports to budgeting and fiscal controls. It was the job of a well-prepared and experienced chief operating officer.
Today, the combined job is different. The commission regularly orders Mr. Giménez to act in 60, 90 or 120 days and carry out its policy. But the mayor as top elected official must lead and win commission support for his or her policies – a role that is undercut by the requirement to follow commission orders.
So how should Mr. Bovo or Ms. Levine Cava function in a job that requires the mayor to lead while at the same time report to any or all of 13 commissioners?
We should expect the winner to immediately rally the community toward her or his visions.
But it would be unfair to them and the community to expect either one to learn public administration on the job, running a vast staff and administering a county with more people than 94 nations and more area than 84 countries and dependencies.
This is not the place or time for a rookie to learn how to operate a globally known municipality as we face broad and deep economic pain, Covid-19, racial unrest, national political turmoil and major unmet county needs on many fronts.
The new mayor ought on day one to introduce an administrator who under her or his tutelage will function as de facto manager, making the county train run while the mayor determines where it should be heading and when. If both candidates haven’t already lined up an experienced professional ready to do that, they’re late.
Mr. Giménez, who spent decades in municipal government, oversees as deputies a team of solid professional administrators. With his background, he plays quarterback.
Neither candidate now has that background. That’s no criticism, because the combination of success as professional administrator and political leader at a high level is rare – one reason the format of the mayor’s job is all wrong.
Since neither Ms. Levine Cava nor Mr. Bovo should be quarterbacking a team of administrators, they should both have ready to go a single career professional to be their de facto manager.
It’s not an admission of weakness to say one person can’t do it all, it’s a show of strength by a wise mayor. We trust they are wise.