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Front Page » Opinion » Send Miamidade County Hall Zooming Back To The Future

Send Miamidade County Hall Zooming Back To The Future

Written by on January 27, 2011

By Michael Lewis
Four years ago this week disgusted voters OK’d a strong mayor system that stripped power from Miami-Dade’s commission, inadvertently crippling already-shaky county machinery.

Fallout brings March 15 recall votes on Mayor Carlos Alvarez, creator of the failed system, and Natacha Seijas, queen bee of a flailing commission.

Another obvious legacy was a referendum that erased the manager’s job in 2012 after Manager George Burgess and Mayor Alvarez steamrolled a $3 billion stadium and a double-digit tax rate hike through the weakened commission.

A far less visible but equally pernicious impact of the power shift is that commissioners can neither force action nor disgorge information from the mayor and manager.

In a system where the commission formally sets policy for the mayor’s team to administer, injuring an already weak commission adds to dysfunction.

Illustrating the 2007 power shift’s harm is our report last week that despite a commission vote asking the mayor to reopen talks with the Florida Marlins to trim a $3 billion stadium outlay, nothing happened.

The commission has every right and duty to try to retain $50 million not yet given to the team. Though success is unlikely, only the mayor’s staff could seek that money. Commissioners can’t negotiate.

The commission required a report in 60 days about what the mayor had done. It never heard a word — and isn’t likely to.

Mayor Alvarez, after all, championed the stadium giveaway, Mr. Burgess engineered it while stonewalling queries on costs, and a key factor in the recall is the mayor’s role in that. Why would either want to reopen talks and admit being bamboozled?

Less-incendiary instances abound of commission inability to pry facts from the mayor and manager.

It took a year and a half to get Mr. Burgess to reply about feasibility of spurring a money-generating mega-mall zone.

When finally pushed, in a slipshod memo that would have merited a low grade as a student report Mr. Burgess said the county couldn’t afford a $60,000 to $70,000 study, though the upside is hundreds of millions.

Clearly, Mr. Burgess favored billions spent for baseball over tens of thousands for retail, but the policy was the commission’s to make, not his. Still, he made it.

What else do commissioners request and then pray they’ll learn?

Carlos Gimenez sought in October 2009 a list of county contracts awarded locally versus out of the area, a logical query about where spending winds up. A year later officials were working on his request.

Other recent examples:

nThe commission airport and seaport committee asked how Port of Miami tunnel boring, expected to take four years, could affect vital cruise and port cargo business.

nThe commission asked Mr. Alvarez to study videos for county cable channels highlighting work of county departments.

nA commission committee asked him in November to detail in a month county terms, permits and fees required to start a business. In a tough economy, rules that impede or ease business are central to policymaking.

nCommissioner Rebeca Sosa asked what land and space the county leases.

nCommissioners asked about using county vehicles as rolling billboards to bolster revenue.

It’s all normal: tell us what we’re doing so we can set future policy.

Yet commissioners depend on goodwill for answers. With enough pressure, they say, they get most eventually. But pressure and patience shouldn’t be required, and officials should answer always, not sometimes.

One upset commissioner, off the record, lamented that Miami Today had learned more about a key issue from administrators than had commissioners.

It shouldn’t be that way. Commissioners need facts to make policy. With 20-some thousand employees, the county has the firepower to answer questions. It should.

This issue won’t disappear with an exit by Mr. Alvarez, which is likely, or by Mr. Burgess as manager, which is scheduled. It’s systemic.

Perfect beings share information and power. But we elect politicians, not perfection.

The solution is to revert by charter amendment to the pre-Alvarez system in which a mayor is not also manager, the pre-Burgess system of an apolitical manager reporting to both mayor and commission, and the former countywide election of commissioners to represent all voters.

Call it Back to the Future government.

We have tinkered with a machine that needed oiling and discovered that changes geared to help have instead poured sand into the works.

Complain all you like about Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Burgess and Ms. Seijas and the rest. They surely haven’t helped. But their replacements won’t be perfect.

That’s why we need charter amendments to clear the sand back out of the gears and then oil up county hall machinery we formerly had with the best possible operators.

The strong mayor system, coupled with electing commissioners from small areas, has made a clanking Miami-Dade engine sputter worse.

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