Penelas Urges Transportation Watchdog Group To Assert Itself
By Shannon Pettypiece
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Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas is encouraging the newly formed group monitoring spending of the half-cent transportation sales tax revenue to take hold of its powers and fulfill the promises the county made when voters approved the tax in November.
"I think they should interpret their responsibilities as widely as possible," Mayor Penelas said Tuesday, referring to the citizens trust. "They are the eyes and ears of the community to make sure the county and city are spending the proceeds of the sales tax in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the law."
The group he is referring to is a referendum-ordered watchdog group called the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, which is in charge of monitoring spending of the half-cent tax revenue. Mayor Penelas said he has met with several members of the group one-on-one to discuss the group’s role since the trust began meeting May 7.
Mayor Penelas’ statements came days after Danny Alvarez, executive director for the Office of Public Transportation Management, disputed reports published in Miami Today.
Mr. Alvarez said that despite some confusion, as of April 22 when the majority of the group was appointed members had the authority to approve county spending of the tax revenue.
Hilda Fernandez, Senior Adviser to Mayor Penelas, said the board has the power to make changes to the People’s Transportation Plan, which outlines the spending of the sales tax revenue and reject contracts made by the Board of County Commissioners that involve spending of the tax revenue.
But the County Commission with a two-thirds vote can veto any decision by the watchdog group, Ms. Fernandez said.
Since the group’s formation, several county commissioners have questioned how powerful the watchdog group will be in relation to the commission.
"Everybody is adjusting to this. The commission is adjusting to having a group of citizens overseeing their decision and the CITT is adjusting to whatever resistance they are getting from the board of county commissioners," Mayor Penelas said. "There is a place for both bodies, and while the commission has the authority to make decisions the CITT role is to make sure it is consistent with the voters intent and they should exercise that role aggressively."
Mr. Alvarez said several comments have been made at commission meetings regarding how the group needs to understand its powers better, which he attributed to philosophical differences between the group and the commission over the purpose of the group and a period of adjustment.
"This trust has unprecedented authorities – the right to reject a commission action is a new one. The fact that the commission cannot approve anything in the plan that is not approved by the trust is pretty powerful," Mr. Alvarez said. "Being a new entity there is always come gray area for learning issues."
While each side feels out its place in the process of funding transportation improvements, Mr. Alvarez said the trust is continuing to approve spending for projects, make changes to the original transportation plan and conduct necessary business.